The 33-mile drive from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina along Newfound Gap Road (US 441) is the only route that completely traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In Southern Appalachian vernacular, a gap is a low point along a ridge or mountain range. The old road over the Smoky Mountains crossed at Indian Gap, located about 1 1/2 miles west of the current site. When the lower, easier crossing was discovered, it became known as the “new found” gap.
The drive offers an unique opportunity to enjoy an abbreviated experience of everything the Park has to offer, without necessarily trekking far from your vehicle. The drive takes about one hour, depending on traffic. The experience can take much longer 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 year, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper in front of you especially if traveling on weekends.
You shouldn’t let the congestion discourage you from the experience, however. If you want to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, try the same experience in April or May (wildflowers are already blooming) or in early November as peak fall colors wane.
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.
We began our scenic drive from Gatlinburg following Newfound Gap Road to Newfound Gap (elevation 5,046 feet) and Clingmans Dome Road to Clingmans Dome (elevation 6,643 feet), returning the same route to our home base at River Plantation RV Park in Sevierville. On another occasion we drove Newfound Gap Road from Cherokee.
A trip over the Newfound Gap Road has often been compared to a drive from Georgia to Maine in terms of variety of forest ecosystems one experiences. Starting from Gatlinburg, we climbed approximately 3,000 feet, ascending through hardwood pine-oak, and northern hardwood forest to attain the evergreen spruce-fir forest at Newfound Gap. From the parking area at Newfound Gap we straddle the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Just south of Newfound Gap, the seven-mile Clingmans Dome Road climbs to within 1/2 mile of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies (and third highest east of the Black Hills). From the large parking area at the end of the road, a 1/2-mile trail climbs steeply to an observation tower at the “top of old Smoky.”
We were surprised to recently learn that Newfound Gap Road isn’t a National Scenic Byway.
We just assumed it already was. How could one of the most beautiful drives in America not already have that designation?
The road is an experience in and of itself. It’s not just a road that takes you from Tennessee to North Carolina, but a road that people use to experience the park. The elevation change, the landscape change, the vegetation change, it’s all seen from Newfound Gap Road. It also offers a history into the park. And that’s why Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials are working to make Newfound Gap Road a registered National Scenic Byway.
It’s been under consideration for several years, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Tennessee and North Carolina designated the road as a State Scenic Byway. That allowed park officials to go forward seeking a national designation.
The first step in the eligibility process for this national designation is the preparation of a corridor management plan that addresses a variety of roadway attributes including the visitor experience and sustainability as a scenic byway.
Park officials went public with that plan last week. They are seeking input for park visitors.
Comments received during the 30-day review period, ending February 24, 2017.
The draft Newfound Gap Road Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan has been posted on the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment website for public review and comment at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/grsm.
The National Scenic Byways Program is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and was established in 1991. There are 150 roads designated as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads.
Too often we are so preoccupied with the destination, we forget the journey.