There’s a Curious 200-Year-Old Road Hidden in the Smoky Mountains

rich mountain road in the smoky mountains next to a map

Rich Mountain Road offers spectacular views, connections to rare trailheads and more. However, it is not a route to be undertaken lightly. It has a multitude of switchbacks (photo by Carol Mellema/shutterstock.com)

Rich Mountain Road is a 200-year-old road hidden in the Smoky Mountains and it’s not for the faint of heart

I learned to drive on the mountain roads of East Tennessee. I’ve rarely encountered a road that gave me much concern. That said, a couple of times, I’ve been caught underprepared. Maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention to the map. Or I should have realized my Ford Focus wasn’t built for such adventures. But whatever the case, I learned at an early age what can happen if you don’t respect the mountain road. Rich Mountain Road, a nearly 200-year-old road hidden in the Smoky Mountains, is one of those routes to be respected. 

Known as a back way out of Cades Cove to Townsend, Rich Mountain Road offers spectacular views, connections to rare trailheads and more. However, it is not a route to be undertaken lightly. It has a multitude of switchbacks. Therefore, it can be challenging for drivers not used to rural mountain roads. It is not open year-round and can be treacherous under adverse weather conditions. 

rich mountain road in the fall
Rich Mountain Road is an adventure for those who are used to driving hard-packed gravel mountain roads with hairpin turns (photo by Michele Burgess/stock.adobe.com)

The History of Rich Mountain Road

Like many mountain roads in the Smokies, Rich Mountain Road began life as a Native American trace in the early 1800s leading up to what is now known as Cades Cove. Today, its gravely, unimproved winding path is a lingering reminder of its early roots.

It runs several miles out of the Cove to the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It connects to Old Cades Cove Road and eventually down to Townsend. 

Experienced drivers in vehicles built for steep terrain should be fine. But if you haven’t done a lot of driving along tiny, rural mountain roads, it can be a bit of a white knuckler. There are a lot of switchbacks, curves, twists and bends. I’ve said it’s got more twists than a Chubby Checker record. A dated reference I stand by.

Rex Caughron – son of Kermit Caughron (aka the Bee Man) and the last resident of the Cove – once talked to me about that road.

When Rex was a boy, there was work being done on the road down by the Townsend Wye. As a result, his school bus had to take Rich Mountain Road. Today, vehicles larger than 25 feet – like buses or RVs – are prohibited from driving the route. You’re also not allowed to pull a trailer on it. Today it’s a scenic route and I have – on occasion – used it as an escape when the traffic on Cades Cove Loop Road was unbearable.

“Those awful old school buses didn’t have no power,” he recalled. “It rode second gear about all the way over. I didn’t enjoy that ride across Rich Mountain.”

The road is also a prime spot for leaf peeping, but be warned, fallen leaves can make the edges of this already tiny road harder to see (photo by Carol Mellema/shutterstock.com)

How to find Rich Mountain Road

Rich Mountain Road, when open, can be found along Cades Cove Loop Road. Once on the loop, you’ll see a triangle as you approach the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church. The Loop Road will bend to the left while the turn to Rich Mountain Road is to the right. However, be sure that you want to drive the whole way before you make the turn. As I said earlier, it’s a one-way road and once you’ve driven up onto it, you’re committed to finishing it. 

If you do take the route, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time as it will take about an hour.

The key is to take your time and focus on the task at hand. Let the passengers enjoy the view. It’s a one-way road so you shouldn’t have to worry about traffic coming the other way. However, I have been on one-way roads in the mountains only to find headlights coming my way. If this occurs, get over as best you can. 

the entrance to rich mountain road
A paved entrance to Rich Mountain Road can be found along the Cades Cove Loop (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Things to watch out for on Rich Mountain Road

Note that Rich Mountain Road isn’t open year-round. The 2024 seasonal schedule says it will be open from April 12 to November 10, 2024, though conditions can cause its status to change. Also, it has been closed in the past for bear activity, but I wouldn’t expect that on the regular. Finally, there’s a gate that closes it off. If the gate is closed, don’t try to drive around it. 

Also be aware of the weather, especially if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle. It’s not a road you want to tackle if the weather is dodgy, or it’s been raining for several days. I wouldn’t want to drive it in a summer storm, either. Finally, make sure you’re aware of the time of day. Remember the sun sets early in the mountains. Rich Mountain Road by headlight is a completely different experience. 

Finally, be mindful of restrictions on the one-way road. Vehicles of a certain size are not allowed. Also, Adverse weather conditions can make the mountain drive even more treacherous. Still, as long as you’re prudent, the Rich Mountain Road drive can offer a Cades Cove experience that many will miss. 

Rich Mountain Road can add a touch of adventure to your trip to Cades Cove. But be aware that once you commit to driving it, there’s no quick way back to the Loop. It does come up fairly early in the Loop Road experience so if you want to see the whole Cove, save Rich Mountain for another time. 

There’s a place on Rich Mountain Road where visitors can stop and enjoy views of the Cove and the Cades Cove Methodist Church (photo by Carol/shuttertock.com)

What’s at the end of Rich Mountain Road?

Shortly after leaving the Cove, there’s a place to stop and look back over the Cove and the Cove’s Methodist Church. It’s breathtaking. There are also some trailheads – like the Indian Grave Gap Trailhead. The NPS says there’s a stand of shagbark hickory trees, apparently rare in the mountains. In the right time of year, the leaf viewing, and the wildflower viewing can be spectacular. 

The end of the road will eventually lead you to Townsend.

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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2 thoughts on “There’s a Curious 200-Year-Old Road Hidden in the Smoky Mountains”

  1. been there done that is the road to sugarlands cemetary open?when do they do decoration.at the cementary?

    Reply
    • Hello Mr. Hargus:

      We are unfamiliar with a Sugarlands Cemetery decoration date. Perhaps one of the rangers at the visitor center
      could advise. The phone humber is 865-436-1291.

      Thank you for reaching out.

      Reply

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