Its broad shoulders stretch out across the horizon, with the point of its crowned head towering high above its peers. It lives at time amongst the clouds, often residing in the land of the gods. With its mighty arms stretching out shedding liberal waters to quench a land’s thirst. Like an island in a preserve, it harbors the secrets to life, its lungs give back to the earth what the world tries to take away. In its care it provides a nurturing home, protecting its woodland children within a natural biosphere dome. Often existing under a heavy mist it has captured the essences of its resounding name…land of the Smoking Mountains…the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Millions arrive at the doorsteps of the Great Smoky Mountains each year seeking that unique experience of encountering natural wonders, wildlife, inspiring beauty and a breath of the fresh outdoors. With over 520,000-acres divided over two states, Tennessee and North Carolina this 800 square mile parkland is renowned as the most annually visited National Park in the nation.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is dissected by one major two-lane roadway that crosses through the heart of the park and over its highest mountain gap. This roadway follows rivers, climbs steep slopes and offers incredible views from the rooftop of the eastern United States. This scenic drive is known as the Newfound Gap Road or US Highway 441. This remarkable roadway is not registered as a National Scenic Byway, yet the route is highly regarded on the Scenic Highlander Tours list of great Scenic Mountain drives. The road is 32 miles long cutting across the center width of the parks over 50-mile length. You can access the scenic Newfound Gap Road in either the resort towns of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge Tennessee, or the resort town of Cherokee North Carolina.
These two towns on opposite sides of the mountains are like complimentary companions in historical and geographical contrast.
The town of Gatlinburg over the last century has developed from a frontier town and into a premier resort town that still maintains the early pioneer settlement of Gatlinburg in preserve and accessible to the public via the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Both Gatlinburg and its sister town of Pigeon Forge are located on the edge of the Tennessee Valley and are very popular vacation destinations. When it comes to lodging, dining, shopping, live entertainment, amusement parks, golf and local festivals these Smoky Mountain towns are hard to beat. When you add to that a variety of outdoor adventures and fun like hiking, fishing, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking and boating on one of the many local lakes you’ll find there’s no one-vacation destination that has more to offer in the southeastern United States.
The town of Cherokee on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains lies deep in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is located in the Qualla (Native American) Boundary. Cherokee has also become a premier resort town since the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee People in the Qualla Boundary has maintained a cultural heritage along with tribal customs that date back centuries. The sprawling town of Cherokee has a large variety of shopping dining, lodging, live entertainment, museums, festivals and a large gaming casino along with great outdoor adventures and recreations.
These mountain towns and the national parklands of the Great Smoky Mountains offer a non-stop world of fun, adventure and excitement.
This Scenic Highlander Tour of the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park starts on the Tennessee side of the park.
Tennessee’s gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains Park National Park and the Newfound Gap Road begins on US 441 at the very last stoplight on the southern edge of Gatlinburg in Sevier County. You can also access the park from Pigeon Forge if you can take the 5-and1/2 miles Gatlinburg Bypass to the park’s entrance.
Immediately after entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you arrive at the Sugarland Visitors Center, its name is drawn from the many sugar maple trees in the area. The visitor center is a good place to officially start your scenic drive. The center offers a short film, books, maps, advice and camping and other permits. From the Sugarland Visitor Center return to the Newfound Gap Road US 441 and go south or right back at the intersection.
The Newfound Gap Road follows the Little Pigeon River as it begins its ascent up the grade; slowly at first the grade is less steep here. After a short drive you’ll come to your first overlook on the left, the great mountain before you raises directly skyway exposing its entire mass in one bold sweep.
Back on the road you continue your scenic journey along the Little Pigeon River, fishing is allowed in the park but check with the ranger station in both Tennessee and North Carolina for any restrictions.
The Great Smoky Mountains are classified as a National Park, which means that the 520,00-acres plus parklands are protect from logging, mineral extraction, land sales, etc. The Smoky Mountains lay between two other mountain ranges in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, the Unaka Mountains. The Smoky Mountains have similar characteristics as the Unaka’s being that their formations evolved simultaneously. The Upper Unaka Mountains lie to the northeast of the Smoky Mountains and the Lower Unaka Mountains to the southwest of the Smoky’s. The Unaka Mountains are partially in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and partially in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest to the north for the Upper Unaka’s and the Nantahala National Forest to the south for the Lower Unaka’s. The Unaka Mountains have a National Forest classification and are regulated under laws of protection for National Forest were as the Smoky Mountains National Park is regulated under a National Park’s status, a higher state of protection
What separated the Smoky Mountains consideration for National Park status from the Unaka Mountains and other mountain ranges in the Blue Ridge Mountains was that the region of the Smoky Mountain range had the largest single land mass plus 100,000 acres of old growth forest. Old growth forest are rare in the southeastern United States due to extensive clear cut logging that went on during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. During those times major forest in the southeastern United States were leveled under the saw leaving many mountainsides completely bare of forest. The Lower Unaka Mountains though, have the notoriety of 17,000-acres of old growth forest in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Slickrock Wilderness Area in Graham County, North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.
On your drive up Tennessee’s Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains you’ll encounter numerous parking areas where you can pick up well-marked trails that will take you into the solitude of Mother Nature. There are other parking areas along the road where you’ll find picnic tables and access to the cascading Little Pigeon River and other streams. The Newfound Gap Road is but a ribbon through the huge park, the parklands also offer many other sights and adventures; our scenic drive concentrates on just the vicinity of the Newfound Gap Road.
Halfway up the mountain road you’ll reach the Loop where you will drive under a high stone bridge following the road a full circle upward and cross over the same stone bridge with the road below, quite an engineering feat when you consider when the Loop was constructed in the 1930’s. After the Loop you’ll reach two popular hiking trails, the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail and the Chimney Tops Trail.
The Alum Cave Bluffs are not an actual cave but an enormous rock overhang about 100 feet high, a shelf of black slate rock hangs over about 30-feet. The hike to the bluffs pass through part of the old growth forest and a trail of stone steeps will take you through the Arch Rock, a natural opening through the rock caused by erosion. This is a moderate to strenuous hike and is a little under 5 miles round trip, tough going up easier coming down.
The Chimney Tops Trail leads up 2-miles to the summit and is considered a moderate to strenuous hike. The Chimney Tops take their name from the rocky spires that stand 50-feet above the ridge top of Sugarland Mountain, these spires appear to be chimney stacks similar to the smoke stack on a kiln. When lone clouds drag across these mountain spires they appear as smoke rising from mountain top chimneys. These bare rock monuments acted as a welcome landmark to early travelers who journeyed deep into the Smoky Mountains.
Both hikes are very popular and the views from the top are stupendous, keep in mind though these two hikes a relatively short for hiking but hard going just the same. If you don’t feel ambitious enough to hike you can view the Chimney Tops from the Newfound Gap Road just past the Loop on the right hand side of the road. These obvious landmarks are very distinct against the sky, two parking areas along the right side of the road offer excellent views of the chimney spires.
The Newfound Gap Road becomes steeper as you climb up the mountain grade heading for the gap. Here you will begin to experience the wonder of a highly engineered roadway and can just imagine what it must have taken to construct a road and the tunnel you’ll drive through along the steep mountain slope. Overlooks and great views of mountaintops begin to emerge along the winding steep climb before reaching the Newfound Gap at more than 5,000-feet. The overlook parking lot is on the left side of the road and can sometimes be busy with traffic, a definite stop over to stretch your legs and strain your eyes across the horizons.
The name Newfound Gap has that recent discovery feel about it, yet this later finding of a more accessible gap happened in the 1860’s. The old Indian Gap Road was used prior to the Newfound Gap; the older gap was higher, longer and more difficult to cross. The Newfound Gap at 5,000 feet lies between the mountains of Clingmans Dome and Monte Le Conte.
On September 2, 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt preformed a dedication ceremony at the Newfound Gap on the stone balcony of the observation deck. A stone staircase leads up to the stone balcony; from there you can witness the grandeur and majestic beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To think both US 441 (Newfound Gap Road), which begins in the lowlands of Florida, and the Appalachian Trail (AT) that begins in Maine (the AT hiking trail stretches over 2,000 miles) converge at this very gap and not merely by plan but a geographical coincidence. The observation area has numerous mountain views plus picnic area, nature trails and restrooms, a very good thing being you’re in the middle of a mountain wilderness. Yet the peak view of this scenic drive through the Smoky Mountains National Park is yet to come.
Leaving the Newfound Gap Parking area make a left onto US 441, Newfound Gap Road and you’ll immediately come to Clingmans Dome Road on the right. This road takes you 7-miles up along the ridge top to the very peak of the Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet. The views from the paved two-lane road are spectacular. Reaching the parking area for Clingmans Dome you’ll encounter a great-unobstructed panoramic view. A paved path at the end of the parking area will take you 1/2 –mile to the lookout tower. The hike is moderate to strenuous, no switchbacks just one long straight ascent, yet it’s a journey made by millions of visitors each year. The pay off for the hike is the tower; here you’ll witness one of the greatest mountain top views in the eastern United States. Winds and temperate here are often cooler even in mid summer a light jacket or sweater could come in handy. At the tower you’ll once again encounter the Appalachian Trail, the trail follows Clingmans Dome Road along the ridge top to the tower. If you really enjoy hiking you can leave your car at the gap parking area and hike the 7-mile Appalachian Trail to the tower, it’s a nice trip and feat you can put on you resume’ tough going up, easy coming down. From the tower you can see the entire layout of the Smoky Mountains National Park’s 520,000 acres along with adjoining mountains, valleys and lakes. On a clear day you can see seven states along the horizon from the tower’s eagle nest view.
After returning to the parking area take Clingmans Dome Road back to Newfound Gap Road (US 441) and turn right to continue on your scenic tour.
You have now crossed into Smoky Mountain National Park’s North Carolina side of the park. Here you’ll become immersed in a sapphire blue ocean of mountains that stretch beyond the horizons. Newfound Gap Road descends along its route down the mountain slopes passing overlooks and trails as the road follows the path of the Qualla River. Parking and picnic areas bring you to the bank of the rivers cascading waters with footbridges leading across the river to hiking and biking trails, you’ll find camping grounds and great fishing spots throughout the National Park, the visitor centers will guide you to these campsites.
Further down the road on the right is a turn into a parking area for the Mingus Mill. Park your vehicle and cross the footbridge over Mingus Creek, the mill is just behind the trees. The mill was built in 1886 and equipped with turbine power for the grinding of wheat and corn. There’s no waterwheel on this mill, the mill receives its power from water running through an elevated millrace that turns the turbine. The mill is operated during the summer months only for historical exhibition. When the millstone isn’t being turned by the turbine the water from the millrace is diverted off to the side causing the waters to pour over the edge of the millrace and into Mingus Creek creating a man-made waterfall worth photographing.
Return back to Newfound Gap Road and make a right, from this point you have reached the bottom to the mountain grade and enter into a secluded pristine mountain valley. Here in a valley completely surrounded by mountains is a green pasture-land and an authentic pioneer farm village. The buildings existed before the parklands were purchased then moved here from other locations in the Smoky Mountain National Park to be laid out for historical accuracy. Overseeing this unique pioneer farmstead museum is the Qualla Visitor Center located on the left side of the Newfound Gap Road next to the parking area between the pasture-lands and the Qualla River. This is a definite stop and see, the farmstead consist of a large barn, cabins, spring-house, corn-crib, meat house, some livestock, planted fields and more. The Qualla River Trail follows along between the settlement and the river; the trail is one and a half miles long and quite level compared to the higher mountain trails.
Back at the parking area turn left onto Newfound Gap Road, after exiting the southern end of the valley you’ll follow the river and are likely to see several fly fishers. Soon you will come to the junction where the end or beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway is on the left.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, a paved two-lane roadway is a historic scenic byway that traverses along the narrow ridges of mountaintops of bringing its travelers in contact with some of the Blue Ridge Mountains greatest natural wonders. A full journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway will take you from the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the northern tip of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. A 469-mile trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a journey measured in days not hours. This extraordinary-engineered highway and the amazing scenery and trails and unique features that surround the parkway is the subject of a highly recommended scenic drive by the Blue Ridge Highlander. An extensive virtual Scenic Highlander Tour will be presented in several separate features that will in time complete the entire route.
Past the exit to the Blue Ridge Parkway you’ll enter the town of Cherokee North Carolina where you’ll leave the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and enter the Qualla (Native American) Boundary. The town of Cherokee is a tourist and resort Mecca rich in Cherokee history, museums, with two outdoor theaters presenting live performances plus an authentic Native American village. There’s plenty of shopping, dining, lodging and casino gaming with a variety of outdoor recreations including include hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking and boating on local mountain lakes, all this and more in the land of the Smoking Mountains.
The town of Cherokee at southern entrance of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the towns of Gatlinburg along with its sister city Pigeon Forge at the northern entrance to the park along with other mountain towns around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are perfect accents to one another with a great wilderness of natural wonders waiting for you to explore. Make your travel plans to stay on both sides of the National Park there’s a wealth of things to do.
The Blue Ridge Highlanders, Virtual Scenic Highlanders Tours will bring you more extensive discoveries and personal experiences via the Newfound Gap Road and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with more history and plenty of photographs to be added. Other interesting features in and around the Great Smoky Mountains are listed below with more being add. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountain Province and a treasure waiting to be personally discovered by you.
Although very enjoyable, the mountains can be a driving challenge to a flatlander (no offense), to help you with your new venture, take a look at our driving tips.