Auto touring is a great way to get an idea of what the Smokies are all about and what the area has to offer. There are many places to auto tour, but for this we will focus on the most popular, top-three tour spots in the national park:
1)Cades Cove Loop Road
2)Newfound Gap Road
3)Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Each of these has an auto tour booklet available at a visitors center or sometimes at the start of the road itself. The booklets point out features and landmarks using numbered signs or mileage.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – This road is a 6-mile, one-way, narrow, and hilly road begins at the end of Cherokee Orchard Road. You can reach it by turning onto Historic Nature Trail Road (formerly Airport Road) which connects to Cherokee Orchard Road. Once you have entered the one way section, you are on RFMNT. As I said before, this road closes during the winter, so be aware of that. This road can also be treacherous when slick from rain or snow melts, so drive safely. The road essentially forces you to slow down and take in the scenery. At the beginning of the road you will find a canopy of trees and brush that line your way. All kinds of wildlife can be viewed here. Keep your eyes open and you are bound to see something. The Trillium Gap Trail can be found on this road. This is one of many hikes that lead to the summit of Mt. Leconte as well as the ever popular Grotto Falls. After you pass the trailhead, the road climbs to its apex where you will have a pull-out with wonderful views. On the way down, you will see several old homesites including Jim Bales Place and the colorful Alfred Reagan Place. You will hear and see the water of the Roaring Fork all around you. As you make your way to the end of the road, you will begin to see and hear the modern world once again. This road deposits you on the other side of Gatlinburg on Hwy. 321. If you take a right, you will head towards Greenbrier and Cosby. To the left lies the center of Gatlinburg. As with all national park roads, if you are a slow driver, please be courteous and use a pull-off and allow others to pass. There is nothing wrong with slowing down to take in the scenery. Just do not stack up the cars behind you to do it.
Newfound Gap Road is a heavily used road connecting North Carolina to Tennessee. This two-lane highway has much to see as you drive the 28 miles up and over Newfound Gap. Starting from Sugarlands outside of Gatlinburg, you will see several places to pull off for quiet walkways. These walkways can take you to a stream or hardwood forrest or even connect with a trail. They are typically not very busy, and there is parking for a few to several cars. Don’t overlook these places. Another thing that you will find everywhere along this road are pullouts with wonderful views. One of these is Campbell Overlook about 2 miles in. These are wonderful photo stops and great places to take in the majesty of the Smokies. The Chimney Tops will come into view at 4.2 miles. This is a wonderful and strenuous 2-mile trail that will test your legs. There are also several picnic areas in the national park including the Chimney Tops Picnic are coming up. These are great places to have lunch on a picnic table, often near streams or other features. Most will have grill pits or grates, so bring your charcoal and relax inside the national park. One quick word on this. Pack out your trash or put it in one of the bins in these areas. Far too often inconsiderate people leave trash and food laying around. Not only does this litter these wonderful landscapes, it draws bears and other wildlife to the area. A bear that gets fed will become much more aggressive than a typical black bear. Back to the tour. After going through your first tunnel along the road, the Chimney tops trailhead will be on your right at 7.1 miles. You then take a dizzying loop in the road known simply as “The Loop” as the road loops around itself as it climbs more. By now, you are noticing the temperatures drop and the scenery change as you gain elevation. The next big trailhead is for the Alum Cave Trail at 8.8 miles. This is a large parking area, but it fills very quickly due to its popularity. You will notice the landslides that dot the area as you continue upward. These have occurred over the years from snow melts and erosion. One of the best overlooks in the park can be found at Morton Overlook at 12.5 miles. If you forget your camera here, you will be sorry. You finally arrive at the top at Newfound Gap at 13.2 miles. You will find Rockefeller Memorial and the spot where FDR dedicated the national park in 1940. There is also a rare state line sign at the top (great photo op), bathrooms, and the Appalachian trail. The AT crosses right across Newfound gap. If you take the AT from this parking area, you can head to Charlies Bunion (4 miles) or connect with the Boulevard Trail to go to Mt. Leconte. Just passed Newfound Gap, there is a turnoff to Clingmans Dome road on your right. There is a large observation tower at the end of the 7-mile road. On your way down towards Cherokee, you will find more quiet walkways and overlooks to stop and smell the roses. There is another picnic area (Collins creek) at 24.2 miles, Smokemont Campground and finally Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the end of the road before hitting Cherokee. This is a great drive with much to see. Give yourself several hours to take it all in. Just as a reminder, this road is open year round, but closes frequently in winter due to snow and ice.
The Cades Cove Loop is one of the most visited areas of the national park, and one of the most congested. The tour begins at the beginning of the one-way, 11-mile loop. There are several great things to see along the way including historic homes, churches, cemeteries, and of course hiking. It is easy to imagine how life used to be as you travel this road. The road is in pretty good shape, having been repaved in the last year. However, it is often bumper to bumper and can take hours to complete. Keep this in mind when you depart. This road is a place where you must be courteous. Far too often people stop in the middle of the road to take pictures or even get out of the car. This is the largest reason that traffic is so bad on this road. There are several places to pull off the road to allow people to pass. Please use these pull-offs. As you move through you will find John Oliver Place with a cabin (the oldest in Cades Cove), and a Baptist and Methodist church. You will definitely want to leave the car and explore these old buildings. Many roads connect to the Cades Cove loop including Rich Mountain Road and Parsons Branch. But these tend to be one-way roads out of the loop, so we will not cover these here. Many more historic homes and sites line the area including Elijah Oliver Place, Dan Lawson Place, and Tipton Place. The best hike on the loop is to Abrams Falls which is located halfway through the loop on the right. This 2.5 mile hike is relatively easy and boasts one of the best waterfalls and wading areas in the park. After this you will find the Cable Mill Historic area and visitors center with great sites, restrooms, and information. After passing more historic homes and structures, you will come back to where you started and can depart or start all over again. Make sure you have plenty of gas when you leave. Townsend is the closest place to fill up. Also bring your patience. As I said, this is one of the most beautiful places in the smokies, but also the most busy. At times traffic here can be worse than in downtown Gatlinburg.