Let’s state the obvious up front: driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an excellent way to enjoy the colors of fall. The tree canopy is vast and varied, and in the upper elevations, you should be spotting reds and golds and oranges any day now.
So should the people in the other thousand cars in front of you.
Yes, autumn leaf-peeping draws the crowds, and there’s sure to be others out there admiring the scenery no matter where you go. But if you want to try a route outside the park, here are three to consider.
Cherohala Skyway: The 43-mile-long Cherohala Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, via a winding highway that offers scenic overlooks of waterfalls and broad mountain vistas. It crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests (thus the name). Follow Interstate 75 South to Sweetwater, then State Route 68 South to Tellico Plains, where the Skyway begins.
Foothills Parkway: The Foothills Parkway must be one of the country’s longest road construction projects, having been underway for about 75 years — and not yet complete. But the 17-mile stretch from US 129 at Chilhowee Lake to US 321 at Walland makes for spectacular viewing. Another stretch from Walland to Wears Valley opened in 2018.
Highway 129/The Tail of the Dragon: Follow US 129 past Maryville and keep going. Eventually the road will start winding and twisting amidst beautiful forested mountain scenery. This stretch is known as the Tail of the Dragon, and it’s a favorite among motorcyclists looking for a thrill. But there also are plenty of mountain vistas and water cascades to enjoy along the way. Drop in at the Historic Tapoco Lodge for lunch and a view of the rushing Cheoah River; it’s on the North Carolina side of the Dragon. Drive safely!