A drive through and to Great Smoky Mountains National Park has many breathtaking advantages.
Whereas hiking gets you up close and personal with waterfalls, wildlife and often rock-draped hikes, a drive provides a fuller scope of this multi-faceted, 520,000-plus acre wonder. Plus – as you will see – there are plenty of labeled “Quiet Walks” to pit-stop at, should you need to stretch your legs in the wild itself.
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Most routes in the park include swirling fog, rigid peaks and towering hardwoods. And, via one loop, there’s even a centuries-old European settlement to explore. Getting to the park can be half the fun, too, with diverse routes including small-town charm, sprawling destinations with family-friendly establishments and additional parks to hit.
When you pull out your map for your Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit, factor in these scenic road trips.
1. Cades Cove Loop
Best inner-park road trip loop
Cades Cove–Cades Cove; 11 miles
Among the loops and build-your-own adventure possibilities within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this oval route is perhaps the most popular. This is largely due to its wildlife, which includes white-tailed deer, the periodic turkeys and groundhogs and, yes, black bears. There are plenty of historic structures to gawk at within Cades Cove, too, including barns, churches and even a working gristmill dating back to the early 1800s that were all once part of a European-settled community.
If the traffic crawls too much for your liking or if you need a solid stretch, there is a visitor center mid-loop as well as several trails stemming from the loop, including the 5-mile Abrams Falls trek. For campers, Cades Cove Campground is open year-round and has nearly 160 sites.
Planning tip: Cades Cove Loop is open from 8am to sunset daily, with crowds typically steady post-10am.
2. Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee
Best road trip for first timers
Sugarlands Visitor Center–Oconaluftee Visitor Center; 29 miles
Look at any map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and there’s a north–south route that beautifully cuts right through the middle of the park – that would be the Newfound Gap Route. Considered the lowest-elevation pass through the park, this is where the hardwoods and spruce firs particularly tower over the oft-foggy landscape.
There is so much beauty to take in and fortunately, there are plenty of viewpoints to do so, notably the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. At approximately mile 15 of the drive at the Tennessee–North Carolina state line, note the Rockefeller Memorial – this is where the park was officially dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.
Be sure to park up and make the most of the many gentle trails and hiking routes in the national park © Marcia Straub / Getty Images
3. The Foothills Parkway
Best road trip for fall foliage
Wears Valley–Route 129; 32 miles
It’s an impossible task to pinpoint the absolute best spot for fall foliage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, the western portion of The Foothills Parkway is tough to beat with winding tree-clad vistas and plenty of viewpoints for stopping and taking it all in. There are 19 scenic overlooks in total. Prioritize Overlook #8 in Emerine Gap, where you can take in prime park and city views – with the quaint town of Maryville and towering Smokys visible.
There is an eastern portion of The Foothills Parkway, too, which runs between Interstate 40 and the town of Cosby. This stretch runs less than 6 miles and includes four overlooks, with vistas of Inadu Knob and Mt Cammerer.
Planning tip: The Eastern and Western portions of The Foothills Parkway do not connect. Should you want to experience both stretches, Route 321 is currently the best straight shot between the two.
4. Knoxville to Gatlinburg via Sevierville and Pigeon Forge
Best kid-friendly road trip
Downtown Knoxville–Sugarlands Visitor Center; 45 miles
For folks flying in to experience the Smoky Mountains, many journeys begin at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport. After snagging a rental car, head north and make a pitstop in Knoxville for some barbecue at Sweet P’s BBQ and Soul House and then Cruze Farm for some fresh-churned ice cream. From there, take Interstate 40 to Tennessee Road 66, where you’ll eventually run through the tourist- and kid-friendly towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and eventually Gatlinburg.
Stop in Sevierville to experience its revitalized downtown with a statue of local icon Dolly Parton in front of the town’s courthouse. In Pigeon Forge, in addition to Dollywood, pop by The Historic Old Mill to see grits and grains ground before your eyes. The Island area of Pigeon Forge is loaded with attractions like a 200ft-tall Ferris wheel. In Gatlinburg, before reaching the park’s entrance, there are numerous mini-golf courses, waterparks and ziplining opportunities. The Gatlinburg Space Needle is a nice spot for vistas, towering 400ft above the town.
You’ll drive the Newfound Gap between Cherokee and Gatlinburg © rickberk / Getty Images
5. Asheville to Gatlinburg via Cherokee
Best road trip to visit breweries
Downtown Asheville–Sugarlands Visitor Center; 86 miles
If you’re not flying into Knoxville, odds are you’re landing on the North Carolina side, perhaps in Asheville. “The Land of the Sky” has deservingly earned its reputation as a craft beer hot spot. So, if you’re the lucky one who isn’t driving, prioritize some sips at the likes of Hillman Beer and heavyweights such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium.
After you’ve stocked up on some beverages in Asheville, cruise through Maggie Valley, which is home to the double cascading Soco Falls. Cherokee is the last town before entering the park, where you can keep the party going at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. For history lovers, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is open year-round and sheds light on the tribe’s 11,000-year history.
Detour: The entrance to Pisgah National Forest is 30 minutes north of Downtown Asheville, home to Mt Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
6. Atlanta to Cherokee via Blue Ridge, Georgia
Best road trip for a multi-day adventure
Downtown Atlanta–Oconaluftee Visitor Center; 178 miles
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest airport in the US. Odds are if you want a nice deal in flying into the Southeast USA, you may find it flying into Atlanta. From Georgia’s capital city, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of Smoky Mountains National Park is within a four-hour drive.
Don’t take the quicker Interstate 85 to Route 23 journey. Instead opt for the Interstate 75 to US Route 74 option that takes you through the charming southern towns of Canton and Blue Ridge, Georgia as well as the Nantahala National Forest. In the national forest there are more than 600 miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding. So, plan a night or two to camp in the forest for sure, with the Jackrabbit Mountain grounds having 100-plus sites.