Smokies Scenic Drives for Families: Newfound Gap Road

Smokies Scenic Drives for Families: Newfound Gap Road

Katy Koontz

The scenic drives in the Smokies can introduce you to plenty of wildlife, rushing streams, colorful flowers, lush forests, mountain vistas, and historic buildings—all from the seat of your car. To get the full flavor of the Smokies, be sure to park in plenty of the many pull-offs so you can get out and explore on foot as well. If possible, please don't restrict your Smoky Mountain experience to asphalt alone. He who enters and exits this park without putting sneaker to earth is missing the point. Nonetheless, several scenic drives provide an excellent introduction to this park—not to mention a bit of a break for tiny, tired feet.

The lay of the land is simple—you’ll find only two main road systems. Newfound Gap Road (US-441) crosses the mountains and connects the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee visitor centers. Little River and Laurel Creek roads run end-to-end, connecting Sugarlands with Cades Cove. In addition, the park has several smaller dead-end segments, loops, and less-trafficked unpaved roads, leading to campgrounds, picnic areas, historic sites, and trailheads offering out-of-the-way treasures well worth exploring.

This is the first in a series of blogposts describing the park’s best scenic drives, starting with Newfound Gap Road. You can also buy a detailed auto-tour booklet on this drive that gives much more information and is keyed to the numbered posts you will see along the way. This booklet is available for sale for $1 at the visitor centers or from dispensers at the start of most of these roads.


Fun Fact: The Pig’s Tail was the road engineers’ answer to a steep route without a lot of room for switchbacks. But a famous local mountain guide and all-round colorful character named Wiley Oakley offered a different story. He used to joke that when the road was built, they had some left over, so they tied a knot in it! (Wiley’s daughter, Lucinda Ogle, appears at age 93 in the park film at Sugarlands Visitor Center.)
Fun Fact: The Pig’s Tail was the road engineers’ answer to a steep route without a lot of room for switchbacks. But a famous local mountain guide and all-round colorful character named Wiley Oakley offered a different story. He used to joke that when the road was built, they had some left over, so they tied a knot in it! Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Newfound Gap Road: Most families drive only half of this 29-mile road, usually from one end of the park to the overlook at Newfound Gap (5,048 feet in elevation), relatively close to the road’s midpoint. From either the Oconaluftee end or the Sugarlands end, the road climbs more than 3,000 feet and passes through most of the different types of forest GSMNP has to offer. Ask the kids to watch the trees change as you drive. At the very least, they’ll notice that you’ll start out surrounded by hardwoods and end up among evergreens. You’ll find a number of pull-offs along the way, some for quiet walkways, some for exhibits, and some for overlooks.

It will definitely be a good bit cooler (and in winter, downright cold) at the top, so be prepared with sweatshirts and coats. Driving the entire 32 miles between Sugarlands and Oconaluftee takes about an hour, one-way, without stops.

Fun Fact: Driving to Newfound Gap from Sugarlands, you’ll pass through two tunnels along the way!

Here’s what you’ll see, coming from each end of the road to Newfound Gap.

From Tennessee toward Newfound Gap: Just past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, you’ll find the Sugarlands Valley Self-Guiding Nature Trail. This is a short paved trail that is handicap accessible and great for strollers.

The Chimneys Picnic Area is 4.6 miles from Sugarlands. This is also where you’ll find the trailhead for the Cove-Hardwood Self-Guiding Nature Trail, especially fabulous in April when the wildflowers bloom.

Fun Factivity: At the Newfound Gap parking area, you can straddle the state line 
between Tennessee and North Carolina, firmly planting a flip-flop, sneaker, or hiking 
boot in each state.
Fun Factivity: At the Newfound Gap parking area, you can straddle the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, firmly planting a flip-flop, sneaker, or hiking boot in each state. Photo courtesy of Daveynin.

About a mile further on, you can stop at the Chimney Tops Overlook to see twin spires rising 2,000 feet, one of the steepest cliffs in the park. The Cherokee thought this unusual formation resembled the base of a set of antlers. The Chimneys got their name because the one on the right actually has a hollow area about 30 feet deep at the top, similar to a chimney.

About two miles later, the road makes a 360-degree loop, spiraling over itself as it climbs higher. Officially, such a formation is called a helix, but informally, this one is called the Pig’s Tail. Have the kids watch for the yellow diamond-shaped road sign announcing it.

A mile and a half further is the trailhead for the Alum Cave Trail (5-mile round trip to Alum Cave and back or 11-mile round trip to the summit of Mount Le Conte and back).

About four miles further is Morton Overlook (named for a Knoxville mayor from the 1920s), a wowzer of a vista. You can see the Chimney Tops again from here (although you’ll be looking down on them this time), along with Mt. Mingus (the highest peak on the left). This is one of the most photographed views in the Smokies.

In less than a mile, you’ll arrive at Newfound Gap.

Newfound Gap: In addition to the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, you’ll find a few more things to discover here. Most notable is the vast view from the overlook. Even jaded locals rarely tire of this vista.

Fun Factivity: If you visit in the winter, look for the fascinating giant icicles that hang from the road cuts at the higher elevations along Newfound Gap Road. See who can spot the biggest one. Some of them are massive!
Fun Factivity: If you visit in the winter, look for the fascinating giant icicles that hang from the road cuts at the higher elevations along Newfound Gap Road. See who can spot the biggest one. Some of them are massive! Photo courtesy of GSMNP.

You’ll also find stone steps to a rather grand platform known as the Rockefeller Memorial, in honor of the $5 million donation the Rockefeller Foundation made when the land for the park was being acquired. It took stonemasons almost a year to build this platform, which is where Franklin D. Roosevelt stood when he dedicated the park in 1940.

The famous Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile hiking trail that goes from Georgia to Maine, also crosses over Newfound Gap Road at this spot. Last but not least, you’ll also find restrooms not far from the memorial.

Clingmans Dome: From Newfound Gap, you can also take a popular side road, the seven-mile Clingmans Dome Road (closed in winter), which takes about 20 minutes one way. Along the road, you’ll pass the trailhead for the Spruce-Fir Self-Guiding Nature Trail (0.5-mile round trip). At the end of the road is the trailhead for the paved walk to Clingmans Dome (one-mile round trip), the highest peak in the Smokies and third highest in the eastern US. You’ll also find the trailhead for the Forney Ridge Trail, which is the way to Andrews Bald (3.6-mile round trip). Finally, you’ll see restrooms at the start of the trail to Clingmans Dome.

Fun Fact: In the early 1800s, before Clingmans Dome was called by that name, people called it Smoky Dome.

From North Carolina toward Newfound Gap: A half-mile after the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you’ll see Mingus Mill, a working gristmill dating from 1886. You’ll find restrooms at the parking lot.

Smokemont Campground is just under three miles further, and less than two miles after that is the Collins Creek Picnic Area (closed in winter).

The most impressive overlook on this side is eight miles further at the Webb Overlook, named for Asheville, NC, newspaper publisher Charles A. Webb. This is one of the best views of Clingmans Dome in the park. You can also see the Deep Creek valley, toward Bryson City, from here.

After driving three more miles, you’ll be at Newfound Gap.

Fun Factivity: Your kids will have fun with this bottle experiment that shows the effect of air pressure at different altitudes. Take an empty water or soft drink bottle with a screw top cap with you when you drive to Newfound Gap. When you get up there, you’ll notice that the bottle feels rather firm and rigid. That’s because air pressure decreases as you climb in altitude, so the pressure inside the bottle is greater than the pressure outside. Take the cap off, and then screw it back on again. Now the pressure is the same, both inside and out. Feel the difference? Then, leaving the cap on, watch what happens after you drive back down the mountain. By the time you get to the bottom, the bottle will definitely look squooshed! At the lower elevations, air pressure is greater outside the bottle than inside.

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Katy Koontz is an award-winning freelance writer, author, and editor whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She has served as a freelance editor for several best-selling authors and is herself the author of several works, including Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family-Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, Smoky Mountain Travel Guide, and The Banana Police.

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