The now-popular Newfound Gap Road was once described as “an atrocity” by those who opposed its construction
As someone who has been driving around these mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina for nearly 35 years now, I’ve been on many mountain roads that I have no desire to drive on ever again.
I don’t ever want to do Rich Mountain Road out of Cades Cove again. And when I can, I avoid the claustrophobic Little River Gorge Road between Townsend and Gatlinburg. It’s not as much about white-knuckle driving as it just feels constricting and is excellent for causing car sickness.
But at the top of my favorite drives in the Mountains is U.S. 441 – Newfound Gap Road connecting Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. Along this roadway through the mountains, you’ll find some of the Smokies’ best views, best picnic spots, and best wildlife viewing.
It is almost a perfect example of what generations of conservationists envisioned when they fought for the creation of the park. And it almost didn’t happen. If a well-placed member of FDR’s cabinet had his way, there might not have been a road at all. He feared the construction of a scenic roadway across the top of the mountains could be an “atrocity”.
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A brief history of Newfound Gap Road
For generations of settlers, the Newfound Gap was an undiscovered pass through the mountains – hence, I suppose, the name. For years the general thought was Indian Gap was the lowest pass through the mountains. However, in 1872 Swiss mapmaker, geologist and geographer Arnold Guyot began documenting the Smokies, measuring its peaks and valleys. This is how it was determined that Newfound Gap was the lowest pass through the mountains.
With the development of the park came the plan to build the road – which was completed in 1932. When FDR officially dedicated the park, he did it from the Rockefeller Monument – located on the Newfound Gap Road – in 1942.
Controversy and debate over the road
There was a strong push among civic leaders in communities surrounding the park for the road. Among the advocates was Ben Morton, who lived from 1875 to 1952. Morton 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 the road which had its opponents who feared a road could undermine the very mission of conservation for which the park was created.
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. The road is far from an atrocity. It’s a showcase for some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Scenery that would only be accessible to a select few willing to hike into the high mountains with a road running through the pass. We should say – in fairness – Ickles had his share of good ideas as well. He was a leader in civil rights and civil liberties. He was just wrong about scenic highways.
What’s the drive like today?
Today, Newfound Gap Road is a pleasant – if distracting – drive through the mountains. As someone who has driven his family to the pass, I’d say it’s important to plan a couple of stops at the overlooks so you can soak in the views, that way you can keep your eyes on the road while driving through the steep curves and switchbacks. It typically takes about an hour to drive the 33 miles between Gatlinburg and Cherokee. This isn’t the best route to take if you’re in a hurry. The interstate will do you a better job there.
There are also plenty of attractions along the way. On the Carolina side, the Oconaluftee Welcome Center has some interesting exhibits, and the fields nearby are a great place to see elk in the wild. Mingus Mill isn’t too far off the main road and several hiking trailheads are near the Newfound Gap Road. You can stay at the Smokemount Campground or see Cliff Branch Falls. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road, and you have the Morton Overlook as well as the Charles A. Webb Overlook. Near the intersection with Clingmans Dome Road, is the Rockefeller Memorial from which FDR spoke 80 years ago. As you approach Gatlinburg, the Chimneys Picnic Area is one of the best picnic spots in the Smokies.
The Newfound Gap Road is open year-round but closed when conditions – like snow or high winds – make the drive too dangerous. You can check the National Park Service website or social media presence for updates on whether the road is open or closed. Ultimately, it’s a pretty awesome way to get some sense of the scope and scale of the park, a way to get some appreciation of the natural beauty that conservationists of the time – including Mr. Ickles who has the park’s best interest at heart – would have wanted.