5 Best Scenic Drives in Smoky Mountains National Park

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Enjoying Great Smoky Mountains National Park is incredible by hiking, but you just can’t possibly see all corners of the park unless you embark on a Smoky Mountain scenic drive — or five. Driving through the Smoky Mountains gives you a grander experience and deeper respect of how vast the park truly is.

Clocking in at just over 522,000 acres, which is just a bit smaller than the state of Rhode Island, the Great Smoky Mountains holds a vastness that many people can’t quite comprehend until they take a scenic drive through the Smoky Mountains.

Even though the five best scenic drives in Smoky Mountains National Park will only put around 105 miles on your odometer, the reality of completing all five drives in a single day is extremely slim. Even if you started with the northernmost scenic drive, Cataloochee Valley, and mapped your way perfectly down south to the Cades Cove scenic drive, you’d clock just about 130 miles — but it would take you more than five hours without stopping.

Believe me, you’re going to want to stop at least a combined 30 times during these epic scenic drives. So let’s get to the five best Great Smoky Mountain National Park scenic drives — in the order of their coolness.

Best Scenic Drives in the Smoky Mountains

1. Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road was my favorite Smoky Mountain scenic drive because of the elevation gains and the amazing lookouts. You can start the scenic drive at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. I completed the drive starting at both points and both directions are phenomenal.

No matter which side you start on, you’ll begin near the base of the mountains and slowly climb to its peak, which is the astonishing Newfound Gap Overlook. It sits at the North Carolina-Tennessee border and features stunning panoramic views looking into both states.

Newfound Gap Road cuts through the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, following US 441, and features about 20 overlooks — each seemingly better than the previous.

My advice to you is to stop at as many lookouts as you can bear — and be on the lookout for bears. I managed to spot (well, many cars in front of me spotted) a baby bear foraging for food on the side of the road. Amazingly, during my three bear encounters in the park, I managed to take only one crummy vertical iPhone photo.

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center also offers a tremendous spot to view elk, which were reintroduced into the park in 2001 after being hunted to extinction in the 1800s.

2. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is an amazing 8-mile loop drive just outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It takes you on a different kind of scenic drive, traversing wooded areas teeming with waterfalls and wildlife. After hiking Grotto Falls Trail, which is just one of the many amazing trailheads on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Drive, I had my first black bear encounter.

In fact, the motor trail is highly touted as one of the best places in the park to see black bears. The one I saw was just minding its own business, walking up the middle of the road in search of berries — or someone to take its picture. Don’t forget, bears are extremely dangerous, so you must always stay a safe distance from them.

The one-way motor trail is only 8 miles, but it’ll take you about an hour to drive the entire loop. It’s one of the most popular scenic drives in the park and the speed limit is 5 mph. But you’ll go slower than that at times and you’ll definitely want to pull off the road many times to take a look at the beauty surrounding you.

3. Little River Road Auto Tour

Little River Auto Tour takes you down three different roads from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the astonishingly beautiful Cades Cove. It’s a different kind of drive because it begins, continues and ends at lower elevations, following the winding path of the Little River almost the entire way.

Since the auto tour consists of low-elevation roads, rolling your windows down may be a little warm during summer. But be sure to roll them down and listen to the soothing sounds of the flowing river! If you get too hot, you can always throw on your bathing suit, stop at one of the many pull-offs and jump into the countless natural swimming pools surrounded by huge rocks.

Trust me, you won’t be the only one taking a dip in this cold water, especially when you get to The Sinks, which is the most popular swimming hole. It’s equipped with restrooms, picnic tables and plenty of parking.

There are seven numbered signs that mark the Little River Road Auto Tour, and they go as follows:

    1. Non-marked Cataract Falls (behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center)
    2. #1: Maloney Point Overlook
    3. #2: Laurel Falls: 2.4-mile easy hike that’s all paved
    4. #4: Metcalf Bottoms
    5. #5: The Sinks: popular swimming hole with a waterfall
    6. #6: Meigs Falls
    7. #7: Townsend “Y” river intersection

4. Cades Cove Scenic Drive

If Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is the most-visited scenic drive in the Great Smoky Mountains, Cades Cove is a close second. The Cades Cove scenic drive is a one-way road that takes you through a verdant valley, rich with greenery and yellow flora. It’s also one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife, including elk, black bear, turkey and coyote.

But Cades Cove is also home to the largest number of historic buildings in the park. Although many of the structures were built in the 1800s, the large majority were moved from their original homesteads into Cades Cove. You can see houses, farm buildings, churches, log cabins and so much more!

The 11-mile drive down the one-way road will take you about an hour, and much longer if you stop at every historic building. If you don’t mind hiking and want to see homesteads in their original locations, you must hike the Little Cataloochee Trail in the north end of the park.

5. Cataloochee Valley Scenic Drive

Speaking of the Little Cataloochee Trail, it’s located in the scenic Cataloochee Valley on the north end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Before the park was christened a national park in 1940, the thriving community of Cataloochee was the largest settlement inside the park’s boundaries. By 1910, this extremely remote town had more than 1,250 people living in it.

After the park was announced and the government bought out everyone’s land, someone had the irrefutable bad idea to tear down every structure in town and let nature take over the reins. Luckily, someone halted the demolition part of the way through and left about 12 buildings standing in their original location.

The Cataloochee Valley scenic drive takes you on a 26-mile road past the old homes, which you can still go inside, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the park. To this day, there are still old farm buildings, a few small log cabins, a large house with a schoolhouse and some other cool structures you can tour.

Elk are also present in the Cataloochee Valley, which is located at the beginning of the drive, and they can be seen grazing for grass in the valley throughout the year.

Bonus: Clingmans Dome Road

I’m throwing Clingmans Dome Road into the mix as a bonus because it’s such an incredible view at the peak of the 7-mile one-way drive. Clingmans Dome is a manmade structure that’s also the highest point in the national park, tipping the scale at just above 6,600 feet of elevation.

To get to Clingmans Dome Road, you’ll need to drive nearly half of the Newfound Gap Road, so it makes for the perfect place to take a little detour and explore some of the highest views in the park. My advice is to get there early in the morning (to find a decent parking spot) and to experience the clouds and “smoke” hanging onto the mountains.


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