| Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the East. 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 384 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.
Inexpensive booklets are available to serve as your personal tour guides along many park roads. These booklets are keyed to numbered posts or landmarks and include information on park history, wildlife, and plants. Booklets are available for the following roads:
Cades Cove Loop Road
Newfound Gap Road
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Upper Tremont Road
In addition, the book Smokies Road Guide covers main thoroughfares and scenic backroads in the park. This book and the self-guiding auto tour booklets listed above are available at park visitor centers and online. Self-guiding tour booklets are also available from dispensers at the start of the roads they cover.
Please check for seasonal and weather-related road closures before planning an auto tour.
The following are descriptions of several favorite auto-touring destinations:
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 1.5 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 Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, 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 (5,046').
Temperatures at the gap may be 10° F. or more cooler than in the lowlands and precipitation falling as rain in Gatlinburg may be snow at Newfound Gap. From the parking area at Newfound Gap you can straddle the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee or take a stroll on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile footpath running from Georgia to Maine.
Just south of Newfound Gap, the seven-mile Clingmans Dome Road climbs to within 0.5 mile of Clingmans Dome (6,643'), the highest peak in the Smokies (and third highest in the East). From the large parking area at the end of the road, a 0.5-mile trail climbs steeply to an observation tower at the “top of old Smoky.” Clingmans Dome Road is closed in winter (December 1 - March 31).
Download a free podcast of the Newfound Gap Self-Guiding Auto Tour The Great Smoky Mountains Association, the park's non-profit partner, offers several podcasts from the Smokies, including the Newfound Gap Auto Tour. Visit their website for download instructions.
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 two to four 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. The first Europeans settled in the cove sometime between 1818 and 1821. By 1830 the population of the area had already swelled to 271. Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park. Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored eighteenth and nineteenth century structures. An inexpensive self-guiding tour booklet available at the entrance to the road provides in-depth information about the buildings and the people who built and used them.
Cades Cove also offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, Wild Turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through September, Cades Cove Loop Road is open only to bicyclists, walkers, and concession-operated hay wagons. Automobiles are prohibited on the loop road on these mornings until 10:00 a.m.
The Roaring Fork area is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg, TN., at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park.
The Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail provides a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead and surrounding hardwood forest. Highlights include a streamside 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 twists and turns for six miles beside rich forests, waterfalls, and mountain streams. Buses, trailers, and motor homes are not permitted on the motor nature trail. An inexpensive booklet available at the beginning of the motor nature trail details landmarks along the route.
“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. Drive this road after a hard rain and the inspiration behind the name will be apparent.
Several homes and other buildings have been preserved in this area. And a “wet weather” waterfall called Place of a Thousand Drips provides a splendid finale to your journey.
Balsam Mountain and Heintooga Ridge
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, NC Exit the parkway near milepost 458 at the turnoff to Balsam Mountain Campground. You will follow the mile-high Heintooga Ridge Road for eight miles to Balsam Mountain Campground (5,310').
Near the campground entrance, a short self-guiding nature trail provides a good 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 (motor homes and vehicles pulling trailers are prohibited).
Some 1,200 people lived in this lovely mountain valley in 1910, making it one of the largest communities in the Smokies. Agriculture, including commercial apple growing, was the primary occupation. Some families also boarded fishermen and other tourists.
A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. This is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Access requires driving two miles on a narrow gravel road, but it is well-maintained and passable for standard passenger vehicles. To get there from I-40, exit at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right and follow the signs 11 miles into Cataloochee Valley. To get there from Oconaluftee or Cherokee, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Highway 19. Follow 19 (toward Asheville) through Maggie Valley. Turn left onto Highway 276 N. Just before the entrance ramp to I-40 (but past gas station), turn left and follow the signs 11 more miles to Cataloochee.
Visitors to Cataloochee also enjoy viewing deer, elk, turkey, and other wildlife. Wildlife watching can be especially fruitful during mornings and evenings in the valley’s open fields.
The Boogerman Trail, a seven-mile loop that takes in groves of old-growth forest, is popular with hikers. Cataloochee Creek and its tributaries are noted for their populations of wild trout. Information and exhibits are available seasonally at the Palmer House and a self-guiding tour booklet may be purchased from a dispenser near the entrance to the valley.
Beating the Crowds
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. Times when visitation is highest are July 1-August 15 and October (especially October weekends). During these times, traffic may become congested, especially on the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove Loop roads. Fortunately, lesser-used roads and off-the-beaten path destinations are scattered throughout the park. Anytime you want to escape the crowds, try one of these alternatives:
Foothills Parkway East or West
Blue Ridge Parkway
Balsam Mountain and Heintooga Ridge roads
Rich Mountain Road*
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
*motorists must travel part of the busy Cades Cove Loop Road to access this one-way backroad (closed in winter).
In summer, motorists can also avoid the crowds by traveling before 10:00 a.m. in the morning or after 5:00 p.m. in the evening. During October, traffic is heaviest during the afternoons and evenings.