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6 Awesome Auto Touring Routes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has six amazing auto touring routes for an easy tour through the nature of the Appalachian Mountains.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

Located on these road trip routes:

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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.

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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.

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Cades Cove

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.

READ MORE: 8 Fun Things to Do in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Cataloochee Valley Road

Cataloochee Valley is the most remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The only way into the valley is a partially paved, partially graveled road from Interstate 40 near Waynesville. The journey into the valley takes a good forty minutes – but the effort could be worth it for the peaceful scenery.

Elk roam the large fields and wild turkey frequently gather along the road. Historic buildings like an old barn and residence are open for visitors to explore. There are a few hiking trails or you could just sit by the creek and listen to the water churn.

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Foothills Parkway

The 38.6-mile Foothills Parkway is one of the most overlooked areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Broken into two sections, the length between Wears Valley and U.S. Highway 221 rides along a ridge opposite the national park.

The parkway features scenic overlooks with gorgeous views of the Great Smoky Mountains and a peaceful drive that should not be missed. Spend an evening at Look Rock where you’ll find an observation tower at the end of a short hiking trail.

READ MORE: The Complete Travel Guide to the Foothills Parkway in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

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 waterfall in the park visible from your car, and go for a splash in the cool waters at The Townsend Wye.

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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.

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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.

READ MORE: Travel Guide to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

6 Responses

  1. Will you be open 8/12/20 till 8/19/30. Rv trailer, what would the price be. Could you give me a ball park figure, thank you.

  2. Roaring Fork is NOT open year round. It’s a seasonal closure and closes in winter every single year. It should also be noted it’s narrow, winding, and no large vehicles (motor homes, pulling trailers, etc.) are allowed.

    1. All very good points! I’ll look into revamping this a little bit and adding in some of that information. This was just a simple roundup, though, and if I start adding notes about all the routes it would get so big!

  3. These are eye-popping pictures Jason. I definitely look forward to a road tip to and through this region. One of my readers lives in this general area and raves about it. I can see why now. Talk about an unending flow of inspired natural beauty to enjoy, in peaceful, chill surroundings. Totally my speed.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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