It was never supposed to be like this.
The great tourism mecca of Sevier County grew along a single spine known as the Parkway. The road connects Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the vast majority of tourism destinations in the area.
It gets overwhelmed. On Fridays and Saturdays in the busy times of the year, it can be nearly impossible to navigate arriving. On Sunday mornings, it can be almost impossible to navigate leaving.
At various times throughout the year – especially during the godforsaken Rod Runs – it’s just impossible altogether, a never-ending snaking line of brake lights and rear bumpers stretching as far as the eye can see.
Over the years, the powers that be have done many a surgery to strengthen that backbone. They’ve widened it, created the trolley system and built roadways designed to lessen the burden.
It’s nowhere near enough.
Whenever my wife and I set out for Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, we have the same conversation.
Where do we attack? Do we dare risk a frontal assault, entering from I-40 at exit 407? This is generally considered the main entrance riding along Highway 66, which at a certain point becomes the Parkway. If traffic isn’t bad, this is the best option. The road is wide and you can generally get where you’re going the quickest by this route.
However, if the traffic is bad, and you get caught up on Highway 66, you are screwed. It’s a long, slow slog to civilization and there aren’t many great options for escape. Honestly, if you hit stop-and-go traffic before you get to the French Broad and you’re trying to get deep into Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, you might be better off turning around and going the hell home or at least considering another entry point.
The alternatives are relatively few and which one you choose depends heavily on where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to go. But here are some tips for getting around Sevier County when the traffic is high.
If you’re trying to get to Sevierville proper or the western end of Pigeon Forge – Highway 411 is your friend. Accessible either from the south at the Chapman Highway exit in Knoxville or from Newport to the North; traffic rarely backs up as deep on 411, which offers a few more escape routes if you do run into trouble.
The highway keeps you on the right side of the French Broad, so, if you’re feeling brave and have a good GPS you can dive off and take any number of the local roads to cut across traffic. From the South, I only recommend doing this in the most extreme circumstance.
In fact, if coming from Knoxville, if traffic is terrible where 411 intersects with the Parkway, I’d continue on up to Veterans Boulevard, which connects to Collier Drive which comes out near the NASCAR Speedpark and the Tanger Outlets in Sevierville.
Veterans Boulevard is a blessing from Jesus. I make it a habit to say a little prayer of thanks every time I turn onto to it and see the line of poor, misbegotten souls driving ahead into a hell that would make Dante say ‘‘No, that’s too much.’’ Veterans Boulevard, AKA the back way to Dollywood, is accessible off 411 and is what you need if you’re trying to get to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Stampede or any of the myriad of pancake houses located on the “Gatlinburg” side of Pigeon Forge.
If you’re not going to all the way to the east end of Pigeon Forge, you can take Veterans to Collier and take Ridge Road and then connect to Sugar Hollow, which takes you to the Hollywood Wax Museum and relatively close to places like Wonderworks and the Titanic. Both Ridge Road and Veterans Boulevard connect to Teaster Lane.
Teaster Lane is a wonderful thing if you’re staying in Pigeon Forge and need to get from one end to the other. It runs parallel to the Parkway, starting near the Biblical Times Dinner Theater – bonus points for Dads who pull out of traffic onto Teaster and say “let my people go” – and travels along until it meets up with Veterans Boulevard. There are a handful of offshoots that allow access various points on the parkway
If you’re coming from the South – basically through Knoxville – and you’re destination is deeper into Pigeon Forge, Highway 321 is your very good friend. You’ll want to go through Maryville into Townsend and take the scenic drive through Wears Valley. You’ll arrive in Pigeon Forge near the Island. You can shoot straight across the Parkway to connect with Teaster and get to Dollywood or the other side of Pigeon Forge without ever putting a tire on Parkway – except to cross it.
There are some other side roads on the southwestern side of the Parkway, I’ve found Community Center Drive to McGill Street useful in a few instances, but use your instinct and your GPS to see if that’s the better route.
All right campers – now, we’re talking gridlock. There have been times, caught in the traffic between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge that I’ve considered pulling off to the side of the road and simply claiming squatter’s rights. I live here now, y’all. Please get the hell out of my driveway.
If we’re going to Gatlinburg, we’re going the back way.
I don’t care if Peyton Manning and Dolly Parton were standing at exit 407 offering personal assurances that traffic is light on the Parkway all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, I’m going to Cocke County, which is a sentence rarely uttered in the civilized world.
We’re taking Highway 321 through Cosby. Coming from the Tennessee side, it’s exit 435 in Newport. From the North Carolina side, Exit 447 in Hartford. Either way, 321 comes out right at the start of the main drag in Gatlinburg. There’s a parking garage right there and you’re not far from the Aquarium and the entrance to Anakeesta.
Once in Gatlinburg, there are not a lot of great options. Gatlinburg is meant to be walked, but the main strip is essentially one long hill so if you park and walk, be prepared for a bit of a hike. River Road splits from the Parkway and runs parallel, there’s some parking back there and is the way to go if you’re trying to get to Ober Gatlinburg.
If traffic is terrible coming into the main drag from the Pigeon Forge side, you can take a left at the light onto Cherokee Orchard Road and hit Historic Nature Trail where you might eventually find some parking but it’s not going to gain you a lot of real estate.
If you don’t intend on going to Gatlinburg but want to get to or from the National Park to Pigeon Forge, the Gatlinburg Bypass is available. I suppose, if you want to get from Pigeon Forge to the far end of Gatlinburg and avoid the main drag traffic, you could take the bypass and double back.
Coming to Gatlinburg from the South, options are few. You can come through Knoxville to Maryville and into Townsend and on to Gatlinburg via Fighting Creek Gap Road which, in Blount County, is known as Little River Gorge Road.
But, as someone who lived relatively close to that road in Blount County for years, let me say this: I hate it. That road sucks. If hangs along the winding Little River through the bottom of a gorge. I am not claustrophobic but every time I get on that road, I feel the mountains closing in. It’s like being in a very pretty tunnel.
Also, if anyone in your family gets motion sickness, Little River Gorge Road will make them hurl chunks. In short, there will be vomit.
There is one other option, if you’re approaching from somewhere like South Carolina. You could get off Interstate 40 near Clyde in North Carolina and take Highway 74 into Cherokee and come to Gatlinburg through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s a beautiful drive but adds 25 minutes to the trip.
If you know for sure Gatlinburg traffic is a nightmare and you’re trying to get to somewhere on the southern end of town, this might make sense. But, if you’re going this route in the winter, check ahead. The road through the mountains gets closed frequently for inclement weather.