The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most stunning natural wonders in the United States. Spanning between sections of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, these mountains happen to be some of the oldest in the world.
There is no shortage of scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, but some of the routes still stand out above others for their spectacular vistas and opportunities to camp or hike.
In this guide, we’ll cover the basics for driving through the Smoky Mountains as well as the highlights for some of the best scenic routes through the park.
Best Time to Drive the Smoky Mountains
Summer and fall are the best times of year to drive through the Smoky Mountains since these seasons offer good weather conditions and the most likelihood of spotting wildlife.
Spring can also be a good time to visit, thanks to the abundance of wildflowers. However, remember that sometimes the water runoff from melting snow can cause difficult driving conditions, especially on some of the lesser-traveled or gravel routes.
Driving in the Smoky Mountains in winter is also possible, but sometimes there can be road closures because of snowfall or ice.
Things to Know Before Visiting the Smoky Mountains
When planning to travel on one of the scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, always make sure to check road conditions and closures, which can be caused by ice, snow, or other inclement weather.
It’s also highly important to be mindful of the speed limit. The narrow twists and turns through the mountains can make it difficult to spot other cars or animals that might be crossing the road. Plus, you probably won’t mind going slower since you’ll have more time to appreciate the views and spot wild animals.
Many of the scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains have pull-outs, usually located about every mile. Use these to let faster drivers pass or stop to take photos and watch for wildlife.
Typically, the mountain drives in the Smoky Mountains don’t have gas stations, so it’s important to start with a full tank of gas to avoid getting stuck mid-route.
Do you need to pay to drive through the Smoky Mountains?
Unlike many national parks in the US, there is no entry fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
2023, however, has seen the introduction of ‘parking tags,’ applicable if you’re parking for more than 15 minutes. Visitors can buy a $5 tag for the day, a weekly tag for $15, or an annual tag for $40.
So, with so many scenic driving routes through the Smoky Mountains, which ones are the best? Let’s take a look at our 6 favorites.
1. Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives: Blue Ridge Parkway
Distance: 469 miles
Time needed: 1 day or more
The famous Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park and Smoky Mountain National Park, and it’s considered one of the best scenic drives in the United States. Not only is the drive stunning, but it’s also historically significant as the first rural parkway in America.
It would be easy to spend several days exploring the hiking trails and swimming holes along the drive or camp for the night in one of the mountainside campgrounds. There are endless overlooks and vistas, which are great spots to stop for photographs or a picnic lunch while feeling like you’re on top of the world.
Waterrock Knob has some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains to watch the sunrise or sunset; it’s located around milepost 451, and there’s a place to pull off and park your vehicle. Although the views from the road are good, an even better vantage point can be found when you hike the mile to the very top of the Knob.
Close to Ashville, you’ll find the Graveyard Fields Waterfalls. These falls can be accessed by a relatively easy 3-mile hike, unlike some other waterfalls which are more difficult to reach.
If you want to add a historic stop along the drive, you can visit Flat Top Manor which is part of the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. The elegant mansion displays artwork from local Appalachian artists, and the surrounding carriage trails and orchards are beautiful to explore.
2. Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives: Cades Cove Loop Road
Distance: 11 miles
Time needed: 1-4 hours or more, depending on stops
This one-lane, one-way road is a great way to enjoy the iconic rolling hills and mountain scenery of the Smoky Mountains. Halfway through the drive, there’s a small visitor center with information on the area and a gift shop selling trinkets and local artisan crafts.
Cades Cove is particularly popular among travelers looking for the best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains to view some of the historic sites. The drive passes places like the John Oliver Historical Cabin, the Missionary Baptist Church Historical Structure, and the Cades Cove Historical Grist Mill.
These are great spots to stop for photographs to imagine what it would have been like for early pioneer settlers in the mountains. Keep in mind that because this is a narrow road and only one way, the pace can be slow-going, especially in the summer when the drive is popular among tourists visiting the Smoky Mountains. However, this gives you more chances to view the wildflowers and soak up the fresh mountain air!
3. Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives: Newfound Gap Road
Distance: 31 miles
Time needed: 2-5 hours
Reaching an elevation of 5,046 feet, the Newfound Gap Road certainly won’t disappoint when it comes to excellent scenic overlooks, namely Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive also offers some of the best diversity in scenery since it passes through hardwood forest, pine, and evergreen areas.
You can take a break to stretch your legs along the Appalachian Trail (AT), which crosses Newfound Gap Road. Your exploration of the AT could be a short ten-minute walk just to get out of the car, or it could be a multi-day backpacking adventure depending on your interests.
There are also several rivers and mountain lakes found along the drive, which are popular places for families to stop to go fishing, swimming, or try water sports like stand-up paddleboarding.
4. Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives: Rich Mountain Road
Distance: 7 miles
Time needed: 30 minutes
This one-way drive is one of the most peaceful Smoky Mountain scenic drives. It starts in Cades Cove, then travels 7 miles along a narrow gravel lane through the forest to reach Townsend, Tennessee.
Rich Mountain Road is only open seasonally, usually between April and November, depending on the weather. Make sure you take this extra slow to account for the bumpy spots along the way. Since the road isn’t as heavily traveled as other scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, you’ll have a much greater chance to spot wildlife along the way.
5. Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives: Little River Road
Distance: 22 miles
Time needed: 1 hour
Among the top Gatlinburg scenic drives, Little River Road connects the popular town of Gatlinburg to Townsend. As you might guess from the name, the drive hugs the Little River and provides some of the best scenery in the Smoky Mountains as well as access points to top hikes and swimming destinations.
Get out to stretch your legs at the Laurel Falls trailhead and hike the easy 2.5-mile paved trail to reach the stunning waterfall. There are also places along the way with picnic areas, grills, and restrooms such as Metcalf Bottoms.
Several campsites are also located along the drive if you’re hoping to have a more immersive experience for some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains.
6. Smoky Mountains Scenic Drives: Tail of the Dragon
Distance: 11 miles
Time needed: 1-5 hours, depending on stops
With 318 curves in the short 11-mile distance, it won’t take you long driving through the Smoky Mountains to realize how this stretch of road got its name. The route is located in Deals Gap, North Carolina, and is particularly popular among motorcyclists and bikers.
What makes this road unique is that there aren’t any intersecting roads or driveways along the route, which makes it easier to enjoy the exhilarating experience of the twists and turns through the mountains.
It’s especially important to adhere to the speed limits on this Smoky Mountain highway, and it’s best not to drive the route in winter when road conditions become too hazardous.
More Scenic Driving Inspiration in the Southeast
Continue your journey through the South with these inspirational driving routes, including:
- Not-to-Miss Scenic Drives in North Carolina
- 6 Terrific Drives to Try Through Tennesse
- 5 Incredible Scenic Drives through Alabama
- Best Attractions and Things to Do in Louisiana
- Dreamy Scenic Drives In Georgia
- 12 Sensational Southern USA Road Trip Ideas
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