12 Best Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the world, and the most visited National Park in the United States.  Driving along one of the many smoky mountain scenic drives is the most popular ways and easiest ways to see these incredible mountains first hand.

Taking a smoky mountain scenic drive through the National Park allows you and your family experience the beautiful and majestic scenery and biodiversity the smoky mountains have to offer.  You'll also learn all about the rich history of the land that now makes up the park.

Here are our 12 top picks for the very best smoky mountain scenic drives:

1 - Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) - Between Cherokee and Gatlinburg

Fall on Newfound Gap Rd

Newfound Gap Road is by far the most popular and best smoky mountain scenic drive in the park.  The road is is full of various overlooks and pull-offs to enjoy.

Newfound Gap Road is the primary way the majority of the visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park see the park.   

The highpoint on the drive is Newfound Gap, where 441 crosses over the ridge line of the Smokies at 5,046 feet.  The road also contains access to many hiking trails, and is the road where you will find both of the main visitor centers: The Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Sugarlands Visitor Center.  

You can begin this best smoky mountain scenic drive in either Gatlinburg TN and drive to Cherokee, or begin in Cherokee and drive to Gatlinburg.   This is a very popular Gatlinburg scenic drive for visitors to eastern TN.

Be sure to stop along the way at the many attractions and pull-offs to get the full experience.

2 - Clingmans Dome Road

Clingmans Dome Road

Photo by: Kristina Plaas

This seven mile smoky mountain scenic drive, which begins near Newfound Gap takes you out to Clingmans Dome, one of the most famous and the tallest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The views along the road and at the parking lot are breathtaking.    

We've travelled this road often, and it's a great location to see Black Bears, both along the road and on the trail up to Clingmans Dome.  

Once you reach the parking area, you can enjoy the views from there, which are breathtaking, or hike up to the top, and enjoy the 360 degree views from the observation tower.  The hike up is short, but very steep.

This best smoky mountain scenic drive begins just across from the Newfound Gap area, and ends at the parking area for Clingmans Dome.  

3 - Roaring Fork Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Nature Trail

Photo by: Todd Fowler

If you want to drive on one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world and one of the most scenic drives gatlinburg has to offer, then this 6-mile paved loop road is for you.  You feel as if have almost gone back in time, as you drive down this scenic drive just outside of Gatlinburg TN.

Highlights along the drive include gorgeous forest scenery, wildlife (including Black Bear), streams, creeks and small waterfalls.   The drive also contains a number of historic structures as well.  Roaring Fork Motor Trail is also the trailhead for Rainbow Falls Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in the park.

4 - Cades Cove Loop Road

Another VERY popular drive is the 11 mile loop takes you through the most popular area of the park, Cades Cove.  

While driving the loop, you'll see gorgeous scenery, historic structures, and lots of wildlife.  This road will take you back in time, and allow you to experience what life in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains was like before the park was created, and before the area became a popular tourist attraction.    

The Cades Cove loop is always busy, and is the most popular smoky mountains drive.  So bring your patience, but it's worth it for the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife.

The loop road is also the access point for the popular hiking trail to Abrams Falls.

5 - Rich Mountain Road

Rich Mountain Road

Rich Mountain Road begins in Cades Cove, an is a 7-mile one way drive along a twisting gravel road and ends up in Townsend TN.   

The road travels through quiet forest, and offers scenic views, wildlife viewing and photography opportunity, and a great way to escape the traffic of Cades Cove.

The road is a primitive back country road, and while graveled, it can get a bit rough in spots.  The road is also seasonal, and open from April through mid-November. Buses, RVs, or vans longer than 25-feet along with vehicles towing trailers are prohibited on Rich Mountain Road by the National Park Service.

6 - Cove Creek Road and Cataloochee Valley Road

Cataloochee Valley Road

If you're looking for a little adventure, head down Cove Creek Road into Cataloochee Valley.  This 11 mile long gravel road, twists and winds its way through the mountains to Cataloochee Valley.  We consider this a personal favorite as one of our best smoky mountain scenic drives.

The road is very narrow, often high up, and very few guard rails.   But don't let that deter you, because the destination is worth it.   Just go slow and take your time.  

Can you imagine that this road was once on the main highways to Tennessee from North Carolina?  Along the way you'll see plenty of beautiful scenery, and most likely see some wildlife, including Elk.

7 - Little River Road

Little River Road Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: Ken Lund

This 22 mile long road winds its way through the park, between Gatlinburg, TN and Townsend, TN.   The road is the primary access point for Cades CoveElkmont, Greenbrier School, and Tremont.

Little River Road is also the location of the sinks, a popular swimming area, and historic railroad location.   The scenery along the drive is simply beautiful, and there are a number of pull-offs where you can explore a little, admire the scenery, or get closer to the river.  This is a very popular scenic drive, and one of the best in the smokies, due to be creekside.

8 - Upper Tremont Road

Upper Tremont Road

Photo by: Traci Burkholder

If you're looking to get away from the busy roads and crowds, often found in the more popular sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Upper Tremont Road might be just what you're looking for as far as smoky mountain drives go.

This 8 mile roundtrip drive (it dead-ends after 4 miles) is beautiful all times of the year, but especially during the Fall.

The road also features a number of scenic pull-overs with trailheads that lead down to the river, and to several waterfalls as well.

From Pigeon Forge, take the Parkway out to South Wears Valley Road toward the National Park. After making a right turn towards Cades Cove, drive a few hundred yards and take a left at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

To reach Upper Tremont Road, head towards Cades Cove, and the Townsend Wye.  The turn for Tremont is  The turn immediately after the Townsend Wye on the road as it begins to ascend into Cades Cove.

9 - Mount Sterling Road from Big Creek to Cataloochee Valley NC

Mount Sterling Road

Mount Sterling Road, also called Cataloochee Turnpike, from Big Creek To Cataloocheee Valley is a beautiful drive, full of dense woods, creekside views, wildlife, and waterfalls.    

This 20 mile drive will take you down a gravel road from the entrance to the Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, into Cataloochee Valley.  Along the way, you'll encounter some historic homes, cemeteries, hiking trails, and bridges that cross creeks.  

It's far less travelled than many of the smoky mountain drives, and you'll meet very few people as you travel down Mount Sterling road.

The road is a really nice smoky mountain and remote back county mountain drive.   Due to frequent rough road conditions, while doable in a normal car, we do recommend an off road vehicle with ground clearance.

10 - Heintooga Round Bottom Road

Heintooga Round Bottom Road is located at the very end of Balsam Mountain Road off the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Maggie Valley NC.  This 14 mile, gravel, and one-way back mountain road, will take you from the Blue Ridge Parkway, down to Cherokee.

The road is heavily wooded, and provides a beautiful back country mountain drive, that is very remote.  Along the way, you'll get scenic views, tons of wildflowers, access to hiking trailheads, creeks, small waterfalls, and bridges.  If you're lucky, you might even see Elk or Bear on your journey.

The road can be a bit rough in spots, and while an off-road vehicle isn't required, we do recommend one just for the ground clearance.

11 - The Road To Nowhere - Bryson City NC

The Road To Nowhere, is exactly that, a Road to ... well, nowhere.   The road is also known as Lakeshore Drive, and begins just outside of Bryson City, and winds itself through the surrounding mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The road is close to and above Lake Fontana, and some of the pull-outs offer incredible views fo the lake.  

This is a gorgeous drive any time of the year, but especially during the Fall, when colors are peaking.  

At the end of the road, is a parking area, where you can walk through the tunnel and come out at the end of the road.  Be sure to bring a flashlight, as the tunnel will be a bit dark.  There are also a few trailheads here for those wanting to do longer hikes, including the long Lakeshore Trail, which goes around Lake Fontana.

12 - Blue Ridge Parkway

Fall on the Blue Ridge Parkway

While not officially part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway is accessible just down from the Oconaluftee Visitor's Center.  

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic roads in the world and definitely one of the best scenic drives in the smokies.  The Parkway goes for 469 miles from Cherokee to to the Virginia Blue Ridge where it connects up with Virginia's Skyline Drive.

Tips for Enjoying the Best Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives

Elk on the Best Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives

We love driving in the Smoky Mountains, and have driven all of these drives many times on our adventures out and about.  During those adventures over the years, we've picked up a few tips to make your best Smoky Mountain scenic drives more enjoyable and safe:

  1. Plan ahead - Research the different scenic drives available in the Smoky Mountains and choose the ones that align with your preferences and interests. Take into account the distance, time, and difficulty level of each drive to ensure it suits your schedule and abilities.
  2. Check road conditions - Before setting out, make sure to check the current road conditions and closures. The Smoky Mountains National Park website provides updates on road closures, construction, and weather conditions, allowing you to plan your route accordingly.
  3. Pick the best times - Try to avoid peak hours and busy seasons, especially during weekends and holidays, to enjoy a more serene and peaceful drive. Consider starting early in the morning or heading out during the weekdays for a quieter experience and better chances of spotting wildlife.
  4. Bring some basic essentials - Bring along essential items such as water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a camera to capture the stunning vistas and wildlife encounters. Additionally, dress in layers to accommodate the changing temperatures and unpredictable weather in the mountains.
  5. Take it slow and soak in the views - The purpose of a scenic drive is to soak in the beauty of the surroundings, so resist the urge to rush through. Drive at a leisurely pace, stop at designated overlooks and viewpoints, and take short walks to fully appreciate the landscapes and capture memorable photographs.
  6. Watch for wildlife - The Smoky Mountains are home to a diverse range of wildlife, including bears, elk, and deer. Stay alert while driving and adhere to speed limits to ensure your safety and the well-being of the animals. If you encounter wildlife, keep a safe distance and avoid feeding or approaching them.
  7. Be respectful - The Smoky Mountains are a protected natural area, so it's crucial to practice Leave No Trace principles. Dispose of trash properly, stay on designated roads and trails, and respect the wildlife and vegetation by not disturbing or removing anything from the park.
  8. Get out of your vehicle - While the scenic drives offer incredible views, don't hesitate to step out of your vehicle and explore the surrounding trails, picnic areas, and visitor centers. Hiking and short walks will allow you to discover hidden gems and experience the Smoky Mountains up close.

Final Thoughts on the Best Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives

Bridge in Cataloochee Valley Fall

The Smoky Mountains offer an abundance of breathtaking best smoky mountain scenic drives that showcase the incredible beauty and majestic charm of the remarkable and historic Great Smoky Mountains. 

Whether you're a nature lover, an adventure seeker, or simply someone seeking a peaceful escape from the realities of life, these scenic drives highlighted above will undoubtedly leave you in awe and wanting for more.

From the nearly 360 degree vistas along the Newfound Gap Road to the winding forested curves of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, each drive offers a unique and unforgettable experience.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure trove of natural wonders, full of cascading waterfalls, dense green forests, and an incredible diversity of plants and wildlife. Driving through these scenic routes allows you to immerse yourself in their beauty, giving you a front-row seat to the magic of the Smokies.

Not only do these drives offer stunning views, but they also provide opportunities for exploration and discovery. You can take a break from the road and embark on a hike to witness hidden gems tucked away within the park. The Smokies boast an extensive network of hiking trails, leading you to hidden waterfalls, historic homesteads, and panoramic overlooks that will literally take your breath away.

Additionally, the Smoky Mountains are home to many charming towns and communities that offer a glimpse into the rich culture and heritage of the area.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, located at the foothills of the Tennessee mountains, provide a perfect blend of outdoor adventure and entertainment options for visitors of all ages. You can enjoy local cuisine, indulge in unique shopping experiences, and even catch a live music performance or a thrilling amusement park ride.

Cherokee, Bryson City, and Maggie Valley, located on the "quiet side of the smokies" in the North Carolina mountains offer a more relaxing and natural retreat, with hiking trails and entertainment options that are less populated.

These Smoky Mountain scenic drives offer an enchanting escape into nature, where you can witness the splendor of the mountains, revel in the serenity of the forests, and create lasting memories.

Whether you embark on a day trip or a longer journey, the beauty of these best smoky mountain scenic drives drives will captivate your senses and leave an indelible mark on your heart. 

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.

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