Smokies Scenic Drives for Families: Cataloochee Auto Tour

Smokies Scenic Drives for Families: Cataloochee Auto Tour

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.

This is the third in a series of blog posts describing the park’s best scenic drives.


Think of driving through Cataloochee as visiting the next chapter in park history after Cades Cove. Whereas the Tennessee community is filled mostly with log cabins, North Carolina’s Cataloochee is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings—those built with boards instead of logs—from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Little Cataloochee Baptist Church and Cemetery. Photo by Michael Wetzel.
Little Cataloochee Baptist Church and Cemetery. Photo by Michael Wetzel.

The first home built by a white settler in Cataloochee Valley went up in 1814, and a hundred years later, more than 1,200 people lived here, making it the biggest settlement in the Smokies. These newcomers built more than 200 buildings, although today only a handful still stand—two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. The people who settled here were mainly farmers, and many also grew apples. Some families also got into the tourism business early, providing room and board for fishermen and other tourists.

It’s a bit ironic that Cataloochee was so busy in its heyday, because it’s relatively remote today. To get there from I-40, take exit 20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley. To get there from Oconaluftee or Cherokee, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Highway 19. Follow this road through Maggie Valley and turn left onto Highway 276 N. Just before the entrance ramp to I-40, turn left and follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee.

With either route, the last three of these 11 miles are down a well-maintained gravel road. When you see the paved road, turn left onto it. Take the next gravel drive on the right just a little bit to the Palmer Place (if you pass the campground, you went too far). This is where the auto tour begins.

Cataloochee interpretive sign in front of the Palmer House. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham.
Cataloochee interpretive sign in front of the Palmer House. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham.

If you have time and you’re up for adventure, you can also get to Cataloochee via a 16-mile gravel road (once called the Old Cataloochee Turnpike) that starts on the state line one mile before Big Creek (10 miles east of Cosby). This windy, slow-going route is perfectly safe for cars (although not RVs) and definitely provides a backwoods driving experience. Have the kids keep a lookout for wildlife along the way. Near the end of the drive, when the road comes to a T intersection, turn right. You’ll be at the Palmer House in less than two miles.

Here’s what to expect from the auto tour, which is 2.5 miles, one way. (Try to time your visit so you’re done near dusk, because that’s the time when you can typically see the most elk in the fields by the road.)

Fun Factivity: You’re likely to encounter the Elk Bugle Corps in Cataloochee. Have your kids ask them what they keep in the back of their little electric-powered vehicle.

The Palmer House was originally a double log cabin built in 1860, although siding was added about 1902. The two rooms in the back (including a kitchen) were added about 1924. In those back rooms you’ll find some historic exhibits and old photos.

Fun Factivity: Have your kids look at the old post office sign in one of the exhibits at the Palmer House. See if they can find anything funny about it. (Spoiler alert: Both letter Ns are backward.)

Drive to toward the paved road and turn right, continuing past the Cataloochee Campground. Note that the restrooms here are the only permanent bathroom facilities in this part of the park, but they close along with the rest of the campground in winter.

Palmer Barn. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham.
Palmer Barn. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham.

In the wide field you’ll pass next is the Will Messer Barn, set back from the road. Dating from around 1900, the barn was moved here from a nearby area. (The house near it is a private residence; the Cataloochee Ranger Station is around the back of the building.)

Next comes the Palmer Chapel, a Methodist church built in 1903 and remodeled in 1929. Most preachers in these parts were called circuit riders—they didn’t preach in only one place but traveled around in a circuit visiting once a month.

Across the bridge, the road becomes gravel. Park here and take the very short walk to the Beech Grove School, nestled back in the woods. This white clapboard school building, dating from 1903, has two rooms and very tall windows. Sitting at the desks, you can still hear the stream rushing outside.

Fun Fact: School was in session only from November through January and sometimes through February or March. Lessons started at 8 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., with two periods of recess and an hour for lunch (which was typically some combination of sweet potatoes, cornbread, beans, applesauce, biscuits, ham, and a jar of milk, all brought from home).

The Caldwell House, built in 1903, is next on the drive. It’s a two-story white clapboard home with sky-blue trim. This is a more modern home complete with closets and nice paneling. Have your kids read the peeling catalogue copy that’s pasted on the walls upstairs. It advertises clothing and various other necessities (like boys' rubber hi-cut boots). You can even find an ad offering to cure stammering!

Summertime at the Caldwell House. Photo by Mark Chinn.
Summertime at the Caldwell House. Photo by Mark Chinn.

At the end of road, you can park and walk down the Rough Fork Trail one mile to the Woody House (two miles round trip). Rough is right, as roads go. Once a dirt road, this delightful trail winding through the forest and crossing back and forth over the water at times resembles a dry streambed more than a road!

Woody House is a two-story white clapboard home with a shingle-shake roof. It started out as a one-room log cabin that was enlarged and improved in 1900. Spanish moss hangs on the trees outside, and the ornate woodwork makes a pretty design. A set of well-worn steps leads upstairs to three rooms.

Fun Fact: The name Cataloochee came from the Cherokee Gadalutsi, or “standing up in a row,” probably referring to lines of trees they could see standing straight up along distant mountain ridges (or possibly the ridges themselves).

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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 MountainsSmoky Mountain Travel Guide, and The Banana Police.

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