Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the Eastern United States. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences, including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.
There are over 270 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved, and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars. Travel speeds on most of the park’s paved roads average 30 miles per hour.
Driving in the mountains presents new challenges for many drivers. When travelling uphill on hot days, watch your engine temperature carefully to make sure it is not overheating. If overheating occurs, rest your vehicle at a pullout before continuing.
When going downhill, shift to a lower gear to conserve your brakes and avoid brake failure. If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, use “L” or “2.” Keep an extra cushion of distance between you and the vehicle in front of you as protection against sudden stops.
Watch for animals crossing roads, especially at night. Scores of bears and other animals are killed by motorists every year. Following posted speed limits will reduce your chances of hitting wildlife.
As a courtesy to other park visitors, slow moving vehicles should use pullouts to let other cars pass. Pullouts are located every mile or so on most park roads.
Numbered posts along park roads are keyed to the book, Mountain Roads & Quiet Places: A Complete Guide to the Roads of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or to booklets on specific park areas (Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, etc.).
There are no gas stations or other related services available in the park. Complete services are available in Cherokee, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, and Townsend, TN. In the event of an emergency, call 911. For non-emergency calls to park headquarters, dial (423) 436-1200.
Cades Cove Loop Road, Parson Branch Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Rich Mountain Road are closed from sunset to sunrise. All other roads are open day and night.
Several of the park’s roads are closed in winter. Others may close temporarily due to weather. Below are approximate open periods for seasonal roads.
- Balsam Mountain - (Mid-May - Early November)
- Clingmans Dome - (April 1st to November 30th)
- Forge Creek - (Mid-March to December 31st)
- Parson Branch - (Mid-March to mid-November)
- Rich Mountain - (Mid-May to mid-November)
- Roaring Fork Nature Trail - (Mid-March to December 1st)
Although the National Park Service attempts to keep Newfound Gap Road open year-round, temporary, weather-related closures do occur. If the road is closed, stop at a nearby visitor center for information on alternative routes between North Carolina and Tennessee. Passage may be limited to vehicles with tire chains or four-wheel drive when snowy conditions exist. Little River and Cades Cove Loop roads are rarely closed by inclement weather.
Newfound Gap Road
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 11⁄2 miles west of the current site. When the lower, easier crossing was discovered, it became known as the “newfound” gap.
A trip over the Newfound Gap Road has often been compared to a drive from Georgia to Maine in terms of the variety of forest ecosystems one experiences. Starting from either Chero-kee, N.C. or Gatlinburg, Tenn., travelers climb approximately 3,000 feet, ascending through cove hardwood, pine-oak, and northern hardwood forest to attain the evergreen spruce-fir forest at Newfound Gap (5,048').
Cades Cove Loop Road
Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Allow at least one to two hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. The loop road is closed from sunset to sunrise.
For hundreds of years Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove but archeologists have found no evidence of major settlements.
Clingmans Dome Road
Clingmans Dome is the park’s popular high road, a spectacular seven-mile drive from its junction with the Newfound Gap road just south of the gap to the parking area with access to the highest point in the Smokies, 6,643 feet above sea level.
Views are outstanding, weather permitting, all along the route, and the observation tower atop the dome provides a magnificent panorama. The road offers many pullouts and overlooks, and features several short walks into the Appalachian high country. Your experience at this altitude looks—and feels—quite different from any other in the park. Don’t be surprised if mist obscures your views. This is a world of plentiful moisture—that’s what makes the Smokies special, after all—and clouds and fog are not unusual at this altitude.
As you look down these corrugated ridges and across the seamless carpet of forest, bear in mind that this is wild, rugged, and mostly trackless country. Don’t be deceived by the relative ease with which you drive the roads or walk the trails. Would-be adventurers who wander from marked pathways run a real risk of getting quickly lost, falling down a rocky ravine, or worse.
Roaring Fork Motor Trail
The Roaring Fork area is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers gushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, gristmills, and other historic buildings.
To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg, Tenn., at traffic light #8 and follow Airport Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park.
Heintooga Ridge and Balsam Mountain Roads
During the heat of summer or the “madding crowds” of October, the Heintooga Ridge/Balsam Mountain area is an excellent high elevation escape. Frequent overlooks offer sweeping mountain vistas and roadsides provide some of the best displays of summer wildflowers in the Smokies.
To reach the Heintooga Ridge/Balsam Mountain area you must leave Great Smoky Mountains National Park briefly and drive the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway begins midway between Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Cherokee, N.C.
The Foothills Parkway is an unusual road since it’s located outside the park, but is administratively part of it, and offers a panoramic perspective found nowhere else. The Parkway is in two segments: a six-mile spur connecting I-40 with State 32 near Cosby, and a 17 1/2-mile section from U.S. 321 north of Townsend, Tennessee to U.S. 129 at Chilhowee Reservoir. The two segments will be covered separately here.
This road, when completed, will be a 71-mile scenic drive through the Tennessee foothills. Construction began in 1960, with the State securing rights-of-way and transferring them to the Park Service. Further construction is now under way as funds become available.
Even segmented, the Foothills Parkway offers its own adventure; a scenic alternative approach to or departure from the Great Smokies. In this guide, both are followed east-to-west. (If you’re driving in the opposite direction, simply follow the separate sections in reverse order.)
Foothills Parkway East
From I-40 (21 miles east of its interchange with I-81) the Foothills Parkway exit is labeled as such. It’s a short trip up and over Green Mountain with splendid views.
Foothills Parkway West
This 18-mile drive follows the crest of Chilhowee (pronounced “chil-HOW-ee”) Mountain, an unusually long and uniform wrinkle in the plain beyond the Great Smokies. Its western terminus is the shore of Chilhowee Reservoir. There it connects with U.S. 129 about 22 miles south of Maryville, Tennessee.
Chilhowee is an unusual mountain: one continuous narrow ridge almost 30 miles long and 2,700 feet high, from the Little Tennessee River on the southwest to near Sevierville on the northeast. It’s notched in the middle, a steep, short gorge cut by the Little River on its way to the Tennessee at Knoxville.
The Parkway’s west segment begins at U.S. 321, nine miles from the park entrance at Townsend, following the lower end of the mountain to Chilhowee Reservoir. From its vantage point, the road offers excellent views of the Smokies to the south and the sudden flatlands of the Tennessee valley northward.