One-Way Roads in the Smokies

parsons branch roadOne-way roads are located in various places all over the national park. There is not much worse of a feeling than realizing you are on one and end up with no idea where it is going to let you out. More times than not, the place it drops you off is not even close to where you began, but there are exceptions to this. So why use them?

There are trails that are more easily accessible along one-way roads. Grotto Falls and Gregory Bald are two just off the top of my head. Though there are other ways to hike these trails, the mileage tends to be shorter and an a better hike using the one-way roads. If you are trying to get from one place to another, one-way roads can often save you hours by giving you a direct route. Otherwise, you essentially have to go all the way around the mountains to get to your destination. For example, you can get to Fontana through Cades Cove by using Parson’s Branch Road in about 30 minutes. The same drive out of Cades Cove and either over Newfound Gap or the Foothills Parkway will literally take you hours.

What else do you need to know about one-way roads? First off, many of them close a lot. All of them close during the winter months. They are simply too rugged and remote to keep clear during winter and the roads aren’t in the best shape for snow vehicles.
Speaking of rough roads, these roads tend to be rough. The pavement is often very uneven rough, hilly, and a slow drive. With a couple of exceptions, make sure your vehicle is in good condition before driving these roads. Part of the reason the roads are in such rough shape is the weather. Snow and rain beats down those roads, crack them to pieces, and makes them rough. Some of the roads even flood after hard rains and snow melts. It is simply cost prohibitive to repave or repair these roads every time they need it.
I’m going to give you a list of one-way roads so that you do not end up on them accidentally, give you a better idea of what is on them, and inform you about where you will end up at the end. These roads are among the most used one-way roads in the national park.


Cades Cove Loop Road (Cades Cove)
This is not only the most popular one-way road in the national park, it is the single busiest road in the national park. This 11 mile, one-way road takes you around historical homesites including the John Oliver Cabin, Elijah Oliver Place, several old churches and cemeteries, and access to several hiking trails including the wildly popular Abrams Falls. This scenic valley is a place not to be missed. The paving in this place is in pretty good shape after a repaving a couple of years ago.

However, this one-way loop can literally take hours to complete, even if you don’t stop at every site on the map. The good news is there are two roads that help you skip some of the mileage. Both will be on your left and are Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. You can cut out a third to half of the mileage and time by taking these roads if you don’t want to go through the whole thing.

Another thing that is different about this road than the others is that you end at the same point you began. This is exceedingly rare for one-way roads. Also, this road is open year round (weather permitting of course) which none of the others are. Finally, this road is a great place to bike in the mornings on Wednesday/Saturday when the road is closed to vehicles before 10am.


Rich Mountain Road (Cades cove to Townsend)
Rich Mountain road is located about a quarter of the way into the Cades Cove loop. Before you take a right onto the road, a sign warns of the one-way, narrow, winding, and unimproved gravel road. The one way road lasts for 7 miles before becoming two-way for the last 5. You will pop out into Townsend. This road is closed between November 18 and March 21.This road is a great place to see wildlife from your car since it is off the beaten path and does not receive a lot of traffic. It is also one of the roads that floods the easiest at one of the lowest points in the valley. If its only slightly flooded, the road itself may be impassable. There are only a couple of trail intersections along this road including Rich Mountain Trail, Ace Gap Trail, and Indian Grave gap trail. All of these trails can be reached from other trailheads, so unless you want to get a start in the middle of the trails and work from another direction, this road is not entirely necessary to use. Since it takes roughly an hour to get from one end to the other, it tend to be a bad road to use as a shortcut to Townsend. It is very peaceful and a place to have time and space to yourself. Just make sure your vehicle is up to the challenge…..and no RV’s are allowed on the road.

Parson’s Branch Road (Cades Cove to Hwy 129, close to Fontana in N.C)
The first part of Parsons Branch Road is two-way, but quickly becomes a one-way, primitive road like Rich Mountain Road. This 8-mile road is a pretty rough ride that takes about an hour to pass. One thing to keep in mind is that they close the gates at dark, so do this one during the day. You need to be able to see clearly on this road with the shape of the road and obstacles like tree limbs that sometimes end up in your path. This road is only open April 17-November 11, so the opportunity to use this path is limited. Trail connections along this road include the Hannah Mountain Trail which offers one of the better and more remote campsites in the National park, and the Gregory Bald Trail. Both trails can be accessed in other locations, but I like this route to Gregory Bald the best. It is shorter and better hiking than starting from the Gregory Ridge Trail or Twentymile. There are campsites available for both trails, and I really enjoy overnighting in these locations. Like Rich Mountain Road, this road can be a muddy mess in the rain and you have a high chance of getting your vehicle stuck, so be aware of the weather. However, I have navigated this road several times in a little rear-wheel drive Mustang, so in good weather you should be fine.

Heintooga Ridge Road/Balsam Mountain Road (Blue Ridge Parkway and Smokemont Campground)
I put the Heintooga Ridge Road and Balsam Mountain Roads together because one flows right into the other. The first eleven miles is paved and two-way. This road is incredibly scenic because of the elevation. Views are enormous. There is also a lot to see. There is a mason’s monument located toward the base of the road. There is trail access to Flat Creek trails which features a great remote waterfall. There is also a campground and picnic area close by at the Balsam Mountain Campground. The roadway onto Heintooga Ridge was closed for 2013 due to the sequestration and is closed seasonally during winter. You should also keep the elevation changes in mind as you will climb to over 5000 feet and dip below 2000 feet, so you will have some large ups and downs. I have found that it takes about two hours to up Heintooga ridge, around Balsam Mountain Rd, and down Big Cove Road to arrive near Cherokee. It is definitely a great auto tour, and the scenery is breathtaking with views that rival Newfound Gap. However, if you just want to get around it, the Blue Ridge Parkway gives you a straight shot from one area to another, so you are not stuck very far from where you started.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (Gatlinburg to the other side of Gatlinburg)
This is one of the most popular one-way roads in the national park and is located just outside the town of gatlinburg. Once you turn at traffic light #8, you will keep going on Cherokee orchard road which is two-way until you arrive at the one-way junction going to the right. The road takes you just over 6 miles to the other side of Gatlinburg on Hwy. 321 near the winery. But back to the road. It is one of the most narrow roads in the park. It is paved and has been repaved in recent years, but this road can be tough. Sometimes going up a hill you cant see the roadway well, and end up lifting up the seat to see where your car is going. The turns and up and down are plentiful and quite steep. The road is open from April 12-November 30, but snows can creep in during the shoulder months, so keep an eye on the forecast. This is not a road to drive in the snow. Even in periods of rain, the roadway can get quite slick, so use caution. There is often a steep plunge off one side of the road, so losing control of the vehicle could have tragic consequences. Use a low gear and take your time. Depending on how cautious you are, expect about 45 minutes to an hour to get to the other side.

Now as far as trails go, the Trillium Gap Trail that goes to Grotto Falls is located on this road and is extremely popular. You can reach this trail from the Rainbow Falls parking lot on Cherokee Orchard Road, but you will add several extra miles to the hike. Baskins Creek and Grapeyard Ridge Trails are located here and can also be accessed from other locations, but in my opinion they are not trails that can’t wait until the weather warms up. Neither of them offers anything spectacular….again, in my opinion.

All of these roads offers something different and unique and you should check them out. With the exception of Roaring Fork and Cades Cove Loop, they are all “roads less traveled.” There is something great about each of them, even if you aren’t looking for a trailhead. If you have extra time on your next trip, check them out.

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