Gorgeous scenery and outdoor adventure join forces on this Great Smokies loop, which swings past urban parks, waterfall trails and wildlife playgrounds.

Great Smoky Mountains road trip

Approx. distance: 450 miles

Duration: Six days

Suggested route: Knoxville, Urban Wilderness, Gatlinburg, Cades Cove, Clingman's Dome, Ocoee Scenic Byway, Lookout Mountain, Knoxville.

Foothills Parkway northern Great Smoky Mountains tennessee usa

Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains

Suggested driving route

Pick up your rental car at the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville then spend the day biking and hiking in the Urban Wilderness. From Knoxville it’s a one-hour drive to Gatlinburg. On the way you’ll pass Pigeon Forge, which is known for heavy traffic and the Dollywood theme park.

Downtown Gatlinburg is packed tight with busy hotels. To escape the crowds, consider a rental cabin in the surrounding mountains. From downtown, enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park on US 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road. There is no admission fee. You’ll reach Sugarlands Visitor Centre in two miles. From the visitor centre, follow Little River Road for one hour to Cades Cove. Camp at Cades Cove Campground or at Elkmont Campground on Little River Road.

In the morning, return to US 441. From here, it’s a 45-minute drive to Clingmans Dome. You’ll pass the trailhead for the popular Alum Cave Bluffs Trail along the way. After exploring the dome, drive 25 miles to the Oconaluftee Visitor Centre near the eastern entrance of the park. From here you can detour off the loop for the 40-mile drive to Cataloochee Valley, or continue southwest 90 miles to the Ocoee Whitewater Centre. From the whitewater centre continue west 90 minutes to Lookout Mountain on the outskirts of Chattanooga. Chattanooga is 90 minutes southwest of Knoxville.

Where to stop & what to see

Urban wilderness

Multi-use greenways connect several outdoor adventure areas in central Knoxville. Sprawled across 1,000 acres of public land, this vast playground is known as the Urban Wilderness. Trails are well-marked and often interconnected, so it’s easy to make your way between a variety of activities and scenic locations. You’ll find mountain biking trails, a quarry with kayak and SUP rentals, a riverside boardwalk and an aerial adventure park. Stop by the Ijams Nature Centre for a park map and bike rentals. There are several good breweries located near the major wilderness areas, and you’ll find a seasonal beer shack at the quarry.


Downtown Gatlinburg is more than a kitschy collection of moonshine distilleries, pancake houses and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums. Nature lovers just need to hop on a chairlift to find the good stuff. The Gatlinburg Skylift whisks passengers up to a lofty observation platform and a 680ft-long suspension bridge. The Ober Gatlinburg aerial tramway glides to a high-elevation amusement park and ski resort while the “chondola” at Anakeesta drops riders at a gorgeous mountaintop playground with a zipline, roller coaster and treetop canopy walk.

Cades Cove

A lush valley flanked by forested mountains and teeming with wildlife, Cades Cove is one of the most magical areas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 11-mile loop road can diminish the wonder. For the best experience visit on a Wednesday morning from mid-June through September, when the loop is open to pedestrians and cyclists only. The loop is also dotted with 19th-century churches, cabins and farm buildings. The family-friendly Abrams Falls Trail (5-mile roundtrip) leads to a photogenic waterfall. The strenuous Gregory Bald Trail leads to a mountaintop meadow famous for its azalea blooms in June. Horseback rides and bike rentals are available near Cades Cove Campground.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee at 6643ft. A steep half-mile trail leads from the parking area to an observation tower, where you’ll have panoramic views across the park. On clear days they say you can see more than 100 miles. The dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. The Forney Ridge Trail (3.6 miles roundtrip, 5.8km) leads to a high-elevation meadow known as Andrew Bald. The 7-mile road to Clingmans Dome from US 441 is closed to vehicles in winter, typically from December through March.

Ocoee Scenic Byway & Cherokee National Forest

The first scenic byway established in a national forest, this 26-mile drive follows Hwy 64/74 along the Ocoee River Gorge then detours up Forest Road 77 to the Chilhowee Recreation Area. Swimming areas and scenic viewpoints border the byway. Whitewater rafting is a popular activity on the Ocoee, and rafting outfitters can be found along US 64/74 west of the national forest. Stop by the Ocoee Whitewater Centre for regional visitor information and to enjoy the hiking and mountain biking trails. Olympic canoeists and kayakers bounced down the rapids behind the centre during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At Chilhowee Recreation Area you can camp, swim, fish and mountain bike. An easy hiking trail leads to a pretty waterfall.

Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain

Bisected by the Tennessee River and surrounded by mountains, Chattanooga is famously outdoorsy. Numerous hiking and biking trails unfurl in and around the city. Rock climbing is also regionally popular. Located six miles west of downtown, Lookout Mountain is home to three family-friendly destinations: Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway. A walking trail winds through a clifftop boulder garden in Rock City before ending at a scenic overlook with views into seven states. An underground waterfall takes the spotlight at Ruby Falls while the Incline Railway climbs steeply to the top of Lookout Mountain.

Detour: Cataloochee Valley

For some of the best wildlife viewing in the national park, drive to this remote valley where majestic elk graze just steps from the road and wild turkeys strut around like they own the place.

About the author

Great Smoky Mountains Road Trip

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

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