Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains: Our top 5 ranked

A motorbike parked on the Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway is a work in progress, but it still offers spectacular views (stock photo)

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One of the great things about the Smoky Mountains is that just about any drive you take can be a scenic drive. 

There are spots on I-40 as you climb up into the higher elevations where the river cuts a path down through the valleys, when the sun is high and the clouds are white, that are truly breathtaking.

Of course, sightseeing at 75 mph with a guy trying to make time to Charlotte on your bumper is not prudent. 

Can you drive through the Great Smoky Mountains?

According to the National Park Service, there are 384 miles of road in the Smoky Mountains.

There are drives throughout the region that are designed to let you look around and enjoy some of the mountains’ breathtaking beauty. 

If you’re going to do some sightseeing on the road, remember to drive safely. Mountain roads are often narrow with blind curves and low shoulders.

But with that in mind, here are our top five scenic drives around the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee:

The Cherohala Skyway runs nearby the Cheoah Dam in North Carolina (stock photo)

5. The Cherohala Skyway

The Skyway, a 43-mile trek that connects Tellico Plains, Tenn., to Robbinsville, N.C., runs through two national forests, Cherokee and Nantahala.

Twisting over ridgetops and mountain peaks, the Cherohala is a little out of the way if you’re staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. It’s also one of the lesser known jewels in the region.

Make sure you’re gassed up. If it’s winter, be well aware of the weather before heading out.

There’s a fantastic hike to Huckleberry Knob which offers amazing views and deep country camping.

Take a side trip to Indian Boundary Lake, an absolute oasis in the sky.

The 96-acre lake provides a scenic backdrop for camping, fishing, picnicking and boating from the hub at Indian Boundary Recreation Area.

An image of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville from above (stock photo)

4. The Blue Ridge Parkway

This massive scenic drive runs from Cherokee, N.C., to Afton, Va., spanning 469 miles.

It connects the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Someday, it might be cool to drive the length of the thing, but for now my favorite ride is getting on the Parkway near Waynesville and riding to the end where it connects with U.S. Highway 441 near Cherokee.

The first time I got on the Parkway was by accident. We were on our way to a softball tournament when I saw the sign that said “This way to Cherokee”.

I followed it.

It’s hard to enjoy the scenic views with an angry teenager watching the clock from the backseat. But we made it … eventually. 

3. The Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway is still a work in progress, but the most recent section of it was opened in 2018 (stock photo)

The Parkway was authorized by Congress in 1944, and the thing still isn’t finished.

For most of my life, there was a blocked entrance ramp in Wears Valley, a road leading to nowhere that you weren’t allowed to get on.

Read Also: Road to Nowhere; The dam road that was never completed in Bryson City

In 2018, they opened that section, and while I can’t say it was worth the nearly 80 year wait, it does offer some spectacular views.

The northern portion of the Parkway, running from I-40 South to U.S. 321 near Cosby is just over 5 miles long.

It opened in 1968. The southernmost section, 17 miles long, connects Chilhowie Lake to U.S. 321 at Walland. It was completed in 1966. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that the next section was opened, 16 miles connecting Walland to Wears Valley. 

The good news? The land acquisition for the further 33.5 miles of the Parkway is complete.

The bad news? At this pace, they should be done somewhere around the year 2080. I say go see what you can now and tell your grandkids to save the date.

Read Also: Smoky Mountain Pink Jeep: Not the tour you’re expecting

The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a one-way loop, located just above Gatlinburg (stock photo)

2. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Not all scenic drives have to be remote. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 mile one-way loop just above Gatlinburg.

It’s great for viewing wildlife. It offers several trail heads for manageable hikes and features rushing streams, old-growth forest and a number of well preserved cabins, grist mills and other historic buildings.

You can hit the Motor Trail, have a nice scenic drive and be back in Gatlinburg with plenty of time for mini golf and laser tag. 

Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is stunning in the fall (stock photo)

1. Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road runs from Gatlinburg, climbs to Newfound Gap – the lowest drivable pass in the park – and descends to Cherokee, N.C.

Along the way there are pull offs for scenic overlooks that nearly defy the imagination.

The North Carolina side is great wildlife viewing. Elk can be seen near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This is also a great place to stop, rest and soak up some local history. 

Read Also: Is an elk a moose? 8 things you didn’t know about elk

On the Tennessee side, is my favorite picnic area in the Smokies, the Chimney Tops Picnic Area. This picnic area is located right against the West Prong Little Pigeon River, a great and easily accessible spot for families in the park.

Bonus scenic drive: Cataloochee Valley Road

This one’s not for the faint of heart. North Carolina’s answer to Cades Cove, the Cataloochee Valley was home to a thriving mountain community before the formation of the park.

This is the place where elk were reintroduced to the park in the early 2000s. The entrance road to the valley is one of the most scenic drives in the mountains, but the road is narrow and unpaved.

The best way to get there is from Cove Creek Road, which can be accessed from I-40, Exit 20 in North Carolina. 

Did your favorite scenic drive in the Smoky Mountains make it to the list? Let us know in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains: Our top 5 ranked”

  1. Heintooga Road is another good one. We have seen Elk and Bear, the picnic area at the top has a spectacular views.

  2. Rich Mountain road is also great.
    Parson Branch road is also great, but it’s been closed for a number of years.

  3. We LOVE – Cades Cove Loop!!! Lots of nature, animals & beautiful views. Near Townsend with some great restaurants and tubing tours.

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