The 33-mile drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee North Carolina along Newfound Gap Road (US 441) is the only route that completely traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive offers a unique opportunity to enjoy an abbreviated experience of everything the Park has to offer, without necessarily trekking far from your automobile. The drive takes about one hour, depending on traffic. The experience can take several hours 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 tourist season, and you can spend a lot of time looking at a bumper in front of you. You shouldn't let the congestion discourage you from the experience, however. If you want to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, we would simply recommend you try the same experience in April or May (wildflowers are already blooming) or after peak fall colors. In fact, winter is even a wonderful time in the Smokies. Mountain vistas are magnified by the lack of foliage.
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. This road is closed to commercial traffic as well.
You begin your drive from Gatlinburg (or from Cherokee for that matter--this travelogue assumes a departure from Gatlinburg) and go less than a mile to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Its worth the stop here to view the displays of the natural history of the Park, get an idea of what to expect on the drive, pick up reading material to accompany your trip; and ask the Park rangers those questions you always wanted to ask.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center you will turn left briefly before making a right turn onto Newfound Gap Road. The road takes its name from a discovery in the 1850s that Indian Gap, once believed to be the lowest point through the mountains, actually was not the lowest point--hence the name Newfound Gap. The road runs parallel to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Its cool, crystal-clear water is inviting and cooling at the many pullouts accessible from Newfound Gap Road. Ultimately the Little Pigeon River finds it's way to the Tennessee River on its way to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers which ultimately spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
At approximately the 1 and 2 mile points from Gatlinburg, you begin to see small signs indicating "quiet walkways". These walkways, while you are still in Sugarlands Valley, offer wonderful opportunities to view Fall color. The valley takes it's name from the multitude of sugar maples in the area. As you move away from your vehicle down these quiet paths you become surrounded by sugar maples, resplendent with color. Early settlers used this tree for sugar and syrup. It takes about 30 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.
As you continue along Newfound Gap Road, a little over two miles you will come upon the Campbell Overlook, which offers arguably the best vistas in the Park. Mt. LeConte rises to 6,593 feet in front of you--the third largest peak in the Smokies. The overlook is named for Carlos Campbell, who wrote Birth of A National Park (available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center). Campbell was a devoted outdoorsman and was a devout supporter for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Shortly beyond the Campbell Overlook, you will approach one of the more interesting quiet walkways. As you walk the path, look closely and you can still see the remnants of old farmsteads--parts of fireplaces and foundations. You can see the old roadbed which led to White Oak Flats--what is now known as Gatlinburg.
As you continue along US 441, you approach the Chimney Tops at the 4.5 mile mark. Here you will find the Chimney Tops picnic area which is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the U.S. The Little Pigeon River runs through the picnic area. This river is named for the huge flocks of passenger pigeons which once filled the skies over the Smokies.
White settlers named the Chimney Tops after stone chimneys which, if you use a little imagination, resemble the peaks. This area, and many of the higher regions of the Smokies, were once owned by paper and lumber companies, which highly prized the spruce fibers growing there for making quality paper. As a matter of fact, this prized resource and the thousands of acres of forests held by these lumber companies were a key obstacle in obtaining the land which now makes up the Park.