Auto Tours of the park offer a variety of experiences, including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching the horizon. The roads are designed for scenic driving. There are numerous turnouts and parking areas at viewpoints or historic sites. Traffic, winding roads, and the scenery conspire to make driving time more important than distance here in the park. Figure about twice the time to drive a given distance than you would for normal highways. Be on the alert for unexpected driving behavior from others – they may be under the influence of the scenery! Gasoline is not sold in the park, so check your gauge. Remember that winter storms may close the Newfound Gap and Little River Roads.
Begin at the Sugarlands Visitors Center on Route 441, at the Gatlinburg entrance to the Park. The most popular drive through the park is Newfound Gap Road, 26 miles long, crossing the park entrance to the southwest. It begins at the Sugarlands at an elevation of 1,436 feet then rises to more than 5,000 feet above sea level at Newfound Gap. The road descends down 3,000 feet to Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the main entrance to the park from North Carolina.
The main road in the park is the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) between Gatlinburg and Cherokee. It is the only road across the mountains. Along it and at the Newfound Gap Parking Area you will get some of the best scenic high mountain vistas in the park – and on the East Coast, for that matter.
In southern Appalachian vernacular, a “gap” is a low point along a ridge or mountain range. The old road over the Smoky Mountains crossed at Indian Gap located about 1-1/2 miles west of the current site. When the lower, easier crossing was discovered, it became known as the “Newfound Gap.”
There are scenic overlooks along the way, roadside exhibits, and trailheads for the hikers. At Newfound Gap you can see for miles. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road here. There is also the memorial where Franklin D. Roosevelt stood to dedicate the national park in 1940.
The most popular stop is Clingmans Dome, accessible by a 7-mile side road. At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies. One can drive almost to the top and then hike the last half-mile to the overlook tower. Take it slow because the high altitude means the air is thinner, but the fantastic, panoramic view is worth the effort. Clingmans Dome Road is a dead-end spur off the Newfound Gap Road at the crest of the Smokies.
Clingmans Dome is a popular park destination. Located along the state-line ridge, it is half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee. The peak is accessible after driving Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap, and then walking a steep half-mile trail. A paved trail leads to a 54-foot observation tower. The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, marking the highest point along its 2,144-mile journey.
Vistas from Clingmans Dome are spectacular. On clear, pollution-free days, views expand over 100 miles and into 7 states. However, air pollution limits average viewing distances to 22 miles. Despite this handicap, breathtaking scenes delight those ascending the tower. It is a great place for sunrises and sunsets.
Cloudy days, precipitation, and cold temperatures reveal the hostile environment atop Clingmans Dome. Proper preparation is essential for a good visit. Weather conditions atop Clingmans Dome change quickly. Snow can fall anytime between September and May; get a current weather forecast before heading to the tower. The cool, wet conditions on Clingmans Dome’s summit make it a coniferous rainforest. Unfortunately, pests, disease, and environmental degradation threaten the unique and fragile spruce-fir forest. Dead trunks litter the area, and dying trees struggle to survive another year. Berries thrive in the open areas, and a young forest will replace the dying trees.
Although Clingmans Dome is open year-round, the road leading to it is closed from December 1 through April 1, and whenever weather conditions require. People can hike and cross-country ski on the road during the winter.
Other motor trails exist; the most famous is the Cades Cove Loop, which is also a historical tour of those who settled in the valley. Northeast of Gatlinburg off Route 321 is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Loop, which takes you up the western flank of Mt. LeConte. This paved, narrow, winding jewel of a road fords streams and cuts across a deep gorge.
Roaring Fork Nature Trail
The trip begins on Cherokee Orchard Road. In the 1920s and 30s, this area was once a 796-acre commercial orchard and nursery with over 6,000 fruit trees. A short three miles later stands Noah “Bud” Ogle’s Place, located at the end of Cherokee Orchard and the beginning of the one-way motor loop, on a 5-mile winding drive through forest and past pioneer structures.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is an intimate journey through the Smoky Mountains’ lush mountain wilderness. It reveals some of nature’s secrets and weaves the story of the people who once lived here. Water is a constant companion on this journey. Cascades, rapids, and falls adorn the roadside. The sound of rushing water is never far away. The air feels damp and tropical throughout the summer months, yet the icy water rarely reaches 60 degrees F. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open to vehicle traffic from early spring until December 1st each year.
Blue Ridge Parkway
If you want to sample the Blue Ridge Parkway and also enjoy some beautiful mountain scenery, try the Balsam Mountain Road, which leaves the parkway between Oconaluftee and Soco Gap. It winds for 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) back into the national park’s Balsam Mountain Campground. Incredible azalea displays will dazzle you, when in season. If you are adventurous and want to try a mountain dirt road, continue past the campground to the Heintooga Picnic Area and the start of the Round Bottom Road (closed during winter). This is a 22.5-kilometer (14-mile), partially one-way, unpaved road that descends the mountain to the river valley below and joins the Big Cove Road in the Cherokee Indian Reservation. You come out right below Oconaluftee at the edge of the park.
Little River Road
Another view of the Smokies awaits you along the Little River Road leading from Sugarlands to Cades Cove. The road lies on the old logging railroad bed for a distance along the Little River. The curves suggest these were not fast trains! Spur roads lead off to Elkmont and Tremont deeper in the park, and to Townsend and Wear Cove, towns outside the park. Little River Road becomes the Laurel Creek Road and takes you into Cades Cove where you can take the one-way 18-kilometer (11-mile) loop drive and observe the historic mountain setting of early settlers. If you are returning to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge from Cades Cove, try exiting the park toward Townsend and driving the beautiful Wear Cove Road back to U.S. 441 at the north end of Pigeon Forge.
The Foothills Parkway is a 33 mile beautiful drive, connecting US 129 and US 321 through US Forest Service lands – offering amazing views of East Tennessee all the way to the Cumberland Mountains 50 miles west – and the Smokies just a stone’s throw east. There is a northern section of the parkway that is 6 miles and connects I-40 with Cosby, TN. Completed sections of the Foothills Parkway are open year-round, weather permitting; uncompleted sections are open to pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians. Due to funding and legislative difficulties, the ultimate status of the parkway remains uncertain. Despite political disappointments, the Foothills Parkway’s open sections provide beautiful views of the Smokies and surrounding country. The route has less traffic compared to other Smoky Mountain highways and provides an easy, scenic connection for tourists between the Tail of the Dragon and Gatlinburg. Climb to the top of Look Rock and feast your eyes on a panoramic view of these old mountains.
West – Running southwest from Walland to Chilhowee , this 20-mile section is the Foothills Parkway’s longest segment. It provides beautiful vistas of the northwestern Smokies, including Thunderhead Mountain, the highest peak in the Park’s western half. Many of its south facing overlooks peer over Happy Valley, into the Smokies and beyond. Its north facing views oversee Maryville, Knoxville, and the Great Valley.
Halfway along the segment, a trail leads to the Look Rock Tower. It is 1/3 mile from the road. The trail makes a moderate climb. The tower provides a 360-degree panorama and a platform for scientific research such as air quality. Sunsets from the tower are often spectacular.
East – Foothills Parkway east is a six-mile road leading from Cosby, TN to Interstate 40. Its eastern terminus is TN exit 443. Built on Green Mountain, the road provides wonderful views of Cosby Valley to the south and the Newport area to the north.
Other interesting drives in the park are the Rich Mountain Road, Parsons Branch Road (both closed in winter), and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It forms an 11-mile loop along with Cherokee Orchard Road. The one-way road runs for 8 miles. It is not suitable for bicycles, RVs, trailers, or buses. Cherokee Orchard Road is a two-way road without these restrictions and leads to the Rainbow Falls parking area. Airport Road in Gatlinburg turns into the Park’s Cherokee Orchard Road.
The Spur – technically part of the Foothills Parkway, The Spur is the only direct route from Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge. A scenic four-lane highway, it follows the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Many park roads have only a gravel surface. Two-wheel drive vehicles can drive these roads. Some provide access to less visited park areas while other are scenic drives in their own right. Below are descriptions of the three main (one-way) gravel roads:
Cataloochee Valley nestles among the most rugged peaks in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains, this isolated valley was the largest and most prosperous settlement in what is now the Park. Once known for its farms and orchards, today’s Cataloochee is one of the Smokies’ most picturesque areas. Few people visit this beautiful valley, but spectacular rewards await those who do. Along with preserved houses, churches, and farm buildings, Cataloochee offers extraordinary views of the surrounding mountains and is also known for its dense wildlife populations.
Cataloochee is open year round. Access is via a long and winding gravel road from Hartford, TN or by Cove Creek Road (mostly gravel) near Dellwood, NC. A paved road runs though Cataloochee Valley. RVs up to 32 feet can stay at the campground.
Heintooga-Roundbottom Road is a 15-mile road leading from Balsam Mountain Road to Big Cove Road. It takes 1 hour to drive. The only access to the area is along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Starting from a mile high, this road descends through the Raven Fork drainage basin. A few small vistas open along exposed ledges. The road travels through lush second growth forest and along cascading streams. Heintooga-Roundbottom Road is an opportunity to experience the Great Smokies solitude and wilderness. Following Raven Fork’s playful waters, the road leads into Cherokee, NC along Big Cove Road.
Rich Mountain Road
Rich Mountain Road heads north from Cades Cove over Rich Mountain to Tuckalechee Cove and Townsend, TN. The 8-mile road provides beautiful views of Cades Cove. Many prize-winning photographs come from here. Situated on a dry ridge, an oak-dominated forest lines the roadside. Once outside the park, the road becomes steep and winding.
CADES COVE – The 11-mile loop takes from 1 to 1.5 hours to drive. Traffic is often bumper to bumper, especially in summer months and October. Other opportunities to explore the area include bicycling, walking, hiking, hayrides, horseback riding, and fishing. Rich Mountain Road, a gravel road suitable for 2-wheel drive vehicles, offers a unique perspective of the cove – and a way to escape the traffic. Located near Townsend, this beautiful area receives 2 million visitors each year and is the most crowded park destination.
If you like to tour Cades Cove at a more leisurely pace, bicycles may be rented (April through September) at the Cades Cove Bike Shop. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, starting in May and ending in September, Loop Road is closed to autos – and open to bicycles only from sunrise until 10:00 a.m.
Horses are available for rent in the Cades Cove Riding Stables. The horse back tour is a guided tour along the cool, wooded trails of the mountains, over small streams and up to vistas of trees and wildflowers. The stables are open seasonally from the end of March to the first of November.
A hayride is a unique and fun way to see Cades Cove from April through October. Hayrides are 1.5 hrs from the Cades Cove riding stables and are available daily. Groups of 15 or more may reserve a wagon for day trips as early as 10:00 a.m.
Cades Cove is a look into the past. Man became part of Cades Cove beyond reach of human memory. Indians hunted here for uncounted centuries, but hardly any sign of them remains. White settlers followed the Indians to the cove and signs of them are everywhere; on buildings, roads, apple trees, fences, daffodils and footpaths. Cades Cove is an open-air museum that preserves some of the material culture of those who last lived there. Preserved homes, churches, and a working mill highlight the 11-mile loop road. Wildlife abounds around the cove and sightings of deer, foxes, wild turkeys, coyotes, woodchucks, raccoons, bears, and red wolves occur. Beautiful mountain vistas climb from the valley floor to the sky. Situated in a limestone window, the result of earthquake activity and erosion, Cades Cove provides fertile habitat. Settlers first came to the cove in 1819, and farmed this land until the Park formed in the 1930s.
Settlers first entered the Cove legally after an Indian treaty transferred the land to the State of Tennessee in 1819. Year after year, they funneled through the gaps, driven by whatever haunted them behind or drew them in front, until they spilled over the floor and up the slopes. Most of them traced their way down the migration route from Virginia into East Tennessee. Tuckaleechee (modern Townsend) was the last point of supply before the leap into Cades Cove. A few years later, pioneers moved directly over the mountains from North Carolina. They all came equipped with personal belongings, and the tools and skills of an Old World culture, enriched with what they learned from the Indians.
By 1850, the population in Cades Cove peaked at 685. With the soil growing tired and new states opening in the West, many families moved out in search of more fertile frontiers. By 1860, only 269 people remained. Slowly, human numbers rose again to about 500 just before the Park was established in the late 1920s.
Cades Cove contains more pioneer structures than any other location in the Park. Before the Park was established, the area was extensively cultivated. Today, farming is still permitted there to help maintain the historical scene. Pastures, cattle, and hay combine with old buildings and open vistas to give the cove a pleasing rural aspect.
The homes of John Oliver, Carter Shields, Henry Whitehead and Dan Lawson dot the valley floor and represent a variety of building techniques. The Whitehead home is made from logs sawed square at a nearby mill. Dan Lawson’s home features an unusual chimney made of brick fired on the spot. Other buildings include a smithy, smokehouse, corncribs, and a cantilevered barn.
Three of five original churches remain in Cades Cove today. The oldest among them is the Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1827. These churches and the surrounding cemeteries provide fascination insight into the lives and times of the 19th century. The Baptist Church was forced to close during the height of the Civil War because of its Union sympathies.
John P. Cable’s 19th century farm was once a self-contained world; today the farm illustrates the daily lives of early settlers. The farm centerpiece is the 1868 mill that still grinds corn raised in the Cove.
Exhibits explain the history of many structures, self-guiding trails interpret the natural scene, and park personnel demonstrate pioneer activities at the Cable Mill on a seasonal basis. Deer and turkey are found in the Cove and woodchucks (groundhogs) are often seen near the road.
For those who enjoy the occasional meal outdoors, Cades Cove is equipped with a picnic area near the campground. Grills and tables are provided, or you may pack a lunch and eat along a trail.