Driving Through The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Gatlinburg to Cherokee

Smoky Mountains MapIt may come as a surprise, but The Great Smoky Mountains National Park can only be traversed completely along one route. That route, Newfound Gap Road (US 441), encompasses a 30-mile drive from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. This drive however, offers a unique opportunity to experience everything the Park has to offer, without having to trek too far from your automobile... And in a timely manner as well. Depending on traffic, you can count on at least an hour drive along Newfound Gap Road, but a scenic one at that.

The experience itself can take several hours, but that's if you stop at each of the route's various points of interest. Beware though, you can spend a lot of time looking at the bumper in front of you if you decide to visit in June, July or August and during the month of October, notoriously the busiest months of the tourist season. Still, don't let the congestion discourage you from the experience. We would recommend you come in April or May (wildflowers are already blooming) or after peak fall colors if you want to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic. Some even prefer winter as the premier time to take in the park.

Awaiting you along this wonderful journey are quiet walkways, unforgettable views of the various summits in the Smoky Mountains, a vast variety of flowers, trees and wildlife; campgrounds, and picnic areas. Let's begin at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Coming from Gatlinburg (or from Cherokee for that matter--this travelogue assumes a departure from Gatlinburg) it's less than a mile but definitely worth the stop. Along the way, visitors can view displays on the natural history of the Park, what to expect on the drive, fill up on reading material about the area; and ask the Park rangers those dogged questions you've always wanted the answer to.

Little Pigeon River

Once you're done at the Sugarlands Visitor Center you will take a brief left before making a right onto Newfound Gap Road. Once believed to be the lowest point through the mountains, the road takes its name from a discovery in the 1850s and was given the name Indian Gap. Later it was found that it actually was not the lowest point - hence the name Newfound Gap. The road travels parallel to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Known for its cool, crystal-clear water the Little Pigeon is accessible from the many pullouts along Newfound Gap Road. Ultimately spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, the Little Pigeon River finds it's way to the Tennessee River on its way to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. You begin to see small signs indicating "quiet walkways" at approximately the 1 and 2 mile points from Gatlinburg. These walkways offer wonderful opportunities to view Fall color in Sugarlands Valley. The valley takes it's name due to the multitude of sugar maple trees in the area. You really become surrounded by sugar maples as you move away from your vehicle down these quiet, colorful paths. Early East Tennessee settlers used this tree for its sugar and syrup. In all, it takes about 30 gallons of sap from the sugar maple to make a gallon of syrup.

A little over two miles down Newfound Gap Road you will come upon Fall Colorsthe Campbell Overlook which offers arguably the best vistas in the Park. Mt. LeConte, the third largest peak in the Smoky Mountains, rises to 6,593 feet in front of you. The overlook itself is named for Carlos Campbell, author of Birth of A National Park (available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center). A devout supporter for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Campbell was quite the outdoorsman.

One of the more interesting, quieter walkways begins just beyond the Campbell Overlook. Look closely and you can still see the remnants of old farmsteads--parts of fireplaces and foundations, as you walk along the path. You can also see the old roadbed which led to what was White Oak Flats, now known as Gatlinburg.

At the 4.5 mile mark of US 441 you approach Chimney Tops. This area is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the U.S. The Little Pigeon River, named for the huge flocks of passenger pigeons which once filled the skies over the Smokies, also runs right through the picnic area.

The Chimney Tops were named by white settlers after stone chimneys which, if you use a little imagination, resemble the peaks. This area, along with many of the other higher regions in the Smoky Mountains, was once owned by paper and lumber companies, which coveted the abundant spruce fibers for making quality paper. As a matter of fact, this prized resource was a key obstacle in obtaining the land which now makes up the Park, as well as the thousands of acres of forests held by these lumber companies.

The transition from northern hardwood and cove hardwood trees becomes even more distinct at the 7-mile mark. You will also come upon two tunnels at this point. Newfound Gap Road Loop RoadThis is just another example of the beautiful stone work found throughout the Park, accomplished in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, and established by then- President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The second tunnel, referred to as "the loop", is a switchback and curves around and back over itself. “The loop” was added to alleviate the extreme slope of the mountain and was not part of the original road through the Park. This eventually had to be upgraded to meet Park Service standards.

Oconoluftee RiverThe trailhead for the Chimney Tops two-mile hike, as well as a parking area, can also be found here. Though challenging, the hike rewards the hardy trekker with magnificent views of Mt. Leconte to the northeast; Mt. Mingus to the southeast; and Sugarlands to the northwest.

If it's more of the Little Pigeon River you crave, you have several opportunities for pullouts to view the waterway for 2-3 miles after the Chimney Tops trailhead. Here, as you're now in northern hardwood forest land, you'll also find ample opportunity to see the purple-flowered Catawba rhododendron throughout June and the Rosebay rhododendron in full bloom in July.

The Alum Cave Bluffs parking area and trailhead can be found around the 9 -mile point. Moderately challenging, this hike is covered elsewhere in Rod's Guide. It's a climb of 2.3 miles to the cave bluff and then another 2.7 miles to LeConte Lodge (reservations required). Not far beyond the lodge is the Appalachian Trail.

Smoky Mountains SceneThe Morton Overlook begins at approximately the 13-mile point. A quick glance over your shoulder and you'll see the Newfound Gap Road area and the Little Pigeon River. To your left is Mount Mingus, the Chimney Tops, and Sugarland Mountain.

Newfound Gap itself comes up about three-quarters of a mile beyond the Morton Overlook. At 5,048 feet, you can enjoy views of Tennessee and North Carolina, depending on the side you're looking. The State Line Ridge, which basically serves as the spine for the entire distance of the Park, is found here and comprises the 69 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Park. You can even traverse a short distance of the Appalachian Trail here before returning to your vehicle.

Also found here is the Rockefeller Memorial, half of which lies in Tennessee, the other half in North Carolina. Dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the memorial honors the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the Park. Clingmans Dome Road (closed during winter), which takes you to the Clingmans Dome parking area, lies just beyond Newfound Gap and State Line Ridge. Basically, you hike the last half-mile followed by a climb up the 45-foot observation tower - the highest point in the Park and in Tennessee. It's said you can see seven states on a clear day. If you're traveling through the area, consider hiking the 4.2 mile round-trip to Andrew's Bald. Said to have been originally caused by lightning fires, grassy balds in the Smokies have since been sustained by the Park Service. Rhododendron in its most majestic form can be seen here in June. Continuing down Newfound Gap Road toward Cherokee, you will come to Oconoluftee Valley Overlook about a half mile down the road. The Oconoluftee Valley Overlook affords its visitors with spectacular views of the Oconoluftee River Valley. You can actually see where you will follow the road downward to Cherokee, North Carolina as you look to where the valley falls away.

Back on the trail, you will approach several overlooks and quiet walkways in the next two miles. Most notable is the Webb Overlook, named for North Carolina Senator Charles Webb, a staunch supporter of the Park's establishment.

WaterfallOne of the most interesting walkways, at least in North Carolina, begins at the 18.5 mile point. The trail splits shortly after entering the walkway. The right fork follows the path of the old Newfound Gap Road while the left fork parallels the Oconoluftee River. Crumbling pavement can still be seen in some places. The new Newfound Gap Road was built to Park Service standards in 1964.

Six miles down Newfound Gap Road you will come to the Collins Creek Picnic Area, about 24.5 miles into your drive from Gatlinburg. This area was named fin honor of a local guide who assisted Arnold Guyot in mapping the Smokies in the 1850s.

Smokemont Campground comes up about a half mile further down the road. Once a lumber company town sustaining a store, school, church and boarding houses, it now consists of 140 campsites (1-800-365-CAMP). Smokemont's camping fees are $11 per night with a 7-day maximum stay in season (May through October).

Mingus MillAbout 2.7 miles further, and still in operation from Spring through Fall, you'll find Mingus Mill. The millstone still turns from the force of water funneled through the sluice and over the turbine, even after 100 years of use. The mill's ground corn meal can be purchased as well.

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

The southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park appears just beyond the museum. Beyond it lies the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where a completely different kind of adventure awaits.

WildflowersAdditional info:
In late April and early May wildflowers peak in the mountains. Heat and humidity can bring afternoon showers in June, July and August. Fall colors tend to peak in mid-October but can vary by the week. Winter temperatures reach the mid--low 20s to mid-60s so be sure to come dressed in layers.

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