The Smoky Mountains are not just one of the most scenic and beautiful natural sites in the world. They also have some of the richest history of America’s “growing up” years. There are so many ways to experience the Smoky Mountains, but one particular favorite is to take scenic drives through different areas. This allows you to learn more about the history, see as much of the Smoky Mountain area as possible and experience the incredible biodiversity this natural wonderland has to offer. These are the 8 best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains:
Drive #1: Clingmans Dome Road.
This short drive is a greater “starter” drive for your first day in the Smoky Mountains. Just 7 miles each way (14 miles round trip), you will see the traditional “high country” of the Smoky Mountains as you drive right up and into the tallest peak in the mountain range.
At 6,634 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is a scenic lookout point. If you are so inclined, you can get out and walk the extra half mile up the steps to the lookout point, which gives you unimpeded views of the entire Smoky Mountain region.
Drive #2: Little River Road.
Little River Road is one of the longest scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains at 18 miles one way (36 miles round trip). The road itself is actually constructed right on top of a former railroad track. Because the road twists and turns according to the track, expect it to take you at least 1.5 hours (and maybe longer if you like to stop a lot) to complete this tour.
While you are on this scenic drive, you will have multiple opportunities to get out and hike popular trails, view a scenic schoolhouse and former logging camp, visit a still-popular swimming hole, tour the Tremont Center research facility and see gorgeous waterfalls.
If you do decide to get out and hike, be mindful that the area is a common place for bears as well as tourists to hang out and grab a bite to eat. So eat your lunch with care and take everything you brought in out with you as you leave.
Drive #3: Forge Creek / Parson Branch Roads.
Finally, the Forge Creek / Parsons Branch Roads drive is 8 miles one way (16 miles round trip). This drive is actually two scenic drives in one. The Parsons Branch drive takes you by Chestnut Flats, where moonshiners used to work covertly during Prohibition. As well, as with other gravel roads, large vehicles like RVs, buses, trailers, et al, are not permitted to travel down the road.
Drive #4: Cades Cove Loop Road.
With a drive of just 11 miles one way (22 miles round trip), Cades Cove Loop Road is hands-down one of the most traveled tourist attractions each year (recent estimates suggest more than two million cars make their way up and back on this drive each year). One reason for its popularity is the sheer number of historic buildings and structures you can see, including log cabins, churches, barns, and a grist mill. Another reason is the frequency of wildlife sightings, including bears (which have been known to bring traffic to a complete halt!)
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the road is hike and bike only from dawn until 10 a.m. So if you happen to be staying somewhere locally, this is prime time to get up close and personal with natural history!
Drive #5: Rich Mountain Road.
At just 7 miles one way (14 miles round trip), Rich Mountain Road is one of the most rustic best scenic drives in the smoky mountains you can take. With an all-gravel one-way road, beware if you are driving a vehicle that is quite low to the ground! The main incentive for taking this scenic tour is to see the overlook about halfway in.
As you drive in, it may startle you to realize that for about 100 years, this little rough road was the only way people could get to Cades Cove itself!
Drive #6: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
This alluring scenic drive is just 8 miles one way (16 miles round trip). The scenic drive is combined with many popular short hikes, a gorgeous waterfall and stream, a stand of truly ancient hemlock trees, and a historic “tub mill” (what settlers originally used to grind corn into meal).
Be aware that this scenic drive is typically closed to tourists from January through the middle of March. You arrive at the actual waterfall near the end of the trail. You will know you are there when you find yourself actually driving right underneath the falls themselves!
Drive #7: Cataloochee Valley.
The Cataloochee Valley drive is 13 miles one way (26 miles round trip) and full of blissful Smoky Mountains solitude. This drive is less of a tourist attraction so you won’t encounter the crowds you may find on some of the other drives during the busy season. What you will find are plenty of historic sites and beautiful views.
Drive #8: Newfound Gap Road.
Newfound Gap Road is by far one of the longest and best scenic drives in smoky mountains, at 29.2 miles one way (58.4 miles round trip). During this drive, you will climb 3,000 feet up into the highlands before descending down into the lowlands areas again. You will also notice marked differences in temperature and climate in the highlands and lowlands. Many visitors report differences of up to 15 degrees during the drive!
One of the biggest draws for tourists is the state line itself. This is where President Roosevelt formally made the dedication that turned the park into a national historic site. As your drive winds down, you will pass by an actual working corn mill and end up at a museum with a sweet little visitors center.
More Scenic Drives
We’ve given you information about 8 of the best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, but these aren’t the only roads you should travel down for gorgeous views! Foothills Parkway is another popular scenic drive, as well as Wears Valley Road and Upper Tremont Road. The truth is, every road in the Smokies offers a unique and beautiful sight. If you want to explore the Smoky Mountains by car, these are the best scenic drives to go on. If you want to explore the Smoky Mountains by foot, check out these 5 hikes the whole family will love.