Not everyone has the time, ability, or desire to strap on a pair of trail runners and hike dozens of miles through a rugged mountain terrain. Sometimes all a person wants is to enjoy some scenic beauty along a route from the comfort of a personal vehicle. Fortunately the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has six of those routes, called auto touring routes, throughout various sections of the park.
What is an Auto Touring Route?
An auto touring route is simply a designated highway within the boundaries of a National Park System site that allows people to explore history, culture, and nature with their own personal vehicle. It’s not strictly a driving route; there are usually scenic overlooks, exhibits, information shelters, and hiking trails to enjoy along the route.
The biggest difference with an auto touring route is that they are usually, but not always, one-way roads. This creates a more peaceful atmosphere with just one-way traffic and makes it safer and easier to get that chicken across the road.
Cades Cove is one of the most popular and iconic areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road whisks visitors into a cellphone dead spot in the mountains along a one-lane road winding through a dead end valley.
Cades Cove is the location of popular destinations like John Oliver Place, Abrams Falls, John Cable Mill, and Tipton Place. The early morning hours and late evening hours an abundance of wildlife including deer, wild turkeys, and bear will appear along the road in trees and large open fields.
It takes about an hour to drive the eleven mile loop road but that entirely depends on traffic (and people who block traffic). Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane are the only two-way roads in Cades Cove, both gravel roads that allows visitors to cut the 11-mile loop short.
Cataloochee Valley Road
Cataloochee Valley is the only section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I have yet to visit and that is entirely because of its remoteness. The only way to access the valley is from Interstate 40 on the northeast side of the park. The only road leading in and out of the valley is a narrow gravel road with steep drop offs and no guard rails.
But once inside the valley visitors will find horseback riding trails, hiking trails, the Jarvis Palmer House, Beech Grove School, and a small campground.
The 16.5-mile stretch of the Foothills Parkway that is open today extends from Chilhowie on the southern end to Walhalla. The original intent in 1944 was to build a 71-mile parkway along the crest of a mountain range opposite a valley from the Great Smoky Mountains extending from the Little Tennessee River to Interstate 40. Funding issues have prevented this road from being finished, leaving it the longest running incomplete highway in the state.
Little River Road
Beginning at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg the Little River Road winds twenty-five miles along the Little River across an old railroad path past Townsend and into Cades Cove. This two lane highway is one of two major arteries running through the national park connecting various destinations and campgrounds.
Along the way visitors can discover the not so hidden Elkmont Historic District, learn the history of The Sinks, take a look at the only major waterfall in the park visible from your car, and go for a splash in the cool waters at The Townsend Wye.
Newfound Gap Road
Newfound Gap Road (US Highway 441) is the main highway through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park connecting Gatlinburg, Tennessee with Cherokee, North Carolina. The road passes through Newfound Gap, the lowest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 5,046′ in elevation. At 16 miles from Gatlinburg and 18 miles from Cherokee, Newfound Gap is near the middle of the most-traversed section of the national park.
The two lane road is the busiest section of the entire park that sees thousands of vehicles a day travel the road back and forth. Each end of the road is anchored by a visitor center: Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg and Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. Popular trails at Chimney Tops and Alum Cave draw dozens of early morning hikers who eagerly claim the few parking spots for themselves. Mingus Mill in North Carolina is one of only two mills left in the national park.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
My favorite auto touring route in the national park also happens to be the shortest and easiest to access. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is an 8-mile one-way route that begins and ends in Gatlinburg. It’s a popular destination for people who know it is there but ironically, despite the location in town, it remains mostly hidden.
The route begins at Ogle Place, one of many historic homes and structures scattered along the motor trail. Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls are two of the most popular waterfall hikes in the national park, each located along the road here. But the Roaring Fork gets its name from the bubbling creek that runs along the last half of the route; this is a popular place for people to capture photos of the cascading water and take a dip in the cool mountain stream.