Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Newcomers to Great Smoky Mountains National Park should try these three main motor routes to begin their exploring: Newfound Gap Road, Cades Cove Road, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, is a national treasure well worth visiting. Known worldwide for its ancient mountains, its amazing diversity of plants and animals, and for its preservation of American pioneer culture, this park contains several must-see sights for the first-time visitor. Those listed here are all accessible by one of three motor routes: Newfound Gap Road, Cades Cove Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
A good way to begin your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains is by going to one of the visitor centers, where you can get maps, talk with the rangers, and visit several exhibits. There are three in the park:
1.) Sugarlands--near Gatlinburg, TN
2.) Oconaluftee --near Cherokee, NC
3.) Cades Cove--near Townsend, TN
Newfound Gap Road
The longest motor route in the Park is the Newfound Gap Road, the lowest pass negotiable by vehicle through the Smoky Mountains, and the name for US Route 441 as it goes through the Park. Thirty-three miles long, it connects Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina. It is passable by RV's and buses. However, remember that it is a winding, climbing mountain road, and take appropriate precautions. Along your drive, which usually takes about one hour to complete, you will see spectacular views of the mountains and the valleys below. There are several pull-off areas where you can stare in awe and take photographs. At Newfound Gap itself, which stands at an elevation of 5,048 feet, you will be rewarded with mountain views, which are fitted in a combination of hardwood and spruce-fir forests. You will probably also see why these are called the Smokies, for a bluish haze often cloaks these ancient elevations.
Approximately 1/10th of a mile from Newfound Gap is Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, and the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. It is located on the ridge dividing North Carolina and Tennessee. The peak is accessible after driving Clingman's Dome Road from Newfound Gap, and then by walking a steep half-mile trail. An observation tower awaits you at the top, where you can see for one hundred miles on clear days.
Other attractions along the Newfound Gap Road include: the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Mountain Farm Museum, and Mingus Mill. The Farm Museum is adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and is based on a typical Southern Appalachian farm in the late 1800's. Several buildings from throughout the Great Smoky Mountains region were gathered to create this farmstead. Admission is free, and the museum is open year round. Mingus Mill is a half-mile north of the Mountain Farm Museum. A working mill, it processes corn into meal utilizing 19th century equipment. Generally, it is open daily in summer and on the weekends in spring and fall.
Cades Cove Road
Cades Cove Road is the second must-see motor route in the Park. The road accesses the cove via an eleven mile one-way loop. The paved road is open from sunrise to sunset year-round. Cades Cove lies in a lovely valley, and has wide-open fields surrounded by 5,000-foot mountain peaks. It is the most popular destination within the Park, receiving more than 2.5 million visitors yearly. Several historic buildings are here, including some that were original to the Cades Cove community. Others were brought here from various locations throughout the Park. The collection of a working gristmill, homes, churches, and barns show that the pioneers here were not just "ignorant hillbillies," but instead were part of a thriving community. This is a very peaceful place, one that beckons you to return.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
A third route the newcomer should take is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The Trail is an 11-mile loop along with Cherokee Orchard Road, which is unsuitable for buses, RV's or bicyclists. It takes you through the forested mountain wilderness, with the thick foliage of catawba rhododendrons ever-present, and where water is a constant companion. Streams, cascades, falls and rapids are all along the roadside. Many hiking trails are along the route, if you wish to leave your car.
A visit to the Smoky Mountains is often overshadowed by the dominant commercialism of Gatlinburg and Cherokee. Don't let these places keep you from the real wonders that lie within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Driving the Newfound Gap Road, Cades Cove Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail will give you a sip of the wilderness, leaving you thirsting for more.