Take a drive through the Great Smoky Mountains and see for yourself why this is – by a long way – America’s most visited national park. You’ll find waterfalls, quiet trails, sun-dappled trees and wonderful long distance views over the mountains themselves, complete with the smoke-like ‘fog’ that gives this range its name. From here you follow a winding primitive road out of the park and make your way through rich Tennessee countryside towards Gatlinburg, a busy resort destination whose attractions provide a very real contrast to the peace and quiet of the park.
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Here are some of the highlights of this relatively short but extraordinarily varied trip:
Cherokee (starting point)
The town of Cherokee benefits from an extremely picturesque location next to the Oconaluftee River and has a number of excellent Native American attractions, the best of all being the superb Museum of the Cherokee Indian. It’s not all culture though, much of the town is given over to cheap amusements and gift shops.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (mile 2)
Stop off at Oconaluftee Visitor Center just inside the park on US-441 for maps, exhibits and ranger tips. You can also take a walk around Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of original farm buildings from the late 19th century.
Newfound Gap – Appalachian Trail (mile 19)
Newfound Gap is the high point of this route over the mountains, where North Carolina turns into Tennessee, and offers tremendous views. It’s also an access point to the Appalachian Trail, the 2,175 mile walk that links Georgia to Maine.
Cades Cove (mile 56)
Cades Cove, one of the most popular areas of the park (and therefore often very busy), is actually a valley surrounded by the mountains. The drive follows a one-way loop and passes by a number of historic buildings, remnants of the farming community that was forced out in the 1930s as the park was created. It’s also known for the frequency with which bears are spotted so be prepared for lengthy hold ups!
Rich Mountain Road (mile 65)
Once you’ve completed most of the circuit of Cades Cove, head northwards on the road that dissects the loop and continue on Rich Mountain Road, a primitive road that winds its way out of the park through quiet woodland. This drive is a complete delight and chances are you’ll have it to yourselves.
Rich Mountain Road eventually turns into Old Cades Cove Road, another wonderfully quiet and winding drive that leads you into Townsend. From here, follow US Route 321/Tennesse 73 northeast to Pigeon Forge, best known as home to Dollywood, then south to Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg (mile 101)
It may not be to everyone’s taste after the idyllic drive through the park, but the hustle, bustle and tourist-focused attractions of Gatlinburg certainly provides a contrast to the peace, quiet and natural beauty of the Smokies. Travel writer Bill Bryson described it as having ‘dedicated itself to the endless quest of trying to redefine the lower limits of bad taste’ but then confessed to having loved it. It’s certainly an experience.