9 best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, ranked

The Foothills Parkway is a work in progress, but it still offers spectacular views (photo by Wirestock/stock.adobe.com)

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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 that are truly breathtaking, especially when the sun is high and the clouds are white.

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 best scenic drives around the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee:

little river road in the fall
Little River Road is best known as the road to Cades Cove (photo by Mark Baldwin/shutterstock.com)

9. Little River Road

Little River Road spans 18 miles and features trails, picnic areas and more. You can start this drive near the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.

Along the road, you can visit Meigs Falls, which is perhaps one of the area’s most underrated waterfalls.

This drive is a great option if you want to do more than one scenic drive and also visit Cades Cove.

Read Also: Meigs Falls: One of the best waterfalls you can drive to in the Smokies

Traffic at Cades Cove
Cades Cove Loop is a great drive, but it is not exactly a well-kept secret (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

8. Cades Cove Loop Road

If you’re looking for a drive where you can take things slow and find plenty of pull-off opportunities, Cades Cove is the road for you.

The Cove is also a popular wildlife viewing area. It’s common to see deer, turkey, and if you’re lucky, maybe a black bear.

The Loop may also provide opportunities for walking and biking. On Wednesdays from May to September, the Cove usually holds vehicle-free days on Wednesdays.

All other times, this eleven-mile road is one of the most popular scenic drives.

Rich Mountain Rd Signage
Rich Mountain Road is a one-way road that is rather mountainous (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

7. Rich Mountain Road

If you’re driving around Cades Cove, you’ll have the option to exit off of Rich Mountian Road.

This exit from the Cove is a white-knuckle drive over the top of the mountains. Personally, I’ve done it once and that was enough for me.

The one-way road is narrow but scenic. It is closed from November through May and leads back to Townsend.

tail of the dragon around a lake
The Dragon is a scenic route, but a dangerous one (photo by Reet Whiting/Shutterstock)

6. Tail of the Dragon

The Tail of the Dragon is a popular road for motorcycles, but it is not to be taken lightly.

While it’s a beautiful drive and well-known for its many curves, it is not one where you should let your mind wander.

Read Also: Tips for riding The Tail of The Dragon, your complete guide

Cheoah Dam near Robbinsville in North Carolina, USA
The Cherohala Skyway runs nearby the Cheoah Dam in North Carolina (photo by Darrell Young/stock.adobe.com)

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.

Aerial view of Linn Cove Bridge Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville North Carolina –
An image of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville from above (photo by Hermosa Drones/stock.adobe.com)

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. 

foothills parkway in gatlinburg tn
The Foothills Parkway is a work in progress, but it’s still a popular drive (photo by ehrlif/stock.adobe.com)

3. The Foothills Parkway

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.

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.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open seasonally in the national park (photo by William/stock.adobe.com)

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 trailheads for manageable hikes and features rushing streams, an old-growth forest and a number of well-preserved cabins, grist mills and a historic homestead with buildings and cabins.

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 the fall with smoky mountains
Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is stunning in the fall (photo by larryknupp/stock.adobe.com)

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 excellent for 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. 

The Tennessee side hosts 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: 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 park’s formation.

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.

View the story version of this article here.

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7 thoughts on “9 best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains, 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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