Scenic Areas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 510,000 acres, making it the largest national park in the eastern part of the United States. Panoramic views of the park can be seen on some of the park's roads as well as beautiful mountain streams, historic buildings, and uninterrupted forest. There are over 270 miles of road in the Smokies, most of which are paved. The gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard vehicle driving. Travel times on most roads will average 30 miles per hour.
You will need to shift to a lower gear when going downhill to conserve your brakes and avoid brake failure. Keep extra distance between you and the vehicle in front of you and watch for sudden stops or slowdowns. Slower drivers should use pullovers frequently to allow other vehicles to pass. This will enable traffic to flow more smoothly throughout the Park.
The views you will enjoy are some of the most photographed in America.
Wildlife, including black bears, wild turkey, coyote, elk, red fox, grey wolves, and deer are often seen throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Floral and fauna are in abundance. Please do not pick the wildflowers or disturb other growth in the Park.
Newfound Gap Road (33 miles, paved.) This highway crosses Newfound Gap and connects Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. Highlights include numerous pullovers with breathtaking mountain views and a variety of forest types as you ascend approximately 3,000 feet up the Great Smoky Mountains. Newfound Gap has a large parking area, scenic views, restrooms, wayside exhibits, and the Rockefeller Memorial.
Clingmans Dome Road (7 miles, paved.) This road is a short distance from Newfound Gap and follows a high ridge to a paved trail that leads 0.5 mile to the park's highest peak. The scenic mountain views are the most beautiful views in the Smoky Mountains. The cool damp spruce-fir forest is similar to the boreal forest of Canada. Clingmans Dome also provides access to the Appalachian Trail.
Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile drive through lush valley surrounded by mountains. This is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. It is a peaceful driving tour and is used for bicycling. Throughout the Cove you will see historic buildings, including rustic log homes of original residents of the Cove, several churches, an old mill, molasses making equipment, and cemeteries.
The Foothills Parkway skirts the park's northern side. Only three sections are currently open to vehicle traffic. This scenic drive stretches along 17 miles and travels along the backbone of Chilhowee Mountain between Chilhowee Lake and Townsend TN. You may view Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the beautiful valleys of the Tennessee River Valley bordered by the plateau of the Cumberland Mountains.
The Foothills Parkway is accessible from Walland, Tennesssee which is about 5 miles outside of Townsend.
Little River Road (18 miles, paved.) This road parallels the Little River from Sugarlands Visitor Center at the Gatlinburg entrance to the park to Townsend, Tennessee. Highlights of Little River Road include the cool mountain river, wildlife viewing, waterfalls, and wildflowers. Little River Road ventures through Elkmont, Metcalf Bottoms, The Sinks (pictured above), and Meigs Falls.
Cataloochee Overlook is one of the most scenic areas of the Park. Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was the largest and most prosperous settlement in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Image courtesy of Richard Weisser
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a favorite driving trail in the Smoky Mountains. Rushing mountain streams, old-growth forest, well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings can be seen along the trail. One of the log cabins is the Noah "Bud" Ogle Place which offers a self-guided walking tour of this authentic mountain farmstead and surrounding hardwood forest. You will also see a steamside tubmill and the Ogle's handcrafted wooden flume plumbing system.
Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This narrow but paved road winds for six miles beside rich forests, waterfalls, and mountain streams. "Roaring Fork" is the name of the stream which the road roughly parallels. It is one of the larger and faster flowing mountain streams in the park. Following a heavy rainfall, you can see why it has this name. A waterfall called Place of a Thousand Drips is a wonderful place to stop along the trail.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is accessible at traffic light #8 in Gatlinburg. Follow Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park.
Buses, trailers, and motor homes are not permitted on the motor nature trail. More driving trails
Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was the largest and most prosperous settlement in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once known for its farms and orchards, today Cataloochee is one of the most picturesque areas of the park. Directions: From interstate I-40, exit at North Carolina exit #20 and travel 0.2 miles on route 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley.
Rich Mountain Road heads north from Cades Cove over Rich Mountain to Tuckaleechee Cove and Townsend, TN. The 8-mile, one-way, gravel 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.
Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum, situated on the banks of the Oconaluftee River just inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the Cherokee NC side, is a collection of of southern Appalachian farm buildings assembled from different locations throughout the Park.
The farmstead has a crop in the field with the Smoky Mountains as a back drop. Live farm animals are raised during the summer. Visitors are welcome to visit the chestnut log farmhouse, barn, hen house, apple house, springhouse, and blacksmith shop.
Most of the structures at the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum were built in the late 19th century by the Davis family and were preserved at the Mountain Farm Museum in the 1950s.
During the summer months, Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff and volunteers give demonstrations of traditional Smoky Mountain ways at the Mountain Farm Museum, including black-smithing, plowing, and molasses making.
The Balsam Mountain area of the park offers spectacular mountain views and loads of summer wildflowers.
To get there, take the Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins 0.5 mile north of Cherokee NC. Follow this paved road for 11 miles to the turnoff for Balsam Mountain Campground. It is nine miles to the campground, with many overlooks along the way. Mile-high Heintooga Picnic Area and Overlook are another mile down the road. From Heintooga, you can either return the way you came of take the one-way Balsam Mountains Road back to Cherokee. The first 18 miles are unpaved but in good condition and fine for passenger vehicles (no buses, trailers, or motor homes). It takes about an hour to return to Cherokee on the scenic Balsam Mountain Road. (Image courtesy of www.RomanticAsheville.com)
Balsam Mountain Driving Trail has a picturesque picnic area and an overlook with restrooms.
Near the campground entrance, a short self-guiding nature trail provides an orientation to the area's northern hardwood and spruce-fir forest. Heintooga Picnic Area and Overlook are one mile beyond the campground. Restrooms are also available here.
The overlook offers views of the vast wilderness where some Cherokee Indians retreated to avoid removal on the tragic Trail of Tears.
From the picnic area you can either turn around and return the way you came or continue down the one-way, gravel Balsam Mountain Road. Driving time to Cherokee is about one hour via the Balsam Mountain Road which is maintained in condition suitable for passenger cars.
Fontana Dam is the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Fontana Lake offers boating and fishing and access to remote, historic areas of the park. Directions: Follow U.S. 74 west from Bryson City. Turn right at the State Highway 28 turnoff. Follow State Highway 28 until the turnoff to the right for Fontana Dam. From Maryville, follow U.S. 129 south. Turn left at State Highway 28. Go approximately 10 miles to turnoff on left.
Lakeview Drive, "The Road To Nowhere," as most local residents call it, is a 6-mile scenic drive into the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where it dead-ends. It provides spectacular views of Fontana Lake and the Appalachian Mountains and was originally named Lakeview Drive; however, since the road was never completed (as the government promised) residents who were forced to leave their homes in order for Fontana Dam to be built gave it the name of "The Road To Nowhere." This road was originally to be built to provide the many residents who gave up their land for the Fontana Dam project access to their ancestral gravesites.
Directions: Take the Bryson City Exit 67 off US 74, come down the hill, at the first traffic light make a right, at the second traffic light make a left, go straight through the third traffic light, over the railroad tracks and straight up the hill to the Swain County High School (high school will be 1-2 miles on your left from the traffic light). About 1-2 miles past Swain County High School you will see the sign on the left side on a bank that says this is the Road to Nowhere and immediately after you will enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains and Fontana Dam. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers a variety of excursions and special events throughout the year. Gourmet Dinner Trains run Saturday evenings beginning early February. Mystery Theatre Dinner Trains run on select Friday evenings, early May through early November. Rail stations are located in Dillsboro and Bryson City, North Carolina.
Parsons Branch Road. This is an 8-mile gravel road leading from Cades Cove Loop Road to US 129 toward the North Carolina side of the Park and Calderwood Dam. Parsons Branch Road was once a main artery among a complex of roads feeding the smaller coves and hollows with Cades Cove. These highlands coves were home to several mountaineer farmers who stood against Confederate raiders.
There are 19 creek fords on this road, all of which are concreted and easy to cross, but some are nearly a foot deep and may require extreme caution in bad weather. The Park Service closes the gate at dusk, in extreme weather, and in winter (Nov-Apr). Camping is allowed in some places, but a permit is required from the Ranger Station. Check before taking this road. The road is uncrowded, scenic, exciting, and leads to the Tail of the Dragon.
Parsons Branch road is accessed just beyond the Cades Cove Visitors Center. No trailers or RVs are allowed. The drive takes approximately one hour.