Tennessee Tourism/State Photo ServicesA blue haze over the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will soon reflect the fiery reds and golds of autumn.
Length: About 400 miles in all, plus side trips.
When to go: Year-round, but best in spring, summer, and fall.
Words to the wise: Some roads may be closed in winter due to snow and ice.
Nearby attractions: Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge. Museum of Appalachia, Norris. Forbidden Caverns, Sevierville.
Visitor centers: Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Sugarlands, located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Further information: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738; tel. 865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm.
The name Great Smoky Mountains was inspired by the bluish haze that hovers over the forest-the result of vapors exhaled by millions of trees. But history, too, imbues these ancient peaks, among the highest in the Appalachian range. This territory was sacred to the Cherokee Indians, and among the Europeans that followed, the land inspired a fiercely dedicated pride of place. It has yielded more than its share of statesmen and scalawags, fighters and frontiersmen, whose lives have been immortalized (and embellished) by front-porch raconteurs. The art of storytelling, in fact, has long been a favored pastime in the hills of eastern Tennessee.
1. Hiwassee State Scenic River
After tooling north from Ocoee on Rte. 411, the drive veers east onto Rte. 30 and parallels the Hiwassee River as far as the town of Reliance. From here you can ride the waters in a raft or canoe, or you can continue east into the wilderness on the hiking trails that wind along the river’s forested banks. Look for great blue herons stilting through the sun-dappled backwaters, and ospreys making high-speed dives in an effort to snatch trout.
2. Tellico Lake
Rte. 411 follows the contours of the mountains north and east to Tellico Lake, which fingers its way into valleys flooded by the damming of the Little Tennessee River. Along the lake — and beneath it — lie ancestral lands of the Cherokee Indians. Their capital, Tanasi (the word that evolved into “Tennessee”), stood on a site just offshore from the Chota Peninsula, where a stark memorial of eight stone pillars commemorates the eight posts that once supported the tribe’s meeting house. A short drive away is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, honoring the life of the man who, inspired by the white man’s “talking leaves,” created the Cherokee alphabet.
As a diversion, climb to the clouds on the Cherohala Skyway, which follows old wagon-trail routes from its start at the Tellico Plains, Tennessee, on Rte 165, reaching altitudes of more than 5,000 feet as it travels 52 miles to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Other attractions of the route include Whigg Meadows near Haw Knob — the highest point in Monroe County — and Indian Boundary Lake, a popular place for swimming, fishing, picnicking, and camping.
3. Foothills Parkway
Just beyond Tellico Lake, head east on Rtes. 72 and 129 to reach the Foothills Parkway, a development-free national park road that runs for 17 miles along the azalea-strewn Chilhowee ridgeline. The Parkway and its numerous scenic overlooks provide catbird seats that preview the Great Smoky Mountains to the east. From the observation tower at Look Rock, just half a mile off the road, you can spy the fabled, misty peaks and — in the other direction — see all the way to the city of Knoxville.
Or you can gaze up into the sky, where large numbers of raptors (including broad-winged hawks and red-tailed hawks) are easily spotted as they soar and dive for aerial prey during their spring and fall migrations.
4. Cades Cove
Heading east on Rte. 321, the drive swings past Townsend and veers deep into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, in this half-million-acre Eden, which harbors 90 percent of the old-growth forest in the eastern United States, a distinctive man-made environment survives as well — in a place called Cades Cove.
First settled in 1818, Cades Cove grew within its first four decades into a self-sufficient community of nearly 700 souls, then sank into a secluded decline before its absorption by the park. An 11-mile loop leads through the old community, past sturdy, mud-mortared log cabins; stout old churches hand-built by their congregations; a number of barns; a blacksmith shop; and a water-powered mill where stone still grinds corn into meal. Visitors to Cades Cove get a vivid sense of how these folks made their way in the world a century and a half ago.
5. Newfound Gap Road
The 34-mile Newfound Gap Road (Rte. 441) crosses Great Smoky Mountains National Park between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. A virtual byway in the sky, the road follows a mountain path so tortuous that at one point it has to loop back over itself to gain altitude. Beginning in a lowland Smokies environment of tulip trees, basswoods, magnolias, and sycamores, the road climbs through a typical northern hardwood forest of yellow birch, American beech, and sugar maple. By the time it reaches the top of the nearly mile-high gap, the trees consist mainly of red spruce and Fraser fir, suggesting the forests of Canada. In this alpine clime a seven-mile spur road, followed by a short footpath, leads to the top of Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point.
6. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
One of the highlights of the looping Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (a calming contrast to the touristy hubbub of nearby Gatlinburg) is the cool curtain of water known as Grotto Falls, hidden within a hemlock forest a half hour’s walk from one of the loop’s parking areas. If you like, follow the trail past the falls for four strenuous miles to the top of Mt. LeConte. One of the loftiest of the Great Smoky Mountains, LeConte offers vistas that amply reward those who make the climb.
Wending north and east of Gatlinburg, the drive follows Rte. 321 and another short stretch of the Foothills Parkway to the small city of Greeneville. Back in 1826, Greeneville offered a fresh start in life for a young tailor so intent on self-improvement that he paid a boy to read to him while he sewed. His shop soon became a gathering place for anyone who wanted to talk politics. The tailor’s name was Andrew Johnson, and Greeneville set him off on the path to public life, which led — upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — to the presidency of the United States.
Greeneville’s Andrew Johnson National Historic Site includes two of Johnson’s homes and his eagle-topped gravesite. Most poignant of all, though, is the little tailor shop with its shears, thimble, and flatiron, symbols of the fact that our democracy draws deeply from the populace for its leaders.
8. Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park
The frontier hero wasn’t “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee,” as the song would have it, but at no less beautiful a spot, where Limestone Creek meets the Nolichucky River. Today’s park features a replica of the log cabin where Davy Crockett — bear hunter, congressman, and Alamo martyr — first saw daylight in 1786. In honoring Crockett, the little cabin serves also as a tribute to the hardiness and flint of that first generation of settlers born west of the Appalachians.
Jonesborough looks like the town that time forgot — in fact, it was once the capital of a state all but forgotten by history. In 1784, when North Carolina gave the federal government all its lands west of the Appalachians, the local yeomen, left without a government, met at Jonesborough to organize the state of Franklin. Never recognized by Congress, Franklin struggled along for less than five years and ultimately became part of the new state of Tennessee. Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town, and it certainly looks the part — not through neglect, but because of its conscientious program of historic preservation. You can take a walking tour of the downtown historic district — a living scrapbook of American architectural styles, studded with gems such as step-gabled brick houses, venerable Victorian homes, and an old inn that once provided board for a young law student named Andrew Jackson. In 1788 the hot-tempered Jackson faced another lawyer in a duel here — a tale that might provide grist for a participant in the National Storytelling Festival, held in Jonesborough each October.
At Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area near Elizabethton, you can visit reconstructed Fort Watauga, one of the first white settlements to be found west of the thirteen British colonies. Here, in 1775, the future of westward expansion was sealed when speculators bought 20 million acres of land from the Cherokee Indians.
At Elizabethton’s John and Landon Carter Mansion, built in the 1770s, visitors can stroll around the grounds and tour the home’s elegant interior, much of it original. Nearby, at the Doe River, you can visit an old covered bridge — a cool, dark tunnel into the 1880s — that is still open to traffic.
11. Cherokee National Forest
Stretching along most of Tennessee’s eastern border — interrupted only by Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Cherokee National Forest is laced with enticing trails. In autumn huge numbers of nut-bearing trees release a slow-motion hail of black walnuts, butternuts, beechnuts, hickory nuts, pecans, and acorns to the forest floor, where wild boar — rarely seen — vie with bear and squirrels for nature’s feast. The national forest covers 633,000 acres in ten counties of east Tennessee and is home to a wide variety of wildlife and wildflowers. Mountain trout fill its cold streams, and footpaths garnished with tiny white and yellow flowers lead to a myriad of hidden waterfalls as they crisscross the ancient Appalachian Trail that traverses the forest’s high ridges. Stop at ranger stations for hiking, kayaking, biking, and fly-fishing information.
12. Watauga Lake
Jutting away from Rte. 321 at the hamlet of Hampton, the drive follows Rte. 19E to Roan Mountain State Park. You can drive to the 6,285-foot summit, where Catawba rhododendrons form a 600-acre natural garden. In late June, during the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival, the road to the top is like a storybook path to a crimson-and-purple sea of blossoms.
Once you return to earth, backtrack to Rte. 321 and head east to Watauga Lake. In the 1940s the entire town of Butler had to move when the Tennessee Valley Authority built 331-foot-high Watauga Dam, creating the 16-mile-long lake. Watauga, bordered by forests and campsites and filled with bass, serves as the gateway to the Doe Valley, where century-old homesteads are surrounded by rich family farms. Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina huddle around this serenely uncrowded corner of the Appalachians, where the drive terminates at the aptly named community of Mountain City.
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