Little River Road

Little River Road runs from the Sugarland Visitors Center to Cades Cove.  This 18 mile stretch of road runs along the Little River and is actually built on the former railroad bed that the Little River Lumber Company used in its heyday.  This is a very popular route through the National Park.  Passing by many of the popular haunts of visitors to the Smokies it is also one of the ways to get to Cades Cove.


  • Little River RoadElkmont – Elkmont, formerly a vacation spot for the elite from Knoxville, is one of the neatest places to visit in the Smokies.  The homes that the people lived in and vacationed in are still there.  Along with the the history there is also a campground located in Elkmont.
  • Tremont – Home to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, this has become a place of research and education in the Smoky Mountains.
  • The Townsend Wye – Where Lamar Alexander Parkway and Little River Road meet inside the GSMNP, is the Townsend Wye.  This is a starting point for a lot of people that love to tube in the Smokies it is also a great local swimming hole.
  • Laurel Falls – This may be the most popular trail in the Smokies and is certainly the site of the most viewed waterfall in the Smoky Mountains.
  • The Sinks – Another popular swimming hole in the Smokies, the sinks are also one of the places where you will catch people diving off the rocks into the crisp mountain water during the summer.  This is not a suggestion, as this is a very dangerous activity, merely a comment on what happens at this area of the park.

Greenbrier Auto Tour

Greenbrier Auto TourA lesser visited area of the Park, the Greenbrier section is one of our favorites. Besides the Ramsay Cascades, the visitor has the opportunity to view large stands of virgin growth such as northern red oak, eastern hemlock, and red maple. When the Park was created in 1934, old-growth forests were saved from the lumber companies and preserved for Smokies visitors.

The Greenbrier Valley is in the northern portion of the GSMNP.  The auto tour through Greenbrier is a little more rustic than the Blue Ridge or Newfound Gap but it is no less spectacular.  You drive through forests that have remained untouched for decades, maybe centuries. When you pull into Greenbrier you are pulling into history.  Here are some of the points of interest inside this 6 mile loop (some are on trails that break off from the auto tour):

  • John Messer Barn – This is the only remaining pre-park structure in the Greenbrier Cove.  Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, this double cantilever barn is a gem tucked into the mountains.
  • Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin (SMHC) – This cabin was constructed by the SMHC between 1934 and 1936.  This is one of the few structures in the park that was not built by the National Park Service.  Designed by the same architect that built some of the buildings for Arrowmont in Gatlinburg this was used by the SMHC until 1981.
  • Tyson McCarter Place – A Barn, a corn crib, a smokehouse and a springhouse are what remains of the Tyson McCarter Place. Located along the Old Settlers Trail, this area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976
  • Baxter Cabin – This is all that is left of the Baxter spread in the Greenbrier area.  Originally consisting of 2 cabins, a barn, a corn crib, smokehouse, hogpen, chicken house and blacksmith shop, this cabin and the chicken house were left.  In the 1950s the chicken house was moved to the Oconaluftee area to the Mountain Farm Museum.  This structure is typical of the homes in the mountains in the 1880s.

To get to Greenbrier Road, leave Gatlinburg at light #3 and head east on Hwy 321. Travel for approximately 7 miles and turn right on Greenbrier Road.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway MapThis route follows the Appalachian Mountain chain from the Shenendoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park-a distance of 469 miles. There are frequent turnouts for mountain vistas, waterfalls, picnic areas, and visitor centers. Much of the Parkway is closed in winter. The speed limit is strictly limited to 45 miles per hour or less, and trucks are prohibited.  The South Section Auto Tour covers the last 175 miles of the parkway beginning at the visitor center at Linville Falls. The parkway passes through a series of gaps, meadows, tunnels, and scenic overlooks. Points of interest include the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, the Folk Art Center and Craggy Falls. A popular sidetrip is a visit to the Vanderbilt’s magnificent Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.

As important as the Newfound Gap Road is to the GSMNP, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of those vital arteries of traffic in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  The drive from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to Cherokee, NC is one of the most miraculous drives you can take on the east side of the Mississippi River.  All along the Blue Ridge Parkway you will find towns such as Asheville, Maggie Valley, and Cherokee that are the epitome of the small little mountain town in the Smokies.  The Blue Ridge Parkway also offers access to some areas of the GSMNP that you can’t get to from any other point.  Work began on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935 and it took until 52 years to be completed.

Here are some of the highlights along the Smokies end of the Blue Ridge Parkway:

  • Blue Ridge ParkwayMilepost 469 – The Blue Ridge Parkway intersects with US 441 in Cherokee, NC
  • Milepost 458.2 – Heintooga Overlook – Mile-high overlook
  • Milepost 422.4 – Devil’s Courthouse
  • Milepost 417 – Looking Glass Rock
  • Milepost 408.6 – Mount Pisgah – part of the Biltmore Estate
  • Milepost 384 – The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center
  • Milepost 382 – The Folk Art Center
  • Milepost 355.4  – Mount Mitchell State Park
  • Milepost 331  – Museum of North Carolina Minerals
  • Milepost 304.4 Linn Cove Viaduct
  • Milepost 285.1 – Daniel Boone’s Trace


Cataloochee is a lesser known auto tour in the GSMNP.  Much like Cades Cove, it was a valley community in the mountains that was self-sufficient with churches, farms and clusters of mountain homes.  When the park service came in and started to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park they people were forced to leave and the park took over the buildings, making them into living history that you can now drive through to experience a taste of what their lives might have been like.  Now, Cataloochee grows in popularity each year and with the establishment of a herd of elk in the valley, it is no wonder that people are visiting it more and more.

Cataloochee ValleyThe Cataloochee Valley derives its name from the Cherokee word Gadalutsi which most likely referred to the trees that line the ridges surrounding the valley.  The Cherokee used this valley as a hunting ground for elk and deer before the European settlers came to the area.  When the first settlers saw the beautiful valley of Cataloochee they knew that they had found a home in the Smoky Mountains.  From using the fields around the ridges for free range cattle to graze to actually moving into the valley itself to establish communities, Cataloochee became a thriving town in the Smokies complete with churches, a schoolhouse and much more.  The people of Cataloochee were the first to embrace the sound to be founded tourism industry in the mountains. City Folk came to the area to experience the mountains and the town embraced them and their money.

When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, it was decided that Cataloochee would become a part of the National Park.  The people of the valley protested the inclusion and though some of them choose to fight, by the 1940s most of the people had moved out of the valley.  The Department of the Interior gave the people that wanted to stay lifetime leases and all of these have since expired and there are no longer any people living in the valley of Cataloochee.  Cataloochee is now the least known auto tour in the park but though it is not as traveled, it is just as beautiful as Cades Cove.

In 2001, the Park Service began a program of reintroducing elk into the National Park.  The elk herds in the park are doing well but none of them are doing as well as the herd in Cataloochee.  It is possible to see dozens of these majestic creatures as they roam the fields in and around Cataloochee.  During the rut in the fall, the bull elk begin to bugle as they try to court a mate for the season.  There are many people that bring a lawn chair and a picnic lunch so that they can sit in the great outdoors and enjoy the elk of cataloochee.

Cataloochee needs to be on your list of places to visit the next time you are in the Smokies.  Take a day and head into the mountains.  You can reach it by going to I-40 and driving into North Carolina or you can go to Cosby, TN and follow Hwy 32 into the mountains following the signs on a very rustic road.  Either way you are in for a treat once you make it to Cataloochee.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Above Gatlinburg is yet another entrance into part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the auto known as Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  This auto tour takes you through the Roaring Fork area of the GSMNP and gives you access to hiking, a several tremendous views of the Smokies and Gatlinburg itself.

Roaring Fork is named for the stream that courses through the area.  Roaring Fork starts near Mt LeConte and runs downstream at a very fast pace, creating waterfalls and cascades as it reaches the lower elevations in Gatlinburg.  The auto tour takes you through this historic area of the National Park and runs along side Roaring Fork almost the whole way.  One of the most interesting features of Roaring Fork is known as the Place of a Thousand Drips which you pass right before you exit the auto tour and head back into Gatlinburg.

The people that lived in the Roaring Fork area were the first residents of White Oak Flats – the area that became Gatlinburg.  The Reagans and the Bales established this rugged mountain community.  They lived off the land and unlike the other auto tours of valley areas lie Cades Cove and Cataloochee, Roaring Fork is a sharp contrast.  They built saw mills, they trapped and hunted for food.  Their lives were very different from those that lived in the valleys.  Nevertheless, getting to drive through this area and see the homes that the park service keeps up and the scenery that these settlers lived in is remarkable.

Along with the cabins and waterfalls that you will see along the auto tour there are also several trailheads:

Lakeview Drive

The Road to Nowhere

This six-mile drive is also known as “the Road to Nowhere” and affords great views of Fontana Lake.   Lakeview Drive ends one mile beyond a viaduct at the mouth of a tunnel. Work on the road stopped in 1943 and was never continued. “The Road to Nowhere” actually takes you to some nice hiking trails. Lakeshore and Tunnel Trails begin at the end of the parking area. The Lakeshore Trail is one of the newer trails in the Park, extending along the south boundary for about 44 miles. It is actually a configuration of trails developed from old manways, older existing trails, and roads.

This road was constructed shortly after Fontana Dam was constructed and Lake Fontana was formed.  With the flooding of the towns of Judson and Proctor, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park needed a way for people visiting the park to get to the park side of Fontana Lake.  The people that had been displaced from Judson and Proctor also needed a way to reach the cemeteries that were located inside the boundaries of the National Park.

They were promised a road that would extend into the park and all the way to these areas that were cut off.  The construction of Lakeview Drive began in 1943 and though progress was slow it continued until 1972 when funding ran out and the construction halted.  The matter of whether this road would be finished was batted around on a local, state and federal level until 2010 when it was decided that a payout would be made to Swain County, North Carolina instead of the road being completed. Now, to reach the areas of the flooded cities that are inside the GSMNP, they either have to hike overland or wait until the one time a year when the park service takes people across the lake for a homecoming time at the cemeteries.

For this reason, Lakeview Drive is known as the Road to Nowhere.  You can drive this secluded road into the park and take in the beautiful views of Fontana Lake.  Also, if you are into bicycling, this area is not as traveled as most and it gives you a chance to bike without having to worry about a lot of cars.  The road ends at the start of several trails and at the last tunnel that was constructed.  The tunnel was finished and is even paved.  You actually walk through the tunnel to get to the trails.

To get there, travel south on the Newfound Gap Road into Cherokee NC. In Cherokee, turn right on US 19 and drive 10 miles to Bryson City. At the old Swain County Courthouse, turn right onto Everett Street and cross the Tuckasegee River. Follow Everett Street through town (it changes to Lakeview Drive) and continue to the Park boundary. Continue 5 miles into the Park.

Cades Cove

Cades CoveCades Cove is the most popular auto tour and the most popular spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As an auto tour, Cades Cove is second to none.  As a place just to go experience the beauty of the Smokies and hang out in nature, there might not be a better place in the southeast.  Formerly a thriving Appalachian community, Cades Cove quickly shows you why people chose to call this area home.

Before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove was a typical mountain community.  Small farms, cattle herds, churches, all of the usual buildings and community areas that a valley community might need were located in Cades Cove.  The first settlers to the area were the Oliver’s.  John Oliver, a War of 1812 veteran, came to the area.  And while he and his wife Lucretia had a rough first winter the fertile land and the protected nature of the valley brought in many more settlers.  At its height, in the early 1800s, the population of Cades cove was more then 650 people.  There were quite a few farmsteads and there was even a post office with the Sevierville Post office running a weekly route to the cove for mail service.

Cades CoveThe people of Cades Cove farmed the land, fellowshipped with each other and were happy for the most part.  Then in the early 1900s, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park went from being an idea to being a reality.  The people of Cades Cove were the most resistant to the creation of the park and to their inclusion in the park.  In 1927 the General Assembly of the state of Tennessee declared that Cades Cove would be included in the GSMNP.  The residents of the Cove fought the inclusion but in the end they were forced out of the area.  In the end, some of the residents were given a lifetime lease.  In fact the last resident out of Cades Cove was Kermit Caughron who passed way in 1995 and his home was dismantled soon after that.

Cades CoveToday you get to tour a Cades Cove that looked much as it did in the early 1900s.  The eleven mile loop road around the Cove gives you access to all the historic structures, hiking trails and of course the wildlife that the cove is famous for.  Before you enter the Cove you come to the riding staples, a picnic area and the campground and store.  Cades Cove has it all.

A few tips for visiting Cades Cove

  • Bring a picnic. You may find you are there longer then you thought.
  • Allow yourself at least two hours to go around the loop road during season and on the weekends.  It is only 11 miles but it can take a long time when it is crowded.
  • Stop at the Campground store and get ice cream if they are open.
  • On Wednesday and Saturday morning the loop road is closed to cars to let the bicyclists have fun on a closed course.

Parsons Branch Road

Parsons Branch Road

Have you ever wondered where the two roads that branch out of Cades Cove go? Here is where you can find these two roads in Cades Cove:

  1. Rich Mountain Road – Before the halfway point around Cades Cove, and the entrance is across from the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church.
  2. Parsons Branch Road – At the halfway point around the loop road, at the same intersection that takes you into the Cades Cove Visitors Center.

Parsons Branch is another one way road out of Cades Cove.  When you get to the intersection next to the visitors center inside Cades Cove, if you drive straight across, you will start your path to Parsons Branch.  With this being one way, there are a few things that you need to think about.

  • You are on a rural / primitive road.  Dirt and gravel are the building materials and you will be on it for 8 miles.
  • You are also on a one way road, so don’t think you can just turn around if the going gets rough.
  • The other end of this road – the portion that is not in Cades Cove – drops you out onto US 129 on a portion known as the Dragon.  The Dragon may be the twisty-est road in the south-eastern United States and is a destination for drivers seeking a true driving experience.

Parsons Branch RoadNow that you have made the decision to take Parsons Branch Road, let me tell you what to expect along the way.  You are not going to run into a lot of traffic and with it being a one way road you are not going to encounter ANY oncoming traffic at all.  This rough, bumpy road is going to take you past beautiful scenes of the mountains that are not seen by the weak of heart.  You will follow a stream that runs along the road and you will explore terrain that you may never have been to before.  With a couple of stream crossings you might find that your spirit of exploration has been ignited by an 8 mile journey into the woods toward a road called the Dragon.

Newfound Gap Road

Sugarlands to Oconoluftee

Newfound Gap RoadThe 33-mile drive from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina along Newfound Gap Road (US 441) is the only route that completely traverses the Great Smokies National Park (GSMNP). The drive offers a unique opportunity to enjoy an abbreviated experience of everything the Park has to offer, without necessarily trekking far from your automobile. The drive takes about one hour, depending on traffic. The experience can take several hours if you stop at each of the suggested points of interest. June through August and the month of October are the busiest months of the tourist season, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper in front of you. You shouldn’t let the congestion discourage you from the experience, however. Quiet walkways, unforgettable views of the various peaks in the Smokies, a vast variety of trees, flowers, and wildlife; campgrounds, picnic areas–they all await you on this wonderful journey.

Let’s begin our drive from Gatlinburg and go less than a mile to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. It’s worth the stop here to view the displays of the natural history of the Park, get an idea of what to expect on the drive, pick up reading material to accompany your trip; and ask the Park Rangers those questions you always wanted to ask.  As you leave the Sugarlands Visitor Center you turn onto Newfound Gap Road. The road takes its name from a discovery in the 1850s that Indian Gap, once believed to be the lowest point through the mountains, actually was not the lowest point–hence the name Newfound Gap.

Newfound Gap RoadAt approximately the 1 and 2 mile points from Gatlinburg, you begin to see small signs indicating “quiet walkways”. These walkways, while you are still in Sugarlands Valley, offer wonderful opportunities to view Fall color. The valley takes its name from the multitude of sugar maples in the area. As you move away from your vehicle down these quiet paths you become surrounded by sugar maples, resplendent with color.

As you continue along Newfound Gap Road, a little over two miles you will come upon the Campbell Overlook, which offers arguably the best vistas in the Park. Mt. LeConte rises to 6,593 feet in front of you–the third largest peak in the Smokies. The overlook is named for Carlos Campbell, who wrote Birth of A National Park (available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center). Campbell was a devoted outdoorsman and was a devout supporter for the establishment of the Great Smokies National Park.

As you continue along US 441, you approach the Chimney Tops at the 4.5 mile mark. Here you will find the Chimney Tops picnic area which is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the U.S. The Little Pigeon River runs through the picnic area. White settlers named the Chimney Tops after stone chimneys which, if you use a little imagination, resemble the peaks. This area, and many of the higher regions of the Smokies, were once owned by paper and lumber companies, which highly prized the spruce fibers growing there for making quality paper.

At about the 7-mile point you will come upon two tunnels. They exhibit the beautiful stone work found throughout the Park–work that was accomplished in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The second tunnel, a switchback referred to as “the loop”, curves around and back over itself. This feature was added to alleviate the extreme slope of the mountain.

Around the 9-mile point you will find the Alum Cave Bluffs parking area and trailhead. The hike is moderately challenging. You climb 2.3 miles to the cave bluff and then continue another 2.7 miles on to LeConte Lodge. The Appalachian Trail lies not far beyond the lodge.  At approximately the 13-mile point you find the Morton Overlook. From here you can look back and see the Little Pigeon River and Newfound Gap Road area you just left. To your left is Sugarland Mountain, Mount Mingus, and the Chimney Tops.

Three-quarters of a mile beyond the Morton Overlook you come to Newfound Gap itself. You are at 5,048 feet and can enjoy views to both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the ridge. Here you find the State Line Ridge, which serves as the spine for the entire distance of the Park, and it also comprises the sixty-nine miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Park. If you want to tell people you walked on the Appalachian Trail, you can traverse a short distance of it here before returning to your vehicle.  Here you will also find the Rockefeller Memorial, which lies half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina. It memorializes the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the Park, which was dedicated here by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

Just beyond Newfound Gap and State Line Ridge, you will come to Clingmans Dome Road, which takes you to the Clingmans Dome parking area. You hike the last half-mile and climb the 45-foot observation tower, the highest point in the Park and in Tennessee. On a clear day, it’s said you can see seven states. After you leave Clingmans Dome and continue down Newfound Gap Road toward Cherokee, you will travel approximately one-half mile to the Oconoluftee Valley Overlook, affording you spectacular views of the Oconoluftee River Valley. As you look to where the valley falls away, you can see where you will follow the road downward to Cherokee, North Carolina.

Continuing on, you will approach several quiet walkways and overlooks in the next two miles. Most notable is the Webb Overlook, named for Senator Charles Webb of North Carolina, another staunch supporter of the Park’s establishment.  At the 18.5 mile point is one of the most interesting walkways–certainly in North Carolina. Shortly after entering the walkway, the trail splits. The left fork parallels the Oconoluftee River, and the right fork follows the path of the old Newfound Gap Road.

One-half mile further you approach Smokemont Campground. Once a lumber company town sustaining a school, church, store and boarding houses, it now consists of 140 campsites.

The next, and final, stop on Newfound Gap Road in the Park is the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. Here, as at the Sugarlands visitor Center, information about the Park can be obtained. A bookstore and exhibits, as well as an on-duty Park Ranger, can provide information about the Park and the people who once lived here. Next to the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Museum, which is comprised of pioneer buildings moved from throughout the Park and permanently preserved here.

Rich Mountain Road

Have you ever wondered where the two roads that branch out of Cades Cove go?
Rich Mountain RoadHere is where you can find these two roads in Cades Cove:

  1. Rich Mountain Road – Before the halfway point around Cades Cove, and the entrance is across from the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church.
  2. Parsons Branch Road – At the halfway point around the loop road, at the same intersection that takes you into the Cades Cove Visitors Center.

But, let’s talk about Rich Mountain Road.  Once you have gotten to the turn off across from the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist church, you are going to find yourself on a dirt and gravel road.  Be ready for a bumpy ride but also be ready to get even further away from civilization than you were in Cades Cove. This trip is going to take you up Rich Mountain and then back down into Townsend proper.

Rich Mountain RoadThis is a rustic road.  It is closed during the winter and if there has been a lot of rain , it is impassable during any time of the year. Parts of it are prone to being washed out but it is a great experience and you get to see parts of the GSMNP and the Smoky Mountains that you will not get to any other way.  Now that you have been warned, take the road.

The road ascends into the wilderness.  Don’t expect to go straight up or straight down ut do expect a very windy, twisting drive into the mountains.  This is a one way road, so you are not going to meet an oncoming traffic.  What you are going to meet are some of the most spectacular views that the Smokies have to offer. You will also get to see plenty of wildlife.  Now, that being said, remember that you are not in Cades Cove anymore.  The animals along Rich Mountain Road are not quite as tame and they will run a lot easier then the animals in Cades Cove.  Once you have hit the top of the mountain and start your descent you are going to cross several streams and see plenty of cascades and waterfalls.  You are in some areas that see a lot less travel then other areas of the Smokies.

One of the most photographed scenes from Rich Mountain Road is a small Baptist Church that you can see int he valley from the top of the mountain. During the fall, as you can see from the photo is gorgeous.  If you look in some of the galleries around the area, you will find many artists have chosen to reproduce this scene in their artwork.

Rich Mountain Road is definitely worth a trip the next time you are in Cades Cove.  Make sure you are prepared for the trip and take this rustic road into the mountains.