Trailside Talk: The Scoop on The Loop

Trailside Talk: The Scoop on The Loop

Mike Hembree

by Mike Hembree

One of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s unique features often goes unnoticed. In fact, sometimes it takes a child to point it out.

“Hey, Dad, we just drove over ourselves!” Junior might yell from the backseat.

And it’s true. The Loop Over Bridge, located on U.S. Highway 441 between the park’s Gatlinburg entrance and Newfound Gap, carries traffic in a loop as it crosses over a bridge about nine miles from Gatlinburg. Cars practically make a circle before or after (depending on direction) encountering the bridge, clad in stone, carrying the highway.

The Loop Over is an impressive example of imaginative engineering. Opening in 1935, it immediately became somewhat of an unexpected attraction. Visitors recognized its unique nature. Some stopped for photos, attempting to document their carousel-like ride.

Souvenir postcards featuring the Loop Over went on sale at nearby shops (some of the older ones can be had on eBay for less than $10), and the loop even became the star of a souvenir plate.

The Loop Over Bridge located on Newfound Gap Road. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
The Loop Over Bridge located on Newfound Gap Road. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Historic American Engineering Record, which documents the construction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, often in rather dry commentary, says the Loop Over climbs “a steep slope in one long graceful and safe curve….”

The Loop Over generally is visible from the upper reaches of the Chimney Tops Trail, as it was many years ago when a Smokies road worker described, maybe with a straight face, to several visiting teachers how it was created. They had climbed the trail and were curious about the unique nature of the road configuration. His account: “I told them that it came about when Mayford Clabo and I ‘chained’ (measured) the road between Newfound Gap and the Sugarlands. Mayford, with his party, started chaining at Gatlinburg. With my party, I started chaining at the Gap. When we met at the Chimneys, both of us had too much road left. So, to come out even, we made the loop.”

Rest assured that this interesting version of the Loop Over story is not endorsed by the official engineering record. The park, though, has many intriguing myths and legends. One might as well relate to highway construction.

The road from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap was rebuilt over a six-year stretch from 1933 to 1939. Crews straightened the road in several spots, trimming 1.35 miles from its length. Building of the loop bridge eliminated multiple switchbacks.

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Cross-mountain travelers from Cherokee to Gatlinburg found the way smoother after the Loop Over opened. It also added another bit of interest to a roadway better known for tight curves around huge mountain rocks, overlooks with stunning mountain views, and traffic backups caused by bear sightings.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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