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The Foothills Parkway

Posted by on August 03, 2017

Tired of the traffic but still want to see some amazing views? Traffic can be very heavy at times on Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Also, Cades Cove can be inundated with tourists who make it hard to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Want to take a less beaten path but still have access to the wondrous views and beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains? The Foothills Parkway may just be the answer to your needs. A hidden gem of the Great Smoky Mountains experience, the Foothills Parkway is a favorite of photographers, motorcyclists and bicyclists. Still, it’s not nearly as crowded as Newfound Gap Road and Cades Cove can be during peak tourism seasons. Even in October, the Foothills Parkway can give visitors a more peaceful experience of leaf peeping, a glorious time in the Smokies when the mountains gleam with color. When you consider the fact there can be up to a three hour traffic back up, the Foothills Parkway can be your back up place to be. Multiple pull outs and even a short trail leading to a lookout tower at Look Rock where visitors can get a 360 degree view of the surrounding valley and mountain range.

Aerial View of a section of the Foothills ParkwayPhotographers love this drive along the Foothills Parkway for the sunrises and sunsets. The effects are amazing from the wide open views. It’s also a great way for motorcyclists to take on their way to riding what’s known as The Dragon, a winding, twisty section of US 129 that’s extremely popular with motorcyclists.

Take note there are no gas stations along the Foothills Parkway (west section) but there is a campground called Look Rock Campground. There’s no restaurants either but taking along a picnic lunch is an awesome idea. What a wonderful drive to take your time, enjoy the sights, and experience the Great Smoky Mountains.

Not only the west section of the Foothills Parkway, but all the sections have their own beauty. Not yet completed, the Foothills Parkway can be a new destination for visitors who would like to have the mountains more to themselves. Do you want to learn a little about the history of the Foothills Parkway? Read on.

The Foothills Parkway in Eastern Tennessee is a National Parkway maintained by the National Park Service that runs approximately 27 miles along the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Originally planned to span 71 miles, only 27 miles have been completed since construction began in 1944. There are three segments currently open to traffic. The western segment begins on the north end on US 321 near Walland, TN and ends on US 129 in Chilhowee, TN and is approximately 17 miles in length. The eastern segment begins at the north end at I-40 near Hartford, TN and runs to the south end at US 321 in Cosby, TN for approximately 5 ½ miles. The Foothills Parkway Spur is almost 4 ½ miles in length and runs from the south end at US 321/US 441 in Gatlinburg, TN and on the north at US 321/US 441 in Pigeon Forge, TN. The Foothills Parkway winds over the counties of Blount, Sevier and Cocke with future sections yet to be constructed. When completed, the Foothills Parkway will connect I-40 with US 129 along the Little Tennessee River.

Large sections of the Foothills Parkway cross some high ridges parallel to the Tennessee boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With multiple pull outs, visitors can garner unobstructed views of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee Valley. The Foothills Parkway is the oldest unfinished highway project in Tennessee due to funding difficulties that have continuously stalled completing the project. As of 2010, one third of it has reached completion and is open to the public. The right of way for the full length of the project has been acquired although there is no set date at this point for the completion.

As early as the mid-19th century tourists began arriving in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, most coming to visit the area’s mountain springs which were rich will minerals believed to have health improving qualities. Hotels quickly sprang up to accommodate the influx of tourists and the Foothills became a favorite summer vacation spot. The most popular were Montvale Springs and Alleghany Springs at Chilhowee Mountain, Kinzel Springs at Tuckaleechee, Line Springs in Wears Valley and Carson Springs near Newport. Knoxville’s elite became constant visitors. Author Sidney Lanier loved staying at Montvale Springs and the area would become influential to the setting of his novel, Tiger Lillies. Many other authors, such as Mary Noailles Murfree, spent time at the springs along the Foothills.

The most well known Foothills are: Chilhowee Mountain, which is 35 miles long but doesn’t reach a width of over 4 miles. Bates Mountain, a low ridge just over 1, 700 feet at its highest point creates a challenge for the Foothills Parkway project with a rocky gorge on its south face. Cove Mountain, a huge ridge that reaches 4.077 feet at is crest. Webb Mountain, a long, narrow ridge it stretches approximately 10 miles and dominates the view between Pittman Center and Cosby along US 321. Green Mountain, just a small mountain near Cosby. English Mountain, the highest of the Foothills, it stretches for approximately 15 miles near Newport and Hall Top, also called Stone Mountain, which rises opposite Green Mountain. These last two will never be crossed by the Foothills Parkway.

When the Blue Ridge Parkway was contracted, it would not pass on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Frank Maloney, vice president of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association lobbied Congress for a parkway to connect certain areas together on the Tennessee side. It was authorized in 1944 for the Foothills Parkway 71 miles stretch to be constructed to do just that. The land was purchased for the right of way and then transferred into the hands of the National Park Service. But construction didn’t begin until 1960. The original plan was for 8 sections to the Parkway but by 1978 only one third of the Foothills Parkway was complete. Two sections connecting Wears Valley and Walland began construction in 1984 but it was soon halted due to erosion. The route was redesigned and construction began again in 1994.

The Foothills Parkway has become a source of contention due to the traffic that continues to traverse the routes in the Great Smoky Mountains each year. Certain people think the completion of the parkway will increase traffic yet others contend the Foothills Parkway will direct some traffic away from the National Park. Since construction of parkways aren’t normally high-ranking priorities, it will likely take many more years to complete. The Blue Ridge Parkway itself took fifty years to complete.

Building anything in the Great Smoky Mountains can be a huge feat. Progress has been quite slow on the Foothills Parkway and one section has created its own logistics problems. Section 8E, which traverses a portion of the Walland to Wears Valley section is known as the Missing Link. It requires 10 bridges within a one and a half mile section that bridges the Sevier/Blount County line. So far only four of the ten bridges have been completed. Even though when this section is completed it will open up just over half of the whole Foothills Parkway. No funding has been set for the remaining sections even though the National Park Service still owns the rights of way. In future, the Foothills Parkway may be completed but until funding has been secured the National Park Service is conducting an environmental impact assessment and also gathering public input on the Pittman Center to Cosby section.

Even though the Foothills Parkway isn’t complete, the sections that are will give the visitor to the Great Smoky Mountains wondrous views. The competed sections travel over what would have been roadless crests of high ridges, giving travelers wide open vistas of the surrounding mountains.

The Chilhowee section, which has been open to vehicle traffic since 1966, has four overlooks on the north side and eight overlooks on the south side. The north side gives expansive views of the Tennessee Valley and the south looks over the Great Smoky Mountains. Its highest point is at a knob known as Look Rock. At 2,650 feet, an observation tower allows a 360 degree view of the Western Smokies and Blount County. The parking area is just off the parkway and there is a short half mile trail to the lookout tower. Visitors will be treated to such wonderful views it shouldn’t be missed. Not only does the visitor get treated to the great views, the Rich Mountain/Cades Cove ridges dominates the view to the east. Gregory Bald rises up like a giant domed mount to the southeast and to the southwest, the Unicoi Mountain is visible, with a spectacular view of Chilhowee’s western ridge. Some of the highest mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains can be seen from Look Rock. If you’ve been lucky enough to garner a clear day up on the lookout tower, visitors can see the highest peaks of the Eastern Smokies—Mount Guyot, Mount Chapman and Old Black. Visitors will also get a view of Clingman’s Dome and Thunderhead Mountain to the southeast and Mount LeConte to the east. The view is breathtaking to say the least.

Looking to the north from the lookout tower on Look Rock, visitors are treated to a view of most of Blount and portions of Monroe and Loudon counties. If visitors look far north, Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport looks like a long green strip to the northwest and the lights of Knoxville can be seen to begin to glimmer at sunset. Much of the northern horizon is dominated by the Cumberland Plateau. The open expanse of scenery alone can make visitors feel like they are on top of the world in one of Tennessee’s most beautiful places.

Foothills Parkway crosses Green Mountain diagonally. From the south west Mount Cammerer and the Eastern Smokies are the view. The lights of Newport twinkle in the morning and early evening like colorful fireflies. Again, visitors won’t be disappointed should they try a bit of ‘out of the way’ sightseeing and decide to take the road less traveled rather than the sometimes overly trafficked Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, or Cades Cove Loop. Though all three are beautiful and have their distinct personalities, at times it can get frustrating with the traffic of visitors seeming to back up to forever. If you’re in the mood to take your time, stop and linger at the pull offs and waterfalls, then yes, do take the Newfound Gap Road or Little River Road and Cades Cove Loop in the busier seasons. There are sights there not to be missed. But if you’d like a quieter, less travelled hidden gem of a drive, try the Foothills Parkway. It doesn’t matter which section of the Foothills Parkway you decide on for the day, the 17 mile section near Walland, the 33 mile section in Wears Valley/Pigeon Forge and the short 5 ½ mile section that runs from I-40 to US 321 near Cosby, you won’t be disappointed. The Cosby section seems to be one of the least travelled and has expansive views of not only the mountain ridges to the east but also wide open views of the valley that contains Newport and the surrounding countryside. There is normally very little traffic and some wonderful, wide pull outs for your enjoyment.

So all in all, the Foothills Parkway is a great choice for a leisurely drive and if you decide to go from section to section, passing through Gatlinburg and other areas, you won’t have any trouble finding places to pick up a few things to pack a picnic lunch or maybe something to drink while you’re there. Be sure to spend some quality time just gazing at the Great Smoky Mountains and their untimely beauty. You won’t regret travelling the less travelled path.

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