Knoxville's premier magazine

The Backroads of the Smokies

Cityview explores some less traveled roads in the Smokies that you should discover soon!

Photography by Trent Eades and Keith Norris

A large part of East Tennessee culture can be attributed to the beauty and intrigue of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No matter how much time one has spent taking in the mountain air and colorful vistas, there are always more destinations to explore. Highways and interstates will often point you in the direction of a tried and true route that is heavily populated and prone to cause traffic jams. However, some of the best roads in the Smoky Mountains are the ones less traveled. Cityview has compiled some of our favorite back roads to share with you. Some of our choices may cut traffic time in the more populated areas, but others allow time to slow down so you can truly appreciate all that our Great Smoky Mountains have to offer. Whether you are an East Tennessee local or find yourself visiting, take a moment or two to explore the roads less traveled.

Lamar Alexander Parkway is one of the best routes into the Great Smoky Mountains, and while it may not be a “back road,” as you get close to the park you will begin to see the curls of bluish mist that give the legendary Smokies their name. One of the area’s most charming local entertainments can be found along the way. Parkway Drive-In is one of the few surviving drive-in theaters in this neck of the woods. During the warmer months of the year, they show two or three movies every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The first film always starts at dusk and tends to be family-friendly, while the film, or films, that follow are meant for a more mature audience. At the drive-in, you can set up a comfy seat in the bed of a truck or bring along camping to chairs to sit in, tune your radio to the station Parkway provides and enjoy two or more movies. To find out more information about pricing, featured films and accommodations, visit www.parkwaydrivein.com.

Cades Cove is a short drive from Lamar Alexander Parkway. This corner of the park boasts some of the most beautiful slices of nature that East Tennessee has to offer. If you find yourself enjoying the joys of Cades Cove, a bonus adventure can be found on Rich Mountain Road—an alternative route out of Cades Cove and back into Townsend. This road is one-way, primitive, and mostly untouched. If you are a lover of mountains and biking, this is the road for you. Wildlife, abandoned buildings, streams, and breathtaking vistas are in abundance on this road; you’ll find some gorgeous views and plenty of tranquility.

The Cades Cove side of the mountains is the definition of tranquility no matter where you are. Little River Road starts off at Cades Cove and winds slowly and peacefully through the mountains and turns into Fighting Creek Gap Road towards the backside of Gatlinburg. This is the perfect road to travel for fall colors, while you’re likely to spot some wildlife during the warmer months. There are also picturesque trails to enjoy. The Sinks is a short trail to a beautiful waterfall—an excellent view for the photographer in your family. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is just down the way; it boasts short trails to some of the area’s most beautiful spots and has an expansive natural history exhibit for guests to enjoy. Fighting Creek Gap Road can then also be taken into Gatlinburg where you can enjoy some of the more marketed pastimes of the Smoky Mountains: shopping, moonshine, mini-golf, fudge, pancakes, and so much more.

Another option at the backdoor of Gatlinburg is the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. This trail is a loop road, six-miles long with plenty of waterfalls, trails, views, and wildlife to take in. If hiking is a hobby, we recommend getting out of your car long enough to trek down Trillium Gap Trail, located off of Roaring Fork. Grotto Falls on Trillium Gap Trail is a rare treat. Not only is it a beautiful falls, it is a waterfall you can physically stand behind and watch as it pours into a pool. Roaring Fork itself was heavily damaged by the fires last November but nature has worked hard to rebuild the beauty it provides. While you are still likely to see some evidence of fire damage, it should not be enough to keep you from visiting this gorgeous spot. We definitely recommend setting aside two or three hours to enjoy Roaring Fork. Pack a picnic, take the family, enjoy good company in the great outdoors from the comfort of your car, or appreciate the thrill of a fun hike.

Speaking of good picnics, you should not miss a journey down Wears Valley Road, which connects Townsend and Pigeon Forge. This little gem of a road, sandwiched in between the busy, exciting Pigeon Forge and the peaceful, slow-paced Townsend, holds some of the best options the Smokies has to offer. A perfect picnic spot is Metcalf Bottoms, where you will find picnic tables, a pavilion, and a large creek made perfectly for the kids to play in. Metcalf Bottoms is tucked off to the side in the middle of the forest, but if you travel down Wears Valley a bit further, you will come across craft shops, antique shops, and country stores. There are multiple cabin rentals along the road that boast brilliant views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Renting a cluster of cabins is a grand idea for the next family reunion or large gathering. This spot is particularly popular for small weddings and elopements. However, even if you do not stray off of Wears Valley Road, the views found from the drive alone are worth checking out.

Much like Wears Valley Road, River Divide Road offers many rental properties for a visit to the mountains of East Tennessee. One end of River Divide puts you close to Chapman Highway, a well-travelled route from Knoxville to Sevierville. The road itself is a long winding route toward Pigeon Forge that serves as a way of avoiding Sevierville. If you would like to enjoy some of the attractions Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Sevierville have to offer but do not want to stay in a hotel on any of the main strips of these destinations, renting a cabin off of a backroad like River Divide is a perfect option. You can enjoy peace, privacy, and nature without giving up convenient access to the kind of fun that the surrounding spots have to offer. River Divide is a gorgeous spot to stay for a visit, or travel as a beautiful route into the Smokies.

Maybe your desire for a backroad is to merely avoid some of the traffic often associated with Pigeon Forge? From car shows to parades, there are many reasons to find yourself in bumper to bumper traffic throughout the year. One road can be the secret to avoiding that headache. Teaster Lane runs parallel to the main strip running through Pigeon Forge. It provides a back-door access to a lot of the main attractions on the east side of the road. You can cut traffic time significantly if you use Teaster Lane entrances to destination entertainments. The Christmas Place Inn, The Track, The Old Mill, and so many other popular destinations can be reached by taking this road. Even if your destination lies on the other side of the main strip, there are plenty of traffic lights you can use to zip across the parkway to reach the other side.

Traveling off of the beaten path is one of the best adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains. Interesting journeys and unknown treasures are constantly waiting to be uncovered. The biggest tip to keep in mind if you crave this kind of discovery? Do your research. Sometimes, the primitive nature of these roads, severe weather, construction, seasonal changes, or crowded events might alter access to backroads. They vary in size and quality of road or trail. Some may be limited to all-terrain vehicles; some may be one-way through dense forest. When actually in the mountains, one of the best things to keep in mind when you want to explore backroads is to go into your adventure with a flexible agenda. You never know what spot you might discover to sit and enjoy for a while. And if you find backroads to cut traffic time, use that time to discover even more attractions and entertainment options during your visit. You, like all of us at Cityview, may find yourself addicted to the kinds of adventures a backroad can provide.

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