Road Trip: Exploring the Tennessee Mountains From Knoxville to Chattanooga

A Road Trip Story

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But straight lines don’t make for exciting road trip adventures. The “straight line” from Knoxville to Chattanooga is a two-hour drive along I-75. But the “adventure line” is a 218-mile wavy route through the Eastern Tennessee mountains that will take you through big cities, small towns, gorgeous national scenic byways, and lots of adventure. If you’re still undecided about straight line vs adventure line just keep reading.

 
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Road Trip Options

This is a road trip that can be enjoyed in as little as a weekend or for as long as a week. It all depends on how much you want to see and do along the way. Here are some options for making this road trip as short or long as you like.

Two-Day Road Trip: Start early in Knoxville and spend the first day driving as far as Tellico Plains. There are several options for lodging that includes a lodge, inn, bed and breakfasts, and cabins. On the second day drive to Chattanooga to spend the night.

Three-Day Road Trip: Similar to the two-day road trip option start early in Knoxville but spend the first night in Sweetwater. Take the second day to drive through Tellico Plains and spend the second night in Cleveland. Finally, the spend the last night in Chattanooga.

Four-Day Road Trip: Enjoy a little more time in Knoxville before heading out for a short first-day drive to Townsend to spend the first night. On the second day drive as far as Tellico Plains. Spend the third day exploring options to Cleveland, and finally spend the fourth night in Chattanooga.

Five-Day Road Trip: This would be just about as long as you could enjoy this particular road trip. Get an early start in Knoxville and spend the first night in Townsend, second night in Lenoir City, third night in Tellico Plains, fourth night in Cleveland, and final night in Chattanooga.

Of course you could always slow down, enjoy more than one night at a single destination, and thoroughly enjoy the East Tennessee mountains. I once spent 9 days driving just this route. If you want to spend some extra time somewhere I would recommend Townsend and Cleveland for more country enjoyment and outdoor recreation and then Knoxville and Chattanooga for more museums, nightly entertainment, and greater options for local food.

Begin Road Trip

I recommend spending the first night in Knoxville, even if you only have a weekend to enjoy this road trip. This way you can start fresh bright and early on Saturday morning.

The open-air Market Square Farmers' Market is the place to be on any Saturday morning in Knoxville.
1Knoxville, TN
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It all starts in Knoxville, one of the Big Four cities of Tennessee. Anchoring most of northeast Tennessee the city is home to the University of Tennessee, a hub for outdoor recreation, and a growing mecca of urban revitalization.

It would be possible to spend a week in Knoxville without ever having to do the same thing twice, but that defeats the purpose of a road trip. For that reason, and with great reluctance to all you will miss around the city, I suggest staying in the heart of Knoxville for your adventure.

The Holiday Inn Knoxville Downtown on the edge of downtown is a great location to spend the night. This comfortable hotel has modernized with ways to cut down on their carbon footprint while still giving you everything you want for a comfortable stay. They also allow pets to stay with you (you will find Knoxville to be a very pet-friendly city).

If you happen to be spending Saturday morning in Knoxville the place to be is the Market Square Farmers’ Market. A two-block stretch of city street and public park turns into a tent village with locally-made arts and crafts, clothing, produce, and baked goods. If you’re not in the city on a Saturday the square still makes a beautiful to walk lined with shops and restaurants.

One of those restaurants is Not Watson’s. If you’ve never had chicken and waffles now is the time to try it. The small, casual setting is a great place to grab a quick lunch or a longer dinner. Soccer Taco next door is also a great place for any meal of the day that also frequently plays whatever sports game happens to be on television. After finishing off a meal head to the north end of Market Square to the Knoxville Chocolate Company for a sweet dessert you can take with you on the road trip.

A right of passage for locals and visitors alike is to enjoy a meal at Calhoun’s on the River. This locally-owned restaurant chain is growing in size and popularity, known for their amazing BBQ meals. The downtown location is on the banks of the Tennessee River just a few blocks from Market Square, but also an easy drive with plenty of parking if you don’t want to walk. Neyland Greenway wraps around the restaurant and will take you along a scenic walk on the river when your meal is done.

Enjoy an evening of entertainment at the Tennessee Theatre, the official state theater of Tennessee. This historic building hosts live shows, puts on special holiday performances, and plays classic movies throughout the year. The plush interior will make you feel like royalty for a few hours beneath a gorgeous lighted dome. When the show is over head next door to Clancy’s Tavern for a drink (or two if you’re walking).

Knoxville to Foothills Parkway

28 miles

Upon leaving Knoxville behind be sure to take Highway 129 toward Maryville. The four-lane road parallels the Tennessee River for awhile and offers a stunning view of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. After passing through the hustle and bustle of Maryville the road will eventually downgrade to a curvy two-lane road through a mountain pass.

Townsend is just a few miles beyond the entrance to the Foothills Parkway. It is definitely worth a detour to visit the small mountain town, even if you only have a few hours. But I bet you just might be convinced to spend the night once you arrive.

If not you can continue along the Foothills Parkway, but just remember you missed something you will need to come back and see later.

The tiny man in the photo might give you some perspective of just how massive this room is deep inside Tuckaleechee Caverns.
2Townsend, TN
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Townsend markets itself as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”, and they’re absolutely correct. This small town is just twenty minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but you won’t find the intensity or corporate footprint like you do in Gatlinburg. The almost unnecessarily wide four lane road through town will give you a sense of separation and peacefulness.

Begin your exploration at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. The fantastic museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits depicting the history of frontier life in the mountains. For an even deeper history head over to the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum to learn about logging in the mountains that would eventually become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They have a train on display outside and a nice museum to wander through.

Get on the water and cool off during the summer heat and humidity with a trip water tubing down the Little River with River Rat. The locally-owned tubing and whitewater rafting outdoor center will have you peacefully drifting down the river in minutes. Another way to escape the elements is to take a guided tour at Tuckaleechee Caverns. The father and son team have been exploring the caverns beneath the mountain for years and have more than a few great stories to tell. You’ll enter one of the largest underground caverns in the country and walk to the base of a 210′ underground waterfall.

Grab something to eat and do some shopping at Apple Valley Mountain Village. The enormous store features clothing, collectibles, cookware, and gift items to commemorate your trip to the mountains. The restaurant next door features a large menu but really you go there for the Burger & Toppings Bar. When you’re ready to leave be sure to grab one of their mouthwatering fried apple pies or head back to the store for a bite of locally-made fudge.

If this town is just too charming to leave you can book a cabin at Dancing Bear Lodge. The mountain resort features luxury villas, small cabins, and charming cottages ranging from 1-2 bedrooms each. Tucked away on the hill behind Apple Valley it’s a perfectly quiet place to enjoy the peaceful side of the Smokies.

Foothills Parkway to Lenoir City

51 miles

Construction on the Foothills Parkway was started in 1944. The idea, authorized by Congress, was to create a 71-mile national scenic byway connecting Interstate 40 with Highway 129 across the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. However only a short 16.5-mile section between Highway 321 and Highway 129 has ever been completed, though another section is currently in the works.

The section that is open for driving includes an easy two-lane road ascending the mountains with scenic overlooks and hiking trails along the way. The overlooks on the left (driving south) face the Great Smoky Mountains while the overlooks on the right face the flat lands of the Cumberland Plateau. Several of the overlooks facing west have views of Knoxville, especially at night with all the light pollution.

About halfway along the Foothills Parkway is Look Rock. The parking lot on the left has a nice scenic overlook of the valley between the foothills and the Great Smoky Mountains. Across the road is a short 0.9-mile roundtrip hike along the Look Rock Tower Trail, leading to a concrete observation tower on the mountain summit. It is a moderate hike with a 170’s ascent along the trail to the top and takes about 30 minutes to complete roundtrip.

The Foothills Parkway comes to an end at Highway 129 on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. Once you reach Highway 411 you might want to take a short detour to visit two exciting attractions in this part of Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains rise in the distance from inside the recreation of the fort at Fort Loudon State Park.

The first is Fort Loudon State Park. The park features an amazing full size recreation of a frontier fort built by the British. It was the only fort in history to be taken away from British control by Native Americans, led by a chief of the Cherokee. Today the park has a few short hiking trails, the fort to explore, and stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Near the state park is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, commemorating the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet. Although the museum is still playing outdated VHS tapes the museum is still interesting to explore. There are a few buildings outside to visit during your trip here, and the gift shop has lots of books and gift items for your road trip adventure.

The road trip continues along a few different roads before finally reconnecting with Highway 321 and crossing a new bridge over the Tennessee River into Lenoir City.

The Kick Back Burger at Calhoun's was the perfect meal for a lazy summer afternoon sitting outside on the river.
3Lenoir City, TN
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Lenoir City is a great place to spend a night because of the abundance of hotels. Ironically at this point with the curvy path of this road trip you’re still only twenty-five miles from Knoxville.

One of the best reasons to visit this city is the Fort Loudon Marina. Pontoon rentals start at $115 for four hours, just enough time to get out on the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers. You won’t have enough time to travel back to Knoxville, but then again they do offer full-day rentals at the marina.

Just in case you didn’t get your Calhoun’s fix in Knoxville they have another location beside the marina in Lenoir City. This location is also built on the Tennessee River with outdoor seating right on the water. It’s a great place to spend an evening with views of the mountains for miles.

Speaking of those views, there is a particular place in Lenoir City called the “Million Dollar View”. It’s located on City Park Drive near a parking lot built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. From here the Great Smoky Mountains rise in the distance with a clear view of the mighty Tennessee River in the foreground.

If that view wasn’t good enough you can also enjoy stunning sunset views from the Tellico Dam Reservation Boat Ramp. This public boat ramp access on the Little Tennessee River faces an earthen dam and flood gate built by the TVA to support the nearby dam. With just a little bit of water in the foreground and clear horizon, it’s an amazing place to spend a late summer evening.

Lenoir City to Tellico Plains

42 miles

Leaving Lenoir City and the rivers behind the main route of the road trip continues along the flat lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains through several small towns. It’s a beautiful drive through the eastern Tennessee countryside along two-lane roads with views for miles.

Along the way you’ll pass Sweetwater Valley Farm. Located on a hill on the other side of a railroad it’s hard to miss this dairy farm. They offer guided tours of their dairy production that introduces you to the cows, explains the process of making their famous cheeses, and ends at a small museum. You’ll buy a ticket at the store where you can also pick out a cheese to take along on your trip (that will go great with the wine you’ll get later).

One of the most unique and exciting experiences in Tennessee is riding a pontoon boat across an underground lake at The Lost Sea Adventure.

The Lost Sea Adventure is one place you just about can’t pass no matter how limited you are on time. The locally-owned attraction features wild cave tours, gem hunting, and hiking along a nature trail. But the main attraction is the 4-acre lake located 140′ below ground in a massive cavern. Daily tours follow a .75-mile hike through the cave system to a pontoon boat where you spend about twenty minutes drifting along the cool lake.

Remember that cheese you needed to buy? It would go great with some wine from Tsali Notch Vineyard. This locally-owned vineyard has a commanding view of the Great Smoky Mountains from a hill in the countryside. Step inside the small tasting room to enjoy their wine selection. Buy a bottle if you find one you like and enjoy the view from the tables and chairs outside (that cheese would go great with the wine right about now).

Enjoy the rest of the pleasant drive through the small town of Madisonville to Tellico Plains. It’s a beautiful drive to a hidden pocket of vistas in the mountains of Tennessee.

The stunning view from the Turkey Creek Overlook on the Cherohala Skyway about thirty minutes from Tellico Plains.
4Tellico Plains
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Tellico Plains is one of those small mountain towns where everybody knows everybody else and visitors are always welcome. Begin at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center just after turning into town. The visitor center has large maps of the Skyway, information about the town, and a small gift shop. Next door the Charles Hall Museum features an amazing collection of vintage photography, historical artifacts from the region, and a large gun collection. The museum was curated by Charles Hall, a former mayor of Tellico Plains. It offers a great glimpse into local history.

If you want to grab something to eat head over to the Tellico Plains Bakery or start heading out of town to discover the Tellico Beach Drive-In, an iconic place everyone needs to visit in Tellico Plains. Grab a cooked-to-order meal (I highly recommend the thick onion rings and creamy milkshakes) then enjoy the view of the river from a picnic table.

The Cherohala Skyway is a 44-mile national scenic byway connecting Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, NC. Opened in 1996 it has become a huge tourism draw for the region but still remains one of the best hidden destinations in the state. It takes about two hours to drive the entire route into North Carolina, but for this road trip you’ll drive the first 15 miles. If you really want to explore the Skyway and all it has to offer you can book a room at a local cabin or enjoy camping on the Skyway.

The captivating Bald River Falls in full glory, seen from the bridge just a few hundred feet away.

Three miles from the Tellico Beach Drive-In is River Road. Six miles down that road will bring you to the gorgeous Bald River Falls. The 100′ tall waterfall is just a couple hundred feet away from a bridge and when at full capacity the mist from the falls will moisten your face. Just around the corner is Baby Falls and a small parking area with restrooms. Kayakers love going over the 8′ tall waterfall into the pool below (then getting their kayaks out of the water and doing it all over again).

Return to the Cherohala Skyway and begin the ascent up the mountain chain. After a 12-mile drive you’ll come to the Turkey Creek Overlook and the best view along the entire Skyway. The large parking lot has restrooms, picnic tables, and a commanding view looking westward across the flat terrain of Tennessee beyond the Appalachian Mountains. This is a fantastic place to watch sunset throughout the year or enjoy the show of a passing summer thunderstorm.

If you want to spend a little more time in the area and maybe stretch your legs head over to the Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area. Built at one end of the natural lake is a large campground, beach area, and opportunity for some outdoor recreation. There are three loops to the campground and a primitive overflow campground (Loop A is the best section).

The lake has a small beach area with covered shelters and offers stunning views of the mountains. People frequently kayak, canoe, swim, and float on the calm lake. With a bathhouse and changed rooms at the beach it’s possible to go for a swim and then hit the road to discover your next adventure.

Tellico Plains to Cleveland

70 miles

Rafting the Ocoee River along the same route as the 1996 Summer Olympics is a thrilling experience, even if you’re just watching.

Leaving Tellico Plains the two-lane Highway 68 becomes a curvy stretch of road as it crosses a few mountain ranges and the Hiwassee River. In Ducktown take US Highway 74/64 toward Cleveland. This road passes through a gorge along the Ocoee River and one of the most scenic drives in the state.

Along the way you’ll come across the Ocoee Whitewater Center was the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Although the course of the river was altered it is still the only natural river to ever be used for the canoe and kayak slalom events. Today the massive center is used as a special event venue, visitor center, gift shop, and cafe owned and maintained by the US Forestry Service. There is plenty of parking at the center and along the river, hiking trails on either side, and plenty of places to just sit back and enjoy the view.

The drive along the river is beautiful but there aren’t many safe places to pull over and enjoy the view. Eventually the river dumps into Lake Ocoee and you’ll come across Parksville Beach, a great place to swim in the lake or enjoy sitting outside for awhile. High above the beach is the winding Oswald Road. The paved road leads to the Chilhowee Recreation Area for camping and hiking, but before that there are three scenic overlooks. One of the best is simply called the Ocoee Overlook and has a stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Just before arriving in Cleveland is a complex for outdoor recreation called Adventures Unlimited. This locally-owned campus of recreation features a campground, Mexican restaurant, gift shop and outfitter, an outdoor bar, and whitewater adventures on the Ocoee River. An old school bus has been converted into an outdoor bar with covered seating and live music on the weekends. The rafting trips are led by a team of experts who enjoy the thrill of the rapids as much as the visitors.

From here it is only a few more minutes to arrive in Cleveland, TN.

The charming downtown of Cleveland has plenty of shopping, walking, and eating to keep you busy.
5Cleveland
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Cleveland is a gorgeous and exciting town to visit about an hour northeast of Chattanooga. It’s just outside a vibrant area of Tennessee for outdoor recreation and a popular destination for weekend visitors. There are plenty of hotels throughout the city for an overnight stay.

The Museum Center at 5ive Points is an anchor of the 5-Points District in downtown; the museum is filled with artifacts and exhibits from local and state history. Stop by the visitor center to pick up a copy of the free Downtown Walking Tour to explore the town and learn about history, culture, and what to do.

When you get hungry try heading over to Jenkins Restaurant & Deli, a local favorite with some amazing appetizers (the Fried Pickle Chips are my favorite appetizer I’ve ever discovered). If you don’t mind a little drive in the country go out to Morris Vineyard. The locally-owned vineyard has raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries for the picking (in season) and a tasting room with a gorgeous view of the local mountains.

Cleveland to Chattanooga

32 miles

The final leg of the road trip is another pleasant drive through the Tennessee countryside toward the Tennessee River. Harrison Bay State Park is a great place to spend some time along the river with hiking trails, a marina, swimming, and a nice campground. The state park also features a golf course if you want to hit the links for a few hours.

The remainder of the drive into Chattanooga is easy and you’ll arrive downtown in about another half an hour.

The Tennessee Aquarium tickets are issued for each building separately because you just might need two days to see it all.
6Chattanooga
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Chattanooga is one of the most active and outdoorsy cities in the Southeastern United States. Rock climbing, kayaking, bicycling, and hiking are not just activities for tourist on weekends but commitments me locals who love the outdoors. It’s almost impossible to get a feel for Chattanooga in less than three days, and I recommend five days for a complete visit, but here are two areas to explore for a short road trip adventure.

Downtown Chattanooga is a beautiful, clean area to explore. Park at the Tennessee Aquarium parking lot and plan to spend the day. The aquarium is so large it is spread cross two buildings: one for the ocean exhibits and another for the freshwater.

Take a walk along Aquarium Way to the top of a hill at Walnut Street. Turn left and you’ll spot the vibrant blue Walnut Street Bridge, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. The former vehicular bridge was renovated for pedestrian-only use and spans the Tennessee River. You can rent a bicycle by the hour from the automated kiosks and ride end-to-end to enjoy the scenery. On your back be sure to stop at The Ice Cream Show for a cool treat to fight the summer heat.

Walk across the infamous glass bridge, if you dare, to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art or do some shopping in the Bluff View Art District. One of the best spots in Chattanooga to watch the sunset is a covered outdoor patio at the museum overlooking the Walnut Street Bridge and Tennessee River.

Sunset view from the Hunter Museum of American Art looking across the Tennessee River.

A completely different Chattanooga experience involves a short drive to the Big Four attractions of Lookout Mountain. Ruby Falls offers exciting guided tours to the tallest freefalling underground waterfall in the country. Whether you want to start from the top or bottom, ride the Incline Railway to enjoy the steepest railroad grade in the country. See Rock City, across the state line into Georgia, is one of the most popular attractions in the Southeast with hiking trails through ravines, tunnels, and across swinging bridges with breathtaking views.

End your day on Lookout Mountain with a walk through the peaceful Point Park, a remote section of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Walk out to Ochs Observatory to enjoy one of the best views of the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga nearly a thousand feet below. For a real treat walk along the quaint streets to Sunset Rock; it’s a bit of a hike getting down to it but once you arrive you’ll see how it gets the name.

End Road Trip

It’s always a bittersweet experience when an amazing road trip comes to an end. But after reading all this information you know it is possible to drive this exact route several times without ever doing the same thing twice. Take a weekend or an entire week and I doubt you’ll be bored with this road trip across the Tennessee mountains from Knoxville to Chattanooga.