30-mile drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee North Carolina along Newfound
Gap Road (US 441) is the only route that completely traverses the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive offers a unique opportunity
to enjoy an abbreviated experience of everything the Park has to offer,
without necessarily trekking far from your automobile. The drive takes
about one hour, depending on traffic. The experience can take several
hours if you stop at each of the suggested points of interest. June
through August and the month October are the busiest months of the
tourist season, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper
in front of you. You shouldn't let the congestion discourage you from
the experience, however. If you want to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic,
we would simply recommend you try the same experience in April or
May (wildflowers are already blooming) or after peak fall colors.
In fact, winter is even a wonderful time in the Smokies.
Quiet walkways, unforgettable views of the various peaks in the Smokies,
a vast variety of trees, flowers, and wildlife; campgrounds, picnic
areas--they all await you on this wonderful journey. This road is
closed to commercial traffic as well.
You begin your drive from Gatlinburg (or from Cherokee for that matter--this
travelogue assumes a departure from Gatlinburg) and go less than a
mile to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Its worth the stop here to
view the displays of the natural history of the Park, get an idea
of what to expect on the drive, pick up reading material to accompany
your trip; and ask the Park rangers those questions you always wanted
the Sugarlands Visitor Center you will turn left briefly before making
a right turn onto Newfound Gap Road. The road takes its name from
a discovery in the 1850s that Indian Gap, once believed to be the
lowest point through the mountains, actually was not the lowest point--hence
the name Newfound Gap. The road runs parallel to the West Prong
of the Little Pigeon River. Its cool, crystal-clear water is inviting
and cooling at the many pullouts accessible from Newfound Gap Road.
Ultimately the Little Pigeon River finds it's way to the Tennessee
River on its way to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers which ultimately
spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
At approximately the 1 and 2 mile points from Gatlinburg,
you begin to see small signs indicating "quiet walkways".
These walkways, while you are still in Sugarlands Valley, offer wonderful
opportunities to view Fall color. The valley takes it's name from
the multitude of sugar maples in the area. As you move away
from your vehicle down these quiet paths you become surrounded by
sugar maples, resplendent with color. Early settlers used this tree
for sugar and syrup. It takes about 30 gallons of sap to make a gallon
As you continue along Newfound Gap Road, a little over two miles
you will come upon the Campbell Overlook, which offers arguably the
best vistas in the Park. Mt. LeConte rises to 6,593 feet in front
of you--the third largest peak in the Smokies. The overlook is named
for Carlos Campbell, who wrote Birth of A National Park (available
at the Sugarlands Visitor Center). Campbell was a devoted outdoorsman
and was a devout supporter for the establishment of the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park.
Shortly beyond the Campbell Overlook, you will approach one of the
more interesting quiet walkways. As you walk the path, look closely
and you can still see the remnants of old farmsteads--parts of fireplaces
and foundations. You can see the old roadbed which led to White Oak
Flats--what is now known as Gatlinburg.
As you continue along US 441, you approach the Chimney Tops at the
4.5 mile mark. Here you will find the Chimney Tops picnic area which
is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods
in the U.S. The Little Pigeon River runs through the picnic area.
This river is named for the huge flocks of passenger pigeons which
once filled the skies over the Smokies.
White settlers named the Chimney Tops after stone chimneys which,
if you use a little imagination, resemble the peaks. This area, and
many of the higher regions of the Smokies, were once owned by paper
and lumber companies, which highly prized the spruce fibers growing
there for making quality paper. As a matter of fact, this prized resource
and the thousands of acres of forests held by these lumber companies
were a key obstacle in obtaining the land which now makes up the Park.