Newfound Gap Road, also known as US Route 441, is a 33 mile long drive through the mountains from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC, cutting directly through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the only route that goes completely through the Park and it’s a wonderful experience to see much of what the Park has to offer without needing to hike far and wide for majestic views and beautiful forested vistas. Traveling from Gatlinburg to Cherokee using Newfound Gap Road can take an hour or a day depending on traffic and whether or not you decide to stop along the way at the many quiet walkways, pull offs and picnic areas just to mention a few. The road can be quite busy during the tourist season of June through August including the month of October when everyone likes to visit to see the beautiful colors of the trees in the fall. The traffic can become bumper to bumper during these times of year, making the drive quite longer than anticipated. If you want to try to avoid the tourist traffic, try visiting in April or May when the wildflowers are in bloom or later in the year, after the peak fall colors. Even after the leaves have fallen from the trees the Park is still beautiful, the vistas seeming to stretch even wider without all the foliage, making you feel like you’re standing on top of the world. Along Newfound Gap Road are some of the most scenic places in the Smoky Mountains.
If beginning your traverse of Newfound Gap Road in Gatlinburg, do be sure to stop at Sugarlands Visitor Center, located just inside the Park. You can make a quick restroom break before your drive, stop in the Visitor Center and pick up a map, and speak to the Park Rangers if you have any questions concerning road conditions in the winter or anything else that sparks your interest. Due to the changes in elevation during your drive, the temperature can vary 15 degrees or more and if you are traveling in the winter, ice can form when you least expect it in the higher elevations. It’s good to get tips from the Park Rangers should you be worried about the conditions as they will have up to date information for you before you begin your trip.
The road is closed to commercial traffic so you won’t have to deal with that sort of thing. You will indeed want to stop at some of the quiet walkways which are marked along the way. The signs indicating the Quiet Walkways begin about 1 mile from the Sugarlands Visitor Center just outside of Gatlinburg. A Quiet Walkway is a path that takes you just a little way from the road to give you a glimpse of the Park without hiking a strenuous trail. The Quiet Walkway, even though not straying far from the road, will give you the experience of being engulfed in nature, the beauty of the trees surrounding you. When near the Sugarlands section of the Park, you’ll be treated to a forest of sugar maples, ablaze with color in the fall. Early settlers of the area used this tree for syrup and sweetener.
At little farther along the road you’ll come to a wonderful pull off called Campbell Overlook. If you’re spending the day, taking your time along your drive, be sure to stop and capture one of the most expansive vistas in the Park. Your view at Campbell Overlook will include the infamous Mt. LeConte, the third largest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. Mt. LeConte rises to 6,593 feet in its majestic stature.
If you stop at the next Quiet Walkway past Campbell Overlook, you’ll be treated to some wonderful pieces of history. Strolling along the path, if you look closely, you’ll observe some of the remaining foundations and fireplaces left from the bygone days of old homesteads. You’ll need to have a keen eye at times as the Park may be reclaiming what was once part of nature so be sure to take your time so that you can see parts of what family life used to be here in the mountains before it became The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As you drive along Newfound Gap Road, you may get glimpses of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. At some of the pull offs, you’ll be able to approach the cool, clear water of the river for a closer look as it rushes toward the Tennessee River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Don’t be afraid to spend a little time and cool off by tipping a toe into the water but be careful as the smooth river rocks are slippery. Be aware of the water as it rushes quickly through the rocks, wading safely if you choose to do so.
Approximately 4.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center you’ll approach Chimney Tops. There is a picnic area here and the Little Pigeon River runs through this area. The peaks of Chimney Tops are what give this area its name, the rocky outcroppings resembling stone chimneys. The 4 mile trail here is rated as difficult and is currently closed due to the Gatlinburg wildfires of 2016.
Around the 7 mile marker is when you’ll experience two tunnels with beautiful stonework that matches other stonework found throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The second tunnel is a switchback tunnel, sometimes referred to as ‘the loop’, which curves around and back on itself so that the steep grade of the mountain is lessened and the road is more easily traveled. The loop wasn’t part of the original road but was upgraded for Park service standards.
Passing the Chimney Tops Trailhead, for the next few miles there are multiple pull offs to stop and spend some time along the Little Pigeon River, its cool sparkling waters flowing through what is now hardwood forests. You’ll have the opportunity here to view the rhododendron in bloom in June and July, filling the air with bright spots of color.
If you’re up for a challenging hike, not far from here is the Alum Cave Bluffs parking area where you can catch the trailhead for a strenuous hike. The trail leads you over log bridges, crossing creeks and sends you through old growth forest. Climb 2.3 miles to the cave bluff and then another 2.7 miles to LeConte Lodge. You must have reservations at the Lodge.
Moving along you’ll see Morton Overlook with its views of Sugarland Mountain, Mount Mingus and the Chimney Tops. The next point of interest is Newfound Gap itself and at 5,048 feet you can view both Tennessee and North Carolina. You can also see State Line Ridge, the spine of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail is not far and if you’re of a mind, take a few minutes to walk a bit on the AT, as it is fondly called by hikers, then you’ll be able to tell friends and family you’ve walked the Appalachian Trail. It is also here that you will find the Rockefeller Monument, erected to memorialize the 5 million dollar donation made by John D. Rockefeller in the name of his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. It was here, at this monument, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940 for the ‘permanent enjoyment of the people’. There is a plaque with an inscription here at the two-tiered structure on a slight elevation above the parking area. For visitors to the Park, this monument and the view from it are a must see.
And beyond Newfound Gap and the Rockefeller Monument you’ll come upon Clingman’s Dome Road. The road twists and turns as it climbs up toward the Clingman’s Dome parking area and may be closed in inclement weather. This is a wonderful chance to experience some of the best wide open vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once arriving at the parking area, there are restrooms available and also a Ranger Station and Gift Shop. The half-mile Clingman’s Dome trail is a 13% grade and fully paved all the way to the Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower. There are benches situated every tenth of a mile along the trail for hikers to rest should they need one while traversing the steep grade. The trail also crosses the Appalachian Trail, making this point the highest elevation along the AT’s 2,144 miles trail. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and in Tennessee, rising 6,643 feet above sea level. It’s the second highest point east of the Mississippi River. Only North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell rises higher at 6,684 ft. At the end of the half mile trail is the 54 foot observation tower. An angled ramp twines around the observation tower and once at the top, the view is nothing like you’ve ever seen. On a clear day views span over 100 miles and seven states. On an average day, the view is normally limited to approximately 22 miles but still spectacular. Legends positioned around the observation deck of the tower point out different mountains and towns, orienting visitors to what the landscape in front of them reveals. Though Clingman’s Dome is open year round, the road leading to the parking area is closed from December 1 to April 1. Visitors can hike or cross-country ski the road during the closure months. The cool wet conditions at Clingman’s Dome summit actually make it a coniferous rain forest. Be aware of the weather. The weather atop Clingman’s Dome can change quickly and cloudy days, rain, and cold temperatures can surprise visitors who haven’t come prepared. Also snow can fall any time between September and May so if you are planning a visit to the top of Clingman’s Dome, you may want to ask about current weather conditions at Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg or at Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee before making the trip up the mountain. Clingman’s Dome is one of the most visited trails and is heavily trafficked but it’s one not to miss with the amazing wide expansive views from the observation tower. A sunset at Clingman’s Dome is a special treat and if you have the time to spend, it is greatly rewarding. ( Kristina Plaas photo of the dome view)
Following Clingman’s Dome are a few more quiet walkways, one of which is quite interesting. It’s at approximately the 18 mile point and upon entering the walkway, just off the road, the path splits. The right path follows the old Newfound Gap Road. The left path follows the Oconaluftee River. Both paths are enjoyable.
Just a little further past this quiet walkway, you’ll see the Smokemont Campground. Once a small town thanks to the lumbering business with a school, church, boarding houses and a store, the town is long gone. It’s now a campground with 140 campsites available.
Not far from here is the road that leads to Mingus Mill, a historic grist mill still standing in the same place it was built long ago. Take a side trip and see the long mill race where the water flows downhill toward the mill to power the large turbine inside that grinds the grain. Go inside the mill and watch as the Miller works the mill and you can also buy cornmeal and other mill products if you like.
The final stop along Newfound Gap Road before you reach Cherokee is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum. At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center you’ll find exhibits, a gift shop and Park Rangers available to answer any questions you may have. At the Mountain Farm Museum, free to all, there are multiple historical buildings which have been moved here for preservation and you may see some grazing elk in the field beyond the buildings. There is also a wonderful trail along the river where pets are also allowed. It’s one of the two trails in the Park that allows pets. You’ll also see joggers and bicyclists along this trail that follows the river.
All in all, travelling Newfound Gap Road is a treat of the senses with many sights, sounds and the smell of the forest. There’s just a few things to remember before embarking on your journey.
Due to the sometimes heavy traffic, be sure you gas tank is on the full side. There are no gas stations between Gatlinburg and Cherokee.
If the weather is questionable, be aware that parts of the Newfound Gap Road may be slick. Though outside of the Park, the roads can be salted to obtain safety from ice and snow, inside the Park using salt on the roads in not acceptable. In the colder months, it’s a good idea to stop at one of the Visitor Centers, either Sugarlands or Oconaluftee, to inquire about the road conditions before you depart.
Just be sure if you have the time to stop along the way, whether in the pull offs with ample parking or to stroll a quiet walkway. You won’t be disappointed by the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.