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

Scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and points of interest, here is everything you need to know about traveling the Foothills Parkway.

Written by

Jason Barnette

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August 17, 2020

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

There was a moment where the road touched the sky. Of course, my car was still firmly affixed to the pavement, but it was still exhilarating all the same. Beyond the road, across a valley, the Great Smoky Mountains spread across the horizon like a scene in a coffee table photo book. Welcome to the Foothills Parkway.

I love exploring maps. It’s my favorite way to discover exciting road trip routes, points of interest, and off the beaten path destinations. My first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was in 2013; three years later, I returned for my third visit and spent a week in Gatlinburg. While browsing the map of the park, I came across something called the Foothills Parkway.

The Foothills Parkway is an out-of-the-way section of the national park that has become mostly forgotten, except for the locals who want to keep it a secret. There is very little information about the Parkway, even on the national park’s official website, and even the locals know little more than where to drive to see it.

When a new 10-mile section of the Foothills Parkway opened in 2018, it gained a lot of attention. But the information was still lacking. That’s when I decided to spend three days exploring the road end-to-end and crafting a complete travel guide to the Foothills Parkway in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In the 1930s, the United States Congress established two national parks in the southeast: Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The latter covers a vast 500,000 acres across the Great Smoky Mountains and draws the most visitors to any national park site in the country.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for outdoor recreation, scenic auto touring routes, wildlife, and peaceful escapes into the mountains. Cades Cove, Clingman’s Dome, and Newfound Gap are just a few of the iconic destinations in the park.

But there are many lesser-known areas like Deep Creek, Cataloochee Valley, and the Foothills Parkway.

107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-1200 | www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm

Brief History of the Foothills Parkway

During the planning phase of the Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the initial route would have seen the Parkway pass through Tennessee, not North Carolina. When the final plan was approved, though, the route had been shifted east into the Western North Carolina mountains, excluding Tennessee entirely.

A local grassroots movement began lobbying the Congress for a National Park Service parkway through the Volunteer State. In 1944, Congress authorized a 72-mile long corridor between Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 129 for a new parkway. The task of purchasing the right of way fell to the state of Tennessee, who then transferred the deed to the NPS.

READ MORE: 101 Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It took nearly twenty years for Section A, a 5.6-mile route between I-40 and Cosby, to open to the public. In 1966, Section H, a 16.9-mile route between U.S. Highway 129 and Walland, was completed. Construction began on Section G, a 10-mile route between Walland and Wears Valley, but funding ran out, the project was halted, and nearly sixty years later it had almost faded from local memory.

An increase in funding to the National Park Service in 2012 brought new life to the project. Construction resumed on a series of bridges between Carr Creek and Wears Valley. In 2018, Section G opened to the public. Today, the Foothills Parkway winds along 38.6 miles of roadway with another 33.4 miles to be completed at a future date.

What’s in a Name?

Unlike the other parkways maintained by the National Park Service, the Foothills Parkway contains no official names for the scenic overlooks. Considering the oldest section of the Parkway has existed for nearly 60 years, I think the NPS may have no intention of ever naming the overlooks.

While writing this travel guided, I realized it would become confusing to simply call them “Foothills Parkway West Overlook #1” and so forth. I decided to give each of the scenic overlooks a name. I used nearby geological features, mountain peaks, and points of interest with the carefully selected names.

One day, the National Park Service may decide to designate official names. At that time, I will update this travel guide. But how cool would it be if the NPS chose to use the names I created?

Foothills Parkway East

The 5.6-mile section between Interstate 40 and Cosby was the first to be completed. Opening in the 1960s, today it is called Foothills Parkway East.

Intersection

Interstate 40

Take Exit 443 from Interstate 40 onto the Foothills Parkway. Unfortunately, if the Parkway is closed, you will not know it until crossing the bridge over the interstate and coming to a gate (this has happened to me twice).

No. 1

English Mountain Overlook

Foothills Parkway East begins with a gentle climb to the first scenic overlook where the official entrance sign welcomes visitors. From the overlook, English Mountain rises to 3,628’, covering the horizon to the west.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs.

No. 2

Stone Mountain Overlook

At 3,605’, the sharp peak of Stone Mountain rises to the far right at this scenic overlook. The mountain is separated from the Great Smoky Mountains range by the Pigeon River. The panorama vista at the overlook offers a view north beyond Kelly Knob toward Newport.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs.

No. 3

Mount Cammerer Overlook

At 4,927’, Mount Cammerer is the northernmost significant peak of the Great Smoky Mountains. The Appalachian Trail crosses the south slope of the mountain, and a spur trail leads to a rebuilt fire tower offering a stunning panorama view.

The panorama vista offers a good look at the northern end of the Great Smoky Mountains range. The mountain range is about 50 miles long between the Pigeon River to the north and the Little Tennessee River to the south.

This scenic overlook has parking for maybe a dozen personal vehicles and one or two RVs at a time.

READ MORE: Where to Find the Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No. 4

Inadu Knob Overlook

Inadu Knob, rising to 5,925’, is the northernmost mile-high peak the Appalachian Trail traverses through the Great Smoky Mountains. The 10.6-mile Snake Den Ridge Trail begins in the Cosby Campground nearby and ascends nearly 3,500’ to Inadu Knob.

This scenic overlook has parking for about a dozen personal vehicles, but because the parking is in the curve of the Parkway, I would not recommend RVs stopping here.

AllTrails App

Whenever I want to go for a hike, the planning begins with AllTrails. Their website and app are my favorite tools for discovering hiking trails, getting information on length and elevation changes, and creating lists to remember my favorites.
 
Download the app on iOs or Android.  

Tallest Peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains

At 5,925’, Inadu Knob is the highest peak of the Great Smoky Mountains viewable from a scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway. However, it’s not the tallest peak in the mountain range. 11 peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains are known as Southern Sixers, or mountains that rise above 6,000’.

Here are the 11 highest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains:

  • Clingmans Dome 6,643’
  • Mount Guyot 6,621’
  • Mount LeConte 6,593’
  • Mount Chapman 6,431’
  • Old Black 6,360’
  • Luftee Knob 6,215’
  • Mount Kephart 6,218’
  • Mount Collins 6,197’
  • Marks Knob 6,162’
  • Tricorner Knob 6,145’
  • Mount Hardison 6,145’
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Intersection

U.S Highway 321

Foothills Parkway East comes to an abrupt end at U.S. Highway 321 in the small community of Cosby. Eventually, the Parkway will continue across the road and trace a route along the crest of another mountain range to U.S. Highway 441. But for now, visitors will have to exit the Parkway to continue.

From this intersection, it is 12 miles / 15 minutes to Newport and Interstate 40, about 20 miles / 30 minutes to Gatlinburg, and 24 miles / 45 minutes to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

READ MORE: Cosby Nature Loop Trail at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Foothills Parkway West

This section of the Foothills Parkway is divided by U.S. Highway 321. The southern section was completed in 1966 and the northern section in 2018. Together, the route is called Foothills Parkway West.

Intersection

U.S. Highway 129

The southern end of the Foothills Parkway is located at an intersection with U.S. 129 at the Little Tennessee River in the community of Chilhowee.

From this intersection, it is 25 miles / 45 minutes to Fontana Dam. This drive includes an adventure on the Tail of the Dragon and a visit to the Fontana Dam Visitor Center.

It is 17 miles / 25 minutes to U.S. Highway 411 in Vonore. Just minutes from this intersection is Fort Loudon State Park, one of my favorite Tennessee state parks with a gorgeous view of the Great Smoky Mountains from a recreation of a British-era frontier fort.

Restrooms on the Foothills Parkway

Plan carefully before beginning an adventure on the Foothills Parkway. The only public restrooms available on the Parkway are at the Look Rock Picnic Area.

Visitors can find restrooms about 5-10 minutes from the Cosby Entrance, Wears Valley Entrance, and Walland Entrance. However, the nearest restrooms to the Chilhowee Entrance along U.S. Highway 129 is about 25 minutes away in Vonore.

No. 1

Parson Bald Overlook

Beginning at the Chilhowee Entrance at U.S. Highway 129, the Parson Bald Overlook is the first scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway. The overlook offers a gorgeous view of Parson Bald at 4,732’ and Gregory Bald to the left.

The 7.2-mile Wolf Ridge Trail begins at Twenty Mile along U.S. Highway 129 and ascends nearly 4,000’ to Parson Bald and Gregory Bald.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs.

No. 2

Scott Mountain Overlook

The view at this scenic overlook is mostly overgrown and narrow, but it does offer a look at Scott Mountain. The mountain peak rises to 3,769’ and looms over the east end of Cades Cove, although you cannot see the popular destination from this scenic overlook.

The 8.3-mile Rich Mountain Loop Trail ascends almost 2,000’, crossing the peaks of Scott Mountain, Cerulean Knob, and Double Mountain. The trail begins at the kiosk parking at the entrance to Cades Cove.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs and includes a small grassy area to get outside.

READ MORE: Clingman’s Dome at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No. 3

Happy Valley Overlook

Happy Valley is a narrow valley at the base of Chilhowee Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains range. The valley is far below this scenic overlook that offers another great view of Gregory Bald and Parson Bald.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs and includes a small grassy area to get outside.

No. 4

Chilhowee Mountain Overlook

The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains consist of two non-contiguous mountains named Chilhowee Mountain. The northern half of the mountain stretches between U.S. Highway 321 in Pigeon Forge and U.S. Highway 129 in Chilhowee. From Wears Valley, the Foothills Parkway traces a route along Chilhowee Mountain.

The small overlook offers a narrow view of Gregory Bald and Parson Bald. There is parking for about half a dozen personal vehicles but no RVs.

No. 5

Gregory Bald Overlook

At 4,949’, the grassy bald summit of Gregory Bald is one of the most stunning hiking destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 5.5-mile Gregory Ridge Trail is a popular day hike beginning in Cades Cove. The trail ascends nearly 3,000’ to the bald summit, where hikers enjoy stunning views throughout the year.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs.

The lower overlook at Look Rock offers a stunning view across Happy Valley.

No. 6

Look Rock

At 2,640’, Look Rock is the highest point on the Foothills Parkway. It’s one of the most popular day trip destinations on the Parkway and offers a few activities for visitors. The parking area at Look Rock is the second largest on the Parkway with plenty of room for all sorts of vehicles and RVs.

The Look Rock Overlook is located down a set of concrete steps from the southwest end of the parking lot. The overlook offers a view of Happy Valley and the southern Great Smoky Mountains. Unfortunately, this overlook is not handicap accessible because of the stairs leading to the overlook.

The 2-mile out-and-back Look Rock Trail is a paved path leading to the Look Rock Observation Tower. The trail only ascends about 200’, though it is steep at times. The pleasant walk through the forest culminates with a winding climb up the ramp at the observation tower. The view from the top of the tower is breathtaking, with the Great Smoky Mountains trailing off into the distance and Cumberland Plateau on the horizon in the opposite direction.

The Look Rock Picnic Area is located just north of the Look Rock parking lot. Exit the parkway and follow the signs to the picnic area. The only restrooms on the Foothill Parkway are located in the picnic area and were recently renovated.

The Look Rock Campground was initially a front country camping destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but eventually closed. In 2018, plans were announced to renovate the campground and reopen sometime in 2020-2021.

No. 7

Cumberland Plateau Overlook

On a clear day, it’s easy to see the Cumberland Plateau on the horizon from this overlook. The plateau stretches from Lexington, Kentucky across Tennessee into Alabama and stands about 400’ above the surrounding landscape.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs.

READ MORE: 10 Off the Beaten Path Spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No. 8

Emerine Gap Overlook

The Emerine Gap Overlook is the only scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway with a view on both sides of the road. To the west, the overlook offers a view of the Cumberland Plateau and nearby Maryville. To the east, a narrow view of the Great Smoky Mountains dominates the horizon.

Between the two parking areas at this overlook, there is plenty of room for personal vehicles and RVs.

No. 9

Butterfly Hollow Overlook

This used to be my favorite scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway, but since my first visit nearly three years ago, the trees have nearly overgrown the view. It was always a narrow view looking across a nearby lower mountain range with Maryville in the distance.

The overlook has a tiny parking area with room for only a few personal vehicles, but no RVs.

No. 10

Maryville Overlook

From this narrow overlook, visitors are treated to a view of an urban landscape toward Maryville. The seat of Blount County has a population of almost 30,000, soaring in recent years as an alternative to living in Knoxville. On clear days the Cumberland Plateau can be seen beyond the city, and at night a dome of orangish light pollution penetrates the black sky.

This scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles, but only enough room for one RV at a time.

No. 11

Great Smoky Mountains Overlook

When the grassroots movement began with the purpose of getting a National Park Service parkway in Tennessee, the decision was made that the parkway should have a view of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was seen as an additional way of drawing more tourists while also providing quick access to different sections of the park.

This is the longest scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway, stretching about 2/10 of a mile across two parking lots. The eastern end of the parking lot offers a stunning panorama vista of the Great Smoky Mountains.

This is the largest parking lot on the Foothills Parkway with plenty of room for just about everyone.

READ MORE: 50+ Favorite Travel Photos From Years of Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Intersection

U.S. Highway 321 – Lamar Alexander Parkway

This four-lane divided highway connects the nearby towns of Maryville and Townsend. There are two entrance/exit ramps connecting the Foothills Parkway to Highway 321.

From this intersection, it is 11 miles / 15 minutes into Maryville and 6 miles / 8 minutes into Townsend.

The Prettiest Drive in America

United States Senator Lamar Alexander grew up near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He has been a champion of the most-visited national park in the country and was instrumental in getting the new section of the Foothills Parkway completed.

During a press conference in 2018, Alexander called the Foothills Parkway, “the prettiest drive in America.” Even after driving the Foothills Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway remains my favorite road trip route in the country. However, I will admit the section between the Caylor Gap Overlook and Cove Mountain Overlook probably is the prettiest drive I’ve ever seen.

No. 12

Little River Overlook

U.S. Highway 321 is located just below this overlook, and although you can’t see it, you can undoubtedly hear the traffic. The overlook offers a view to the west and south with a narrow peak at the Little River far below.

This overlook has room for about a dozen personal vehicles, but no RVs.

No. 13

Cades Cove Mountain Overlook

At 3,375’, the sharp peak of Cades Cove Mountain stands over the iconic Cades Cove, one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors to this scenic overlook can’t see the cove surrounded by mountains, but if you can see the sharp peak of the mountain you can imagine it’s just on the other side.

This scenic overlook is the most secluded on the Foothills Parkway with a row of trees between the long parking lot and the road. There is plenty of room for personal vehicles and RVs.

READ MORE: Day Trip on the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No. 14

Thunderhead Mountain

At 5,528’, Thunderhead Mountain is one of the mile-high peaks traversed by the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains. The mountain peak is between Gregory Bald and Clingmans Dome along a ridge through the central Smokies.

This scenic overlook is very long with plenty of parking for personal vehicles and RVs and is one of the easier overlooks for getting on and off the road.

No. 15

High Top Overlook

At this scenic overlook, Thunderhead Mountain still dominates the horizon, but High Top stands nearby at just 1,814’. A large grassy area beside the overlook and shady trees make this one of the best places to stop with a family on the Foothills Parkway.

The overlook has plenty of parking for personal vehicles, but it would be difficult to get even one RV into this overlook at a time.

No. 16

Caylor Gap Overlook

The Caylor Gap Overlook offers the most breathtaking view of any scenic overlook on the Foothills Parkway. A large parking area on one side of the road has plenty of room for personal vehicles, and a pull-off on the opposite side has room for a few RVs. A stone wall provides a protective barrier as well as the perfect place to sit while watching a sunset develop across the sky.

For about a mile heading east along the Foothills Parkway from the Caylor Gap Overlook, the road seems to float in the sky. Hugging the side of the steep mountain range, the view toward the Great Smoky Mountains is uninterrupted and expansive.

Favorite Scenic Overlooks on Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway has over two dozen scenic overlooks, and about another two dozen places to enjoy a great view, but three scenic overlooks stand out more than any other. Here are my top three favorite scenic overlooks on the Foothills Parkway:

  1. Caylor Gap Overlook
  2. Great Smoky Mountains Overlook
  3. Mount Cammerer Overlook

No. 17

Bridge View Pull-Off

There are about a dozen bridges on the Foothills Parkway, most of them located between the Caylor Gap Overlook and Wears Valley. The most iconic bridge is an S-curve similar to that of the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving across the bridge, for the briefest of moments, you see nothing but sky beyond the metal rail.

Heading east, there is a small pull-off just before the S-curved bridge. The pull-off has enough room for maybe three or four personal vehicles, but no RVs. Although walking across the bridges is not prohibited, I would strongly advise against it. Instead, cross the road at the pull-off, and you’re treated to a gorgeous view of the curving bridge with the mountains in the distance.

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

No. 18

Cove Mountain Overlook

At 4,078’, Cove Mountain looms over the small town of Wears Valley. The mountain provides a natural and cartographical boundary; the summit of the mountain is the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and on the other side from Wears Valley is the Little River and a popular area known as The Sinks.

The overlook has plenty of room for personal vehicles, but no RVs.

READ MORE: The Fascinating Story of How Dynamite Created The Sinks at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No. 19

Wears Valley Overlook

This pull-off overlook is still dominated by Cove Mountain but offers a better view of Wear Cove, the name of the valley that runs parallel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The valley was settled in the late 1700s and has always been a tiny community of farmers. Wear Cove, and Wears Valley are named after Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Wear, a local who built a fort near present-day Pigeon Forge to fend off attacks from Native Americans.

The pull-off has plenty of room for personal vehicles, but not much room for RVs.

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Intersection

U.S Highway 321 – Wears Valley Road

Foothills Parkway West comes to an end at U.S. Highway 321 in Wears Valley. Eventually, the route will continue along the west side of the mountain range to a crossing at U.S Highway 441. But for now, all visitors must exit at this intersection.

From this intersection, it is 10 miles / 20 minutes to Pigeon Forge and 7 miles / 15 minutes to Townsend.

Where to Stay

I am a big fan of staying in Townsend when I want to visit the Foothills Parkway or explore Cades Cove. The “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” has a few great local restaurants, a fantastic coffee shop, and lots of comfortable lodging.

My favorite place to stay in Townsend is the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. It’s located literally at the edge of the national park, so it’s only about twenty minutes from Cades Cove. With a nice campground, glamping tents, tiny homes, and cabins, there is definitely something you’ll want.

The Best Western is the budget-friendly go-to in Townsend. The hotel has King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. With an outdoor swimming pool and moderately excellent free breakfast, it’s a great place if all you’re looking for is a bed and shower.

The premiere overnight destination in Townsend is the Dancing Bear Lodge. The lodge features rustic mountain decor, rooms with wood burning fireplaces and full kitchens, and outdoor recreation in the 36-acre property. The lodge features rooms in the villa and cabins with one or two bedrooms, and some of them are pet friendly!

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5 Responses

  1. I love it. I will be in the area next spring. How can I get a book of maps & things to do & see. I will also do the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    1. Well, by next spring I will have published my travel guides to the Foothills Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Blue Ridge Parkway! My guides will have maps, details on activities and things to do & see, and loaded with information. It’s something I’m still working on, but right now I am aiming for a Black Friday/Small Business Saturday debut.

  2. How steep are the grades going up and down the west part of the foothills parkway. Thinking of taking a 34’ motor home and toad up it.

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