Sugarlands to Oconoluftee
The 33-mile drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee North Carolina along Newfound Gap Road (US 441) is the only route that completely traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive offers a unique opportunity to enjoy an abbreviated experience of everything the Park has to offer, without necessarily trekking far from your automobile. The drive takes about one hour, depending on traffic. The experience can take several hours if you stop at each of the suggested points of interest. June through August and the month of October are the busiest months of the tourist season, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper in front of you. You shouldn’t let the congestion discourage you from the experience, however. If you want to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, we would simply recommend you try the same experience in April or May (wildflowers are already blooming) or after peak fall colors. In fact, winter is even a wonderful time in the Smokies. Mountain vistas are magnified by the lack of foliage.
Quiet walkways, unforgettable views of the various peaks in the Smokies, a vast variety of trees, flowers, and wildlife; campgrounds, picnic areas–they all await you on this wonderful journey. This road is closed to commercial traffic as well.
You begin your drive from Gatlinburg (or from Cherokee for that matter–this travelogue assumes a departure from Gatlinburg) and go less than a mile to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Its worth the stop here to view the displays of the natural history of the Park, get an idea of what to expect on the drive, pick up reading material to accompany your trip; and ask the Park rangers those questions you always wanted to ask.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center you will turn left briefly before making a right turn onto Newfound Gap Road. The road takes its name from a discovery in the 1850s that Indian Gap, once believed to be the lowest point through the mountains, actually was not the lowest point–hence the name Newfound Gap. The road runs parallel to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Its cool, crystal-clear water is inviting and cooling at the many pullouts accessible from Newfound Gap Road. Ultimately the Little Pigeon River finds it’s way to the Tennessee River on its way to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers which ultimately spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
At approximately the 1 and 2 mile points from Gatlinburg, you begin to see small signs indicating “quiet walkways”. These walkways, while you are still in Sugarlands Valley, offer wonderful opportunities to view Fall color. The valley takes it’s name from the multitude of sugar maples in the area. As you move away from your vehicle down these quiet paths you become surrounded by sugar maples, resplendent with color. Early settlers used this tree for sugar and syrup. It takes about 30 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.
As you continue along Newfound Gap Road, a little over two miles you will come upon the Campbell Overlook, which offers arguably the best vistas in the Park. Mt. LeConte rises to 6,593 feet in front of you–the third largest peak in the Smokies. The overlook is named for Carlos Campbell, who wrote Birth of A National Park (available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center). Campbell was a devoted outdoorsman and was a devout supporter for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Shortly beyond the Campbell Overlook, you will approach one of the more interesting quiet walkways. As you walk the path, look closely and you can still see the remnants of old farmsteads–parts of fireplaces and foundations. You can see the old roadbed which led to White Oak Flats–what is now known as Gatlinburg.
As you continue along US 441, you approach the Chimney Tops at the 4.5 mile mark. Here you will find the Chimney Tops picnic area which is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the U.S. The Little Pigeon River runs through the picnic area. This river is named for the huge flocks of passenger pigeons which once filled the skies over the Smokies.
White settlers named the Chimney Tops after stone chimneys which, if you use a little imagination, resemble the peaks. This area, and many of the higher regions of the Smokies, were once owned by paper and lumber companies, which highly prized the spruce fibers growing there for making quality paper. As a matter of fact, this prized resource and the thousands of acres of forests held by these lumber companies were a key obstacle in obtaining the land which now makes up the Park.
At about the 7-mile point you will see the transition from northern hardwood and cove hardwood trees. Also at this point you will come upon two tunnels. They exhibit the beautiful stone work found throughout the Park–work that was accomplished in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The second tunnel, a switchback referred to as “the loop”, curves around and back over itself. This feature was added to alleviate the extreme slope of the mountain–it was not part of the original road through the Park, which had to be upgraded to Park Service standards.
Also in this area you will find a parking area and the trailhead for the Chimney Tops two-mile hike. It’s a very challenging hike, but rewards the hardy hiker with magnificent views of Sugarlands to the northwest; Mt. Leconte to the northeast; and Mt. Mingus to the southeast.
For 2-3 miles after the Chimney Tops trailhead, you have several opportunities for pullouts to view the very cool and appealing Little Pigeon River. You are now in northern hardwood forest land, and here you’ll find ample opportunity to view the purple-flowered Catawba rhododendron in June and the Rosebay rhododendron in bloom in July.
Around the 9-mile point you will find the Alum Cave Bluffs parking area and trailhead. The Alum Cave Bluff hike is challenging. You climb 2.3 miles to the cave bluff and then continue another 2.7 miles on to LeConte Lodge (reservations required). The Appalachian Trail lies not far beyond the lodge.
At approximately the 13-mile point you find the Morton Overlook. From here you can look back and see the Little Pigeon River and Newfound Gap Road area you just left. To your left is Sugarland Mountain, Mount Mingus, and the Chimney Tops.
Three-quarters of a mile beyond the Morton Overlook you come to Newfound Gap itself. You are at 5,048 feet and can enjoy views to both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the ridge. Here you find the State Line Ridge, which serves as the spine for the entire distance of the Park, and it also comprises the sixty-nine miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Park. If you want to tell people you walked on the Appalachian Trail, you can traverse a short distance of it here before returning to your vehicle.
Here you will also find the Rockefeller Memorial, which lies half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina. It memorializes the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the Park, which was dedicated here by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
Just beyond Newfound Gap and State Line Ridge, you will come to Clingmans Dome Road (closed in winter), which takes you to the Clingmans Dome parking area. You hike the last half-mile and climb the 45-foot observation tower, the highest point in the Park and in Tennessee. On a clear day, it’s said you can see seven states. While in the area, consider hiking the 4.2 round-trip to Andrew’s Bald. Grassy balds in the Smokies are said to have been originally caused by lightning fires, but have since been sustained by the Park Service. Magnificent displays of rhododendron can be seen here in June.
After you leave Clingmans Dome and continue down Newfound Gap Road toward Cherokee, you will travel approximately one-half mile to the Oconoluftee Valley Overlook, affording you spectacular views of the Oconoluftee River Valley. As you look to where the valley falls away, you can see where you will follow the road downward to Cherokee, North Carolina.
Continuing on, you will approach several quiet walkways and overlooks in the next two miles. Most notable is the Webb Overlook, named for Senator Charles Webb of North Carolina, another staunch supporter of the Park’s establishment.
At the 18.5 mile point is one of the most interesting walkways–certainly in North Carolina. Shortly after entering the walkway, the trail splits. The left fork parallels the Oconoluftee River, and the right fork follows the path of the old Newfound Gap Road. Some of the crumbling pavement can still be seen in places. The new Newfound Gap Road was built to Park Service standards in 1964.
Six miles further down Newfound Gap Road, and 24.5 miles into your drive from Gatlinburg, you will come to the Collins Creek Picnic Area. This area was named for a local guide who assisted Arnold Guyot in mapping the Smokies in the 1850s.
One-half mile further you approach Smokemont Campground. Once a lumber company town sustaining a school, church, store and boarding houses, it now consists of 140 campsites (1-800-365-CAMP). Camping fees in Smokemont are $11 per night with a 7-day maximum stay during season (May through October).
The next, and final, stop on Newfound Gap Road in the Park is the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. Here, as at the Sugarlands visitor Center, information about the Park can be obtained. A bookstore and exhibits, as well as an on-duty Park Ranger, can provide information about the Park and the people who once lived here. Next to the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Museum, which is comprised of pioneer buildings moved from throughout the Park and permanently preserved here.
Beyond the museum is the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park–and beyond it the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where a completely different kind of adventure awaits you.
Wildflowers peak in the mountains in late April and early May. Heat and humidity bring afternoon showers June through August. Autumn colors tend to peak in mid-October but can vary by a week or two either way. Winters are mild–low 20s to mid-60s. Dress in layers.