In the days before my mom and stepdad married, they were in a courting phase. The kids today would call it dating.
At a certain point, when the relationship started getting serious, my brother and I were introduced to Joe, the man who would become our stepdad. At that point, dating became something different as they began to include us.
And instead of going to a movie or a dinner out, we’d go to Joe’s house. There, we rode the four-wheeler or played cards. Maybe we’d go to the state park or something like that.
I suppose Joe had already won mom over. And he was working on us, figuring out if we could work as a family unit.
I was 12 or so and Jordan – my brother – would have been 3.
It was all fine as we went through this getting to know each other phase except for one thing: Going for a drive.
The family Sunday drive
On a random Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Joe would call and mom would make an announcement. We were going for a drive.
This was the olden days. We didn’t have cell phones or many viable portable video game options. The only entertainment we had was tied to the whims of the program directors of 1980s radio stations. Therefore, if you got stuck in a rock block of Loverboy, you were doomed.
No. We weren’t there to be entertained. We were there to get to know each other better. So going for a drive meant an hour or more of riding in a car. In fact, aimlessly from my point of view, we were just looking at stuff. There are some trees and grass. And some cows.
The truth is I didn’t want to look at stuff. I wanted to be free or watch TV or play baseball or do anything but get in the back of a car and just … ride.
I disliked it immensely.
Still, despite all that, I was magnanimous enough not to bring it up when the minister offered his bit about speaking now or forever holding our peace. I really should have worked a “no going for drives” clause into the vows. But I was 12. And I didn’t really understand the concept of negotiating power.
It all worked out for the best, I suppose. And now, as a father of three who is older than when Joe inherited us boys, I finally appreciate an outing where we ride around, look at stuff and do not get out of the car.
Best things to do in a car in the Smokies
This is especially the case in the Great Smoky Mountains, which are not far for us. Of course, I’ve got a cell phone with Spotify and Google music now. So as we’re riding along looking at stuff I’m never doomed to a block of back-to-back-to-back hits from REO Speedwagon.
Still, I enjoy a good drive nowadays. And I especially enjoy driving through the Smokies which has a surprising amount of things to do without ever having to get out of your car.
5. Cades Cove
But John, you consistently rank Cades Cove as one of the best things to do in the Smokies. And it has the perfect drivable loop. Why would it be No. 5 on a list of the best things to do or see without getting out of your car in the Smokies?
The answer is easy my friends. It’s the second half of the loop road. The first half of Loop Road features spectacular views – sweeping and historic. Certainly, it is one of the wonders of the park. But if you’re not going to or can’t get out and walk around, the second half is a bit of a snoozer.
When we moved to East Tennessee and we’d get visitors from the North, invariably we’d load into the van for a ride around the Cove.
I have more than once descended into madness on the second half of that loop road.
Sitting in the van floor as summer traffic creeps through at 3 mph in the desperate hope that a tourist will see a deer is maddening.
Sure, there are cool things to do on the second half of the loop. There are, indeed, cabins, homesteads and trails to explore. But, if you’re limiting this exercise to things to do in the Smokies by car – and we are – there are better ways to spend your time and gas.
4. See the Christmas lights (seasonal)
In the days right after Thanksgiving – really before that nowadays – Sevier County turns into a winter wonderland of light and spectacle.
From the bright decorations of downtown Gatlinburg to the displays in Pigeon Forge all the way to the holiday light extravaganza that is Shadrack’s at the Smokies Stadium in Kodak, the Christmas lights of Sevier County are guaranteed to put you in the holiday spirit all from the relative warmth and comfort of your family ride.
As something of a Christmas decoration aficionado myself, I appreciate the effort. You can do worse for a family holiday outing than Christmas music and millions of twinkling lights.
3. Leaf peeping (seasonal)
If Christmas is the time to be in the mountains’ bergs and villages, fall is the time to get up into the mountains themselves.
The cool thing is you don’t really need a special road to be blown away by the fall colors in the Smokies. Just driving around and exploring can reveal the most amazing and vibrant displays. Catch the sun hitting a patch of trees at the right time. It can be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
As a local, each fall, I find myself flabbergasted by something that’s revealed simply in the weekly routine. I can remember once driving through Cosby for work when the overwhelming beauty of the mountains struck me. It wasn’t some hard-to-reach, ancient grove. It was the main highway, not far from a Dollar General. And the beauty was magnificent.
If you want a special recommendation, there’s a spot on the way to Cades Cove that stands out.
Located before you get to the picnic area, there is a section filled with the same kind of tree. And the leaves turn a vibrant yellow. I’m not a tree guy so I can’t tell you the type.
But if you get there at the right time, it seems like the whole forest is a golden yellow. There’s a pull-off right there where you can park and soak in the color and the view poking out between the leaves. It’s my favorite thing in the mountains.
2. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork is the same concept as Cades Cove but a more consistent experience for your driving dollar. The Roaring Fork Nature Trail is just outside of Gatlinburg and easy to access.
It beautifully combines the wooded forestry views of the park with some history of life in the mountains before the park was created.
It’s a five-mile drive. However, plan on a couple of hours depending on how many times you pull off to look around and the general flow of traffic.
Also, be aware that the Motor Nature Trail is not open year-round. It closes in winter and is not open to RVs, trailers or big trucks as the road is extremely narrow.
Among the historic buildings along the trail is the Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin. There is also a variety of gristmills, other cabins and historic buildings.
When the water is high, the Roaring Fork Creek itself is something to see and hear. Roll the windows down to get an idea of where the name Roaring Fork came from.
If natural beauty is what you’re looking for, the Motor Nature Trail is home to one of two waterfalls in the park you can drive to. The exceptionally named Place of a Thousand Drips is a lacework of hundreds of tiny waterfalls that make up one large fall.
1. U.S. Highway 441
Winding through the mountains, connecting Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina, the drive along U.S. Highway 441 is one of the most exquisite in the country.
Also known as Newfound Gap Road, the highway cuts through the Newfound Gap – the lowest pass in that part of the Appalachian Mountains.
There are many scenic overlooks with jaw-dropping majestic views. However, Newfound Gap Road will be closed in adverse weather conditions because of the steep incline and decline cutting through the mountains.
Newfound Gap is where the Rockefeller Memorial is located – the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940 – right at the entrance to Clingmans Dome Road.
As you arrive on the North Carolina side, keep your eyes open.
The wide fields between the forest and the road are popular with elk. In truth, it’s about the only place where I’ve reliably spotted them. Majestic views, significant U.S. history and wild elk sightings? What more could you ask for if you want to just go for a drive?
What is your favorite drive in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!