Now is the perfect time of year to hit the open road and take in some awe-inspiring mountain views. Hop into your car, roll down the windows and feel the wind in your hair as you cruise through some of the most beautiful scenery in the US.
With over 270 miles of road to explore, take in panoramic views, cascading mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, endless forests, fascinating wildlife, and all the fresh air and fun you want. Reconnect with nature and rediscover your freedom on one of these 10 spectacular Great Smoky Mountain drives!
At 7 miles each way (14 miles round trip), this drive will take you through the traditional “high country” of the Smoky Mountains right up to the Dome itself. With an elevation of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which means it also has some of the best panoramic views any time of year. At this elevation, you can marvel at the vibrant fall colors in autumn, go snowshoeing in the winter, or have an epic birdwatching adventure any time of year.
Once you’ve arrived, get out and stretch your legs on the half-mile walk up to the top of the observation tower. There are plenty of places to get great snapshots along the way, but make sure you actually go all the way to the top. You don’t want to miss the 360-degree views that will absolutely take your breath away. (Pro tip: dress in layers. At these heights, the temperatures can shift significantly!)
On your way back down from Clingmans Dome, take US Highway 441 to Newfound Gap. At 5,046 feet in elevation, this is the lowest drivable pass through the park and also one of the longest scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains, at 29.2 miles one way (58.4 miles round trip). A favorite spot for tourists is the state line, where President Roosevelt formally dedicated the park as a national historic site.
Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with a yearly tally of more than two million visitors seeking to escape to the peace and quiet of nature. So, be prepared for traffic. It’s best to lean into it and just enjoy the slower pace that allows you to take in all the sights. A former 1800s settlement, this leisurely ride meanders along for 11 majestic miles in Townsend, Tennessee. As you wind your way along the route, you’ll see historic settlement buildings like churches, barns, and log cabins. Keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife. Cades Cove has an abundance of deer, rabbits, turkeys, wild elk, and even black bears. (Remember, these are wild animals. Stay at least 50 yards away from the elk and bears.)
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Take on the 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This one-way road is accessed by Cherokee Orchard Road, which has a must-see spot along the way. Visit the Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin, a historic site with a walking tour of a late 19th-century log cabin and surrounding area. Once you’re on the Roaring Fork, you’ll take the winding loop that boasts ideal spots for marveling at unbeatable natural beauty. Along the way, get out of the car and enjoy a self-guided 2.6-mile nature hike along the creek to Grotto Falls.
As its name suggests, the Cherohala Skyway takes riders to high elevations with spectacular mountain views. For 18 miles in western North Carolina, the Skyway winds its way through the Cherokee National Forest, increasing in altitude to over 5,400 feet. Then, it twists and turns for 23 miles into the mountainous backcountry forests of eastern Tennessee’s Nantahala National Forest. The Skyway is a wide-open road with very little congestion and delivers unobstructed and awe-inspiring views at multiple scenic overlooks along the way.
Little River Road
At 18 miles one way (36 miles round trip) Little River Road is one of the longest scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains. Built right on top of a former railroad track, the road twists and turns along the former train route. If you drive straight through, it will take you approximately 1.5 hours, but you might want to stop along the way. There are multiple opportunities for outdoor adventure. Stretch your legs and lungs as you take on popular hiking trails, discover a schoolhouse and old logging camp, explore a refreshing swimming hole, tour the Tremont Center research facility, or admire numerous gorgeous waterfalls. (If you do get out to explore, remember that bears call this area home. So eat your lunch carefully and take everything you brought in with you when you go.)
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway, known as “America’s Favorite Drive, might just be the most scenic drive in the Great Smoky Mountains. If reconnecting with nature and being inspired by breathtaking mountain vistas is what you’re after, then hit the Parkway with friendly locals. Cruise down the two-lane road that feels more like a mountain hike with rocky outcrops, grass, and thick vegetation hugging its edges. Tackle the entire 469 miles or break it up into sections through the mile-high mountains. The climbs and descents are gentle, and the curves are as smooth as butter.
The Foothills Parkway, a national parkway that is maintained by the National Park Service, is a constant work in progress. But the finished section is open and perfect for a Smoky Mountain drive. There’s a 16.5-mile section that starts in Walland, TN and passes through Blount County. Its wide lanes, easy curves, fun straightaways, and panoramic mountain views make it ideal for a leisurely drive. Plus, for any adventurous motorcycle riders, it gives you access to the Tail of the Dragon, if you want to take a little detour.
Road to Nowhere
That the scenic mountain route down the six-mile Lakeview Drive that leads to nowhere! Then talk a short walk through an old abandoned 1,200-foot tunnel that was originally planned for a scenic drive but never completed. You’ll find it just a short drive from the small North Carolina town of Bryson City. It boasts stunning views of Fontana Lake and the surrounding mountains from many outcrops and overlooks.
The 26-mile round-trip drive through the idyllic Cataloochee Valley is filled with tranquil solitude. This off-the-beaten-path destination is one of the best kept secrets in all of the Great Smoky Mountains, and with fewer crowds, you’ll be able to wind your way down the open road free and clear. Explore historic sites and take in peaceful mountain valley views along the way. But the real highlight is the wild elk. In 2001, 52 elk were reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley, and now the awe-inspiring herd has grown to approximately 200. Just remember that it is illegal to knowingly come within 50 yards of an elk. So, keep your distance and enjoy these stunning animals responsibly from a respectful distance.
Travelers looking to take on more than one drive over multiple days can find a place to stay in one of the many classic roadside motels that welcome tourists from far and wide. Book a comfy room, then grab a cold one with the locals and swap stories about your epic scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains.