Hundreds of miles of hiking trails crisscross the vast wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, but if the thought of all that walking has kept you from enjoying the amazing scenery, you’re in for a surprise. Unknown to many, the area around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN is also home to some of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere in the country. From modern, paved, two-way thoroughfares to rustic, single-lane gravel paths, there are plenty of roads that offer unforgettable scenery, a little history, and lots of wildlife.
Historic Cades Cove
The Cades Cove loop leads you on a twisting, turning tour of history. This 11-mile, single-lane road winds through the lush valley known as Cades Cove, past a grist mill, several churches, historic log cabins dating as far back as 1820, and many cemeteries. For the hour-long trip, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to a quieter, simpler era.
From Cades Cove Road, watch for the turnoff to Rich Mountain Road. This one-lane unpaved track offers stunning views of the valley and a chance to truly enjoy the beauty of the area. Colorful wildflowers grow right up to the edge of the road, while the trees meet overhead in a canopy of brilliant green. Plan to spend an afternoon just enjoying the sights and sounds of this gorgeous valley, and be sure to bring along your camera. Even novice photographers will be inspired by the spectacular variety of wildlife you’ll see on this 7-mile ride.
Parson Branch Road
You’ll get even closer to nature when you take a drive along Parson Branch Road. This 8-mile stretch will take you deep into the Tennessee forest, and includes 18 creek crossings. They’re all paved, but some do require you to drive through water, so be aware before starting out. It’s all worth it, though, to see the unspoiled wilderness unfold before you.
Pack a picnic and stop for lunch along a burbling stream, or bring a tent for an overnight adventure far away from any modern-day campground. Whether you stay for an hour or a day, you won’t soon forget a drive on Parson Branch Road.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Just outside Gatlinburg, TN you’ll find the entrance to one of the area’s best-kept secrets: the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This 8-mile route offers an intimate look at the pristine wilderness, and is the starting point for many must-see hiking trails. Without leaving your car, you’ll see rivers, rapids, and waterfalls, but for true, undisturbed beauty, you’ll want to leave the car behind and take the Trillium Gap Trail up to Grotto Falls. Even in the heat of summer the damp air keeps the trail cool, and it’s a favorite hangout for area wildlife.
A driving tour of the Great Smoky Mountains is a fantastic way for the entire family to enjoy the lush wilderness and stunning mountain views. If you’re traveling with small children who are easily bored, simply stop the car and take a little walk along one of many nature trails. Or leave your hiking boots at home and savor the scenery from the comfort of your car. Whichever you choose, one thing is certain: the whole family will love the incredible beauty of the area, and be begging for a return trip soon.
Jon Hoffman is Reservations Manager of Volunteer Cabin Rentals specializing in Pigeon Forge vacation cabins. Visit the main website to book cabins for your next vacation in Pigeon Forge, TN.