Driving Tour: Newfound Gap Road
- Start Sugarlands Visitor Center
- End Oconaluftee Visitor Center
- Length 33 miles; one to three hours
The park’s main artery, Newfound Gap Rd/Hwy 441, begins just outside Gatlinburg and heads 33 winding miles to Cherokee, NC, passing many turnouts, picnic areas, nature trails, quiet walkways and overlooks along the way.
Between Mile 5.6 and Mile 7.1, you’ll have several opportunities to pull over and admire one of the park’s best-known geologic features. The Cherokee called these twin stony outcroppings high on the ridge 'Duniskwalgunyi' as they resembled a pair of antlers, while white settlers characterized them as a pair of stone chimneys: Chimney Tops.
The trailhead and parking area for one of the park’s most popular hikes, Alum Cave Bluffs is at Mile 8.8. At Mile 12.2 you’ll know you’ve entered the upper elevations of the Smokies as you come to the spruce fir forest that dominates the high mountain slopes. The weather is considerably more prickly here – on average it’s 10°F to 15°F cooler than in the lowlands, annual rainfall regularly exceeds 80in and the wind can be fierce.
At Newfound Gap travelers pass from Tennessee into North Carolina and the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. In olden days the road passing over the crest of the Smokies did so at Indian Gap, 1.5 miles west of the current site. When this easier passage was discovered in 1850, it was immediately and permanently dubbed ‘Newfound Gap.’ Straddling the state line is the Rockefeller Memorial, marking the spot where Franklin D Roosevelt formally dedicated the park in 1940. From here you get your first privileged view into North Carolina.
The turnoff for Clingmans Dome Rd is at Mile 13.4. Shortly thereafter, at Mile 13.9, is a large parking area for the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, where you'll be treated to impressive views into the Oconaluftee Valley.
At Mile 28.7, Mingus Mill still grinds corn into meal just as it has done for more than a century. The mill operates from early spring through fall, though visitors are welcome any time. It's just a half-mile to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, signaling the end of the driving tour.
Driving Tour: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Start Historic Nature Trail Rd, Gatlinburg
- End Roaring Fork Rd, Gatlinburg
- Length 8.5 miles; one to two hours
The Roaring Fork area is named for one of the park's biggest and most powerful mountain streams and is well loved for its waterfalls, glimpses of old-growth forest and its excellent selection of preserved cabins, gristmills and other historic structures. If you happen to be in the park during a thunderstorm, don't let it ruin your day – this quick drive is at its best after a particularly hard rain. Keep in mind: the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed in winter – it's accessible only from late March to late November.
The 5.5-mile road begins and ends a short distance from downtown Gatlinburg. From Hwy 441 turn onto Airport Rd at the eighth traffic light. Airport becomes Cherokee Orchard Rd, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail begins 3 miles later.
The first stop on Cherokee Orchard Rd is the Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Nature Trail, providing an enjoyable jaunt into a mountain farmstead with a streamside tub mill (an improvised contraption built to crush or grind the family corn) and an ingenious wooden-flume plumbing apparatus.
Immediately following the Rainbow Falls Trail you can either turn around and head back to Gatlinburg or continue on Roaring Fork Rd, a narrow, twisting one-way road. The road follows Roaring Fork, one of the park’s most tempestuous and beautiful streams. It passes through an impressive stand of old-growth eastern hemlocks, some of which reach heights of more than 100ft and have trunks stretching as much as 5ft across.
From the Trillium Gap Trail the delicate Grotto Falls can be reached via an easy, short hike through a virgin hemlock forest.
Of considerable historical interest is the hardscrabble cabin at the Home of Ephraim Bales and also the more comfortable ‘saddlebag’ house at the Alfred Reagan Place (painted with ‘all three colors that Sears and Roebuck had’). Reagan was a jack-of-all-trades who served his community as a carpenter, blacksmith and storekeeper.
A wet-weather waterfall called Place of a Thousand Drips provides a wonderful conclusion to your explorations before returning to Gatlinburg.
Driving Tour: Little River Road
- Start Sugarlands Visitor Center
- End Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
- Length 18 miles; one to 1½ hours
Formerly an old railroad roadbed serving the timber industry, Little River Rd shadows the snaking Little River to connect Sugarlands Valley with Townsend and Cades Cove. The meandering 18-mile route can take as long as 1½ hours to drive.
A short 3.7 miles from Sugarlands is the trailhead for the paved Laurel Falls Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park.
Ten miles from Sugarlands you’ll see a sign for Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area, a large and pretty day-use area on the Little River. Bear sightings are common here. A 1-mile path leads to the delightful Little Greenbrier School, a charming, 19th-century split-log schoolhouse that also served as a church. Original classroom accoutrements, including desks, benches and a painted blackboard, still line the room.
Another 1.5 miles down Little River Rd brings you to The Sinks, an ominous stretch of white water that, according to folklore, once swallowed a derailed logging train whole.
The next major landmark is the Townsend Wye, where the West Prong joins Little River and Hwy 73 peels off for Townsend. At this favorite swimming spot you’ll find a placid stretch of river with grassy banks. From this point, as you drive into Cades Cove, the road’s name changes to Laurel Creek Rd.
Less than a mile past the junction is the opportunity to turn left onto Tremont Rd, an uncrowded, 3.2-mile route into an interesting and scenic area of the park that once was home to one of the largest and last logging camps in the Smokies.
The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, a research facility with a small visitor center and bookstore, is also worth a visit. Two trails provide pleasant river walks with impressive cascades: the West Prong Trail, on the right just before the institute, and the Middle Prong Trail, at the end of the road.
From here you can chose to continue on to Cades Cove, another 12 miles down an equally appealing and winding road.
Driving Tour: Foothills Parkway
- Start Chilhowee
- End Walland
- Length 17 miles; one hour
Running along the outer boundary of the national park, the Foothills Parkway is a leafy motorway that offers spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains. Consisting of several separate non-contiguous sections, the parkway is best known for its route between Chilhowee and Walland, on the Smokies' western edge.
Though you could zip from one end of this road to the other in as little as 30 minutes, it's well worth slowing down and stopping at the many lookouts along the way. You'll have staggering views across the rolling forests to the east as well as as the fertile lands of the Tennessee River Valley and the distant Cumberland Mountains to the northwest. For the best lighting come early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the mountain folds are bathed in a golden light.
Driving from south to north, the route starts near a picturesque stretch of Chilhowee Lake. The first stop is at the vintage sign about half a mile into the drive. After a few requisite photos of the arching market with its arching triangular backdrop, continue to the first scenic overlook, located around the 3.5-mile mark. The parking area offers a sweep across the western expanse of the mountains. In springtime, you'll see every shade of green amid the thickly wooded layers covering the undulating ridges, its layers stretching off into the distance.
Continuing north, you'll pass several more overlooks, each offering slightly different perspectives of the mountain scene. Around 7.2 miles, stop at the unsigned lookout (number six, if you're counting) and walk to the viewing platform, which juts out of the valley and affords views of both the west and southwest. Afterwards, cross the road, and take the short but steep trail up to Look Rock Tower. The half-mile walk leads to a lookout, which is also used as an environmental monitoring station. Once you ascend the ramp to the top, you'll have mesmerizing 360-degree views.
When you reach Walland, you can continue onto the newest section of the Foothills Parkway. This 16-mile continuation runs southeast to Wears Valley, and opened in November 2018.