We were cutting through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, returning home from Bryson City, North Carolina on Newfound Gap Road – aka U.S. Route 441.
It’s a treat when the quickest route home also happens to be the best scenic drive in the United States.
But I was driving and so my attention was on the road.
We were pretty far up in the Great Smokies. And since I have a fear of heights, my attention was even a little more alert than usual.
I missed some of the natural beauty of the spruce-fir forests. I missed pointing out Mt. LeConte and the Chimney Tops. And I was in the process of missing a Great Smoky Mountain sunset.
In truth, that was all good. Getting the family home safely takes priority over even the most breathtaking sunset.
We’d passed the border of Tennessee and entered Sevier County. We approached Morton Overlook, a great place to stop for some of the best views of the mountains.
What is Morton Overlook?
On clear days, Morton Overlook is one of the best spots in the world to soak in the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One of many overlooks on Newfound Gap Road, the Morton Overlook is at an elevation of 4,826 feet. It is one of the best spots in the park to take in a sunset.
I hadn’t planned on stopping that particular day. Newfound Gap Road has a handful of small pullouts and they’re almost always crowded toward sunset. But then, I saw the setting sun.
I don’t really have the words to describe the view. The overlook faces west high over a valley. It’s not really a panoramic view. There are ridges on either side. The highest peaks create almost an alley effect.
However, at the right time of year, when the sun sets in just the right way, it’s the perfect spot to contemplate the beauty and the majesty of the natural world.
It’s like it was made just for that moment. On those occasions, it’s truly one of the best places in the world.
That yellow ray of light hit my face as we drove past. And so without anyone behind me, I slowed the car and we soaked it in as much as we could. The parking lot was full – or I’d passed the only open spot – so we couldn’t stop.
It was only a fleeting moment of beauty in the mountains, seconds out of a lifetime spent running through the hills and valleys.
But it’s the one that stands out in my memory more than all the others. It may well be the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
Who is the Morton Overlook named after?
Ben Morton, who lived from 1875 to 1952, was a civic leader, a grocer and a Knoxville mayor. He was also a staunch advocate of the National Park and specifically Newfound Gap Road. But possibly not for altruistic reasons.
As Knoxville Mayor, Morton believed that park roads that highlighted the natural beauty of the region were a great economic driver. As a member of the Knoxville Auto Club, he pushed hard for Newfound Gap Road.
Whatever his motivation, the result was a blessing. In addition to allowing millions to access the beautiful scenery, it made crossing the mountains a far more practical endeavor. Prior to completing the road in 1932, the trip from Gatlinburg to Cherokee was an arduous one.
The road was not entirely popular, however.
The New Gap, New Road historical marker offers a quote from Harold Ickes – the secretary of the interior in 1935.
“I do not … favor the scarring of a wonderful mountainside just so we can say we have a skyline drive. It sounds poetical, but it may be an atrocity,” he said.
Of course, it was perhaps the most wrong any person has ever been. Though in fairness, a leader in civil rights and civil liberties, Ickles had a lot of good ideas in his day, too.
Morton’s historic brick home – known as the Morton-Bush House – is on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed in 1927, it is a brick house in the Colonial Revival Style and is located among the historic homes on Kingston Pike not far from the University of Tennessee campus.
When I was in college, I drove past the house all the time on my way to get high-end beers at the Fresh Market in West Knoxville.
How do you get to Morton Overlook?
It is not difficult to get to Morton Overlook. Basically, get on U.S. 441 and drive – either from the Carolina or Tennessee side.
The Morton Overlook is on the Tennessee side. It is a great spot to stop and soak in the natural beauty. However, it’s not the only one. In fact, there are several cool places where one might catch a sunrise or a sunset or rays of sunlight lighting patches of fog in the Smokies.
If you’re coming from the Tennessee side, it’s just after the Morton Mountain tunnel.
From the North Carolina side, it’s not far after you cross the border.
The overlook pretty blatantly faces West. Look to the East and you’re pretty well staring straight into the side of a mountain.
There are better places in the mountains to take in a sunrise.
Is there anything else of interest in the area?
Sure. In addition to the other scenic overlooks along 441, Newfound Gap Road connects to Clingmans Dome Road, taking you up to the observation tower at the highest peak in Tennessee.
The Newfound Gap parking area is right there where the two roads meet.
The Rockefeller Memorial is there. The memorial honors the $5 million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation which covered about half the cost of creating the park.
The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial is the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously held the dedication for the National Park in 1940, presumably much to the chagrin of Harold Ickes.
“For the permanent enjoyment of the people this park was given one half by the people and states of North Carolina and Tennessee and by the people of the United States of America and one half in memory of Laura Spellman Rockefeller by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial founded by her husband John D. Rockefeller,” the Memorial’s plaque reads.
And also, for the hikers, the Appalachian Trail passes nearby.
Have you visited Morton Overlook? Do you have a favorite overlook? Let us know in the comments.