newfound_gap_parking_area_great_smoky_mountains_park_vintagecard_2e8dd363Fall is one of the best seasons to go auto-touring in the Smokies.  There are over 384 miles of road winding through the forests and foothills, and around the peaks of the Great Smokies.   In a couple of hours on an auto tour you can witness some of the most breath-taking and inspirational views on our planet.  Whether you are a tourist or a local, every Fall brings a freshness with it that never gets old.  When the leaves beginning turning, the mountains transform into a rainbow that goes as far as the eye can see.

Beginning planning an auto-tour for your Fall getaway.  Before you head out the door it is always good to check out the National Park’s Seasonal Road Schedule for closings and alternate routes.

Here are some great tips to make your auto-tour fun and memorable.

Bring a Camera

This one goes without saying when you’re in the Great Smokies.  You never know what amazing wildlife you will see, what flowers will be blooming, or what road-side waterfall will be overflowing.   So make sure you have your camera and bring extra batteries or a car charger.  If you are using a cell phone then you can turn off your cell and wifi reception to conserve battery life.

Bring Snacks

Whether you’re young or old car rides that extend for more than hour can make you hungry!  Bring some easy to eat snacks like chex-mix, pretzels, and apples, along with a small cooler of drinks.  This will help you enjoy the whole ride instead of getting halfway in and craving a big dinner.

Pick your route

Don’t wait until the last minute and do a coin-toss on which way to go.  Chances are that you will see beautiful sites no matter which direction you travel but don’t leave your vacation to chance. Especially if you have time limits, children, or other needs.  There are several auto-tour maps to help you find the best route for you, but here are some of the best:

  • The Cades Cove Loop
  • Newfound Gap Road
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Upper Tremont Rd
  • Cataloochee Valley
  • Blue Ridge Parkway

Depending on how long you want to be in the car, if you want to mix up any other activities, or eat along the way then certain routes may be better suited for your needs.  Here is a simple breakdown…

Kids Love Cades Cove

If you are traveling with younger kids then Cades Cove is probably the perfect route for you.  Once you enter the loop the kids can unbuckle and watch for wildlife along the way.  If you have a station wagon then they can hop in the back for a safari experience.  There are all kinds of things to see on the Cades Cove loop including horses, wild turkeys, deer, and the famous Cades Cove black bears.  Obviously you don’t want to get out of the car when there are bears nearby, but you can get out and pet the horses, have a picnic, walk to the historic home sites, and visit the old John P Cable Mill where you can see how a mill was used, shop at the gift store, and participate in seasonal activities.   There are also a number of hiking trails that begin along the Cades Cove loop.  The loop is about 11 miles in length but can take 30 minutes to 2 hours to get through.  During peak seasons (Summertime and Weekends in October) the traffic in the park can be fairly congested.   At the entrance/exit to the loop there is a great spot to have a picnic. During Summer months the shallow and broad creek make a great spot for kids to catch crawdads, build a dam, and play while the hotdogs are cooking.  For more information visit the Cades Cove website.  If your family is the hiking type check out the next section…

Want to Hike?  Try The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The Fall is a great time to get into the mountains through one of the over 850 miles of trails!  Most of the routes have multiple stop ‘wide spots’ in the road where trails begin.  The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail has one of the best short distant day hikes.  At stop #5 you will find the trailhead for the Trillium Gap Trail.  Grotto Falls is located about 1.5 miles into this trail.  Trillium Gap Trail meanders through an old-growth hemlock forest and actually runs behind the 25 foot high waterfall. The cool, moist environment near the falls is ideal for salamanders and summer hikers. The hike is 3 miles roundtrip and considered moderate in difficulty.

A number of historic log and frame buildings can also be viewed along Roaring Fork. Of special interest is the Reagan tub mill, a tiny grist mill used for grinding corn into corn meal. The restored mill is located so close to the road you practically drive through it.

From the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg, turn at stoplight #8 onto Historic Nature Trail-Airport Road. Go straight at the intersection and continue into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Near the end of this route, a waterfall called “Place of a Thousand Drips” can be seen on the left. During wet weather this waterfall is a remarkable sight.

The Motor Nature Trail ends in Gatlinburg. Turn left to return to downtown via US-32

Want More City?

If you don’t want to be ‘off the grid’ for very long then one of the best routes for you might be the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Parkway extends from the North Carolina edge of the Smoky Mountains to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  You don’t have to go very far from Gatlinburg to get on the Parkway and there are plenty of stops along the way on this route through small and large towns. Just over the hill from Gatlinburg you can stop in Cherokee or go to Santas Land.  These aren’t too far from the Parkway.  For more information check out the official Blue Ridge Parkway website.

Beating the Crowds

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. Times when visitation is highest are July 1-August 15 and the month of October (especially October weekends). During these times, traffic may become congested, especially on the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove Loop roads. Fortunately, lesser-used roads and off-the-beaten path destinations are scattered throughout the park. Anytime you want to escape the crowds, try one of these alternatives:

*motorists must travel part of the busy Cades Cove Loop Road to access this one-way backroad (closed in winter).

In summer, motorists can also avoid the crowds by traveling before 10:00 a.m. in the morning or after 5:00 p.m. in the evening. During October, traffic is heaviest during the afternoons and evenings.


For more details on Auto Touring visit the Great Smoky National Park’s online guide.