The Smoky Mountains are among nature’s many treasures that beckon adventurers, sightseers, and nature lovers the world over to visit. One of the best ways to take in all the Smokies offer is on a scenic drive. Even the names of these destinations stir the imagination: Clingman’s Dome, The Tail of the Dragon, Cherohala Skyway.
This post will list what we consider are the iconic drives in the Smoky Mountains and why they deserve to be on your bucket list. So pack a picnic lunch, fill up the tank, and let’s go exploring!
This 43-mile gem took 34-years to complete and connects Robbinsville, North Carolina, with Tellico Plains, Tennessee. It cost the state of North Carolina $100,000,000 to build and is one of the “Top 10” motorcycle rides in the US. The route lives up to its name because it rolls for 18-miles atop the 5,400-foot peaks of the Smokies. Motorists are given breathtaking, unobstructed mountain-top views before descending for 23-miles into Tennessee’s lush forests. There are pull-offs to soak up the scenery and snap some pictures, as well as waterfalls and hiking trails to explore. Be sure you have plenty of gas and pack water and snacks for this desolate but scenic trip. The weather can be cool in the summer, so dress accordingly, while crossing in winter can be extremely dangerous.
Thomas Clingman (1812-1897) boasted that this mountain was the highest point in the area. When his claim was verified, they named it after him in his honor. Clingman’s Dome Road is a 50-minute drive south from Gatlinburg and is off Newfound Gap Road. This 7-mile road climbs the Tennessee Smokies giving motor enthusiasts scenic views and pull-offs for picnics, sightseeing, and hiking. There is a parking lot at the end of the road where a half-mile paved trail leads to Clingman’s Dome. The hike is steep, but there are park benches along the way if you need to rest. In the Dome, visitors can take in the 360° view of the highest point in the Smokies. Because the Dome is at 6,643 feet above sea level, be sure to dress warmly even in summer as temperatures can be 10-20 degrees cooler. Clingman’s Dome Road is closed from December 1-March 31, but the Dome is open year-round.
The Tail of The Dragon
The name alone should pique the interest of those with a sense of adventure. It is located near Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and is 11-miles of 318 sharp curves. The drive got its name because it looks like the tail of a dragon when viewed from overhead. The road will test any driver's skills, so it is no wonder that it attracts motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts who tackle it with gusto. Because of its popularity with such drivers, it’s best to avoid driving on the weekend from 11 AM-5 PM. If you would like to test your mettle on this serpentine adventure, check out How to Drive the Tail of the Dragon for some valuable tips.
Blue Ridge Parkway
This 469-mile iconic roadway meanders atop the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and heads south into the Smoky Mountains. You can access the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee, North Carolina, which is milepost 469. The Smoky Mountain section of the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses some higher peaks, giving motorists grand views and photo opportunities. There are plenty of scenic view pull-offs, access roads to surrounding cities, as well as camping and hiking opportunities. If you go as far as milepost 304, you can drive on the Linn Cove Viaduct. This engineering marvel was completed in 1987 and winds around rugged Grandfather Mountain that towers 5,946 feet above sea level.
Not many tourists know about The Foothills Parkway, which is why we include it in our prime destinations. One reason it isn’t well-known is that it is long from being completed. The two finished sections, Foothills Parkway East and Foothills Parkway West have breathtaking scenic overlooks and are close to other Smoky Mountain attractions. Trucks are not allowed on the parkway, and the only sign of civilization is the road you’re traveling.
Foothills Parkway East starts at exit #443 off Interstate 40, climbs over Green Mountain, and ends 6-miles later in Cosby, Tennessee. This portion of the parkway has three scenic pull-offs where visitors can take in English Mountain, the divide between North Carolina and Tennessee, and Cades Cove.
Foothills Parkway West stretches 18-miles from Walland, Tennessee, down to Chilhowee and rolls along the Chilhowee Mountain crest. The views are spectacular, and on clear days, you can see the Cumberland Mountains some 50-miles away.
There are plenty of other roads to explore in the Smoky Mountains, each offering unique driving experiences as well as mountain-top views. No matter which you decide to drive, be sure you have plenty of fuel and take your time to enjoy the Smoky Mountains.