Great Smoky Mountains National Park is bisected by Newfound Gap Road, a 33-mile drive that extends from Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN. Driving this stretch of US 441 is a fantastic way to see the highlights of this 520,000 acre National Park: awe-inspiring views from Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the state of TN), tranquil cove hardwood forests, remnants of pioneer settlements, tucked away campgrounds and trails, and seasonal shows of wildflowers and fall foliage.
Our recent trip to GSMNP included a drive on Newfound Gap Road, unforgettable vistas awaiting us around every turn during what is peak fall-foliage season in the Smoky Mountains. We started our journey at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where visitors can pick up a basic map to the park as well as purchase additional resources to tailor the trip to their interests. The fields adjacent to the Visitor Center also provided our first sighting of elk, the wapiti having been reintroduced to the Park in 2001.
The road is named as such because in the 1850s it was discovered that it's not Indian Gap that is the lowest point through the mountains, but the "Newfound" gap. For the NC portion of the trip the highway runs parallel to the Oconaluftee River, which flows into Tuckasegee River near Bryson City and eventually the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Not far from the Visitor Center we passed the Smokemont Campground where Bradley Fork joins the Oconaluftee. Once a lumber company town with a school, church, store and boarding houses, it now consists of 142 campsites. As we continued our climb alongside the river, we came to Deep Creek Valley Overlook, with a long view of the mountains rolling away as far as the eye can see.
|View from the Clingmans Dome parking area|
Halfway to Gatlinburg is the Oconaluftee River Valley Overlook, another spectacular view of the Smokies that highlights the cut the river makes on its journey down from the mountains. Soon after we took the 7-mile spur road to Clingmans Dome for an invigorating hike up to the highest point in the Park that features some of the grandest 360˚ views in the Park. For more on that please see my previous post, On the summit of Clingmans Dome. From the intersection of this spur road it’s just a little further to Newfound Gap, the highest elevation on Newfound Gap Road at 5,048 feet.
The overlook is dominated by the Rockefeller Memorial, a stone terrace that commemorates the efforts of those whose vision and resources helped establish the Park. The memorial is named for Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the mother of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated $5 million of the $12 million needed to purchase most of the Park’s acreage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940 from the terrace, which had been completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the previous September. The memorial also features a newer plaque acknowledging the designation of GSMNP as a World Heritage Site (1983).
Newfound Gap is also the only place within GSMNP that the Appalachian Trail crosses a paved road in the approximately 70 miles that it traverses the Park. The AT mostly follows the State Line Ridge through the Park, which serves as the boundary between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. Those driving the Gap Road can get a taste of the trail without the elevation gain of the Clingmans Dome Trail hike by taking a short walk from the Gap, an especially enticing option this time of year when sun is shining through a kaleidoscope of colors as the hardwoods turn. From the trailhead it is 7.5 miles to Clingmans Dome, 15.6 miles to Mount LeConte (via the Boulevard Trail) and 1,972 miles to the terminus of the AT in Katahdin, Maine.
Once back on the road, there are a multitude of opportunities to park for scenic views and hikes. As you start descending in elevation you are now following the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Ultimately the Little Pigeon River also finds its way to the Tennessee River and into the Gulf of Mexico, but it is named for the passenger pigeons that once filled the skies right here over the Smoky Mountains. Well into your descent to Gatlinburg, the river runs through the Chimney Tops picnic area which is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the US. This is remarkable if you consider that this area (along with many of the higher regions of the Smoky Mountains) was once owned by paper and lumber companies. Stop for a picnic, or for the trailhead to the Chimney Tops; the strenuous 4 mile hike leads to an outstanding view from the twin knobs that rise from a ridge like chimneys. On this stretch of Gap Road you’ll also pass through two tunnels built by the CCC in the 1930s, one of which curves around and back over itself.
The Campbell Overlook offers a wonderful view of Mt. LeConte (6,593 feet), the third highest peak in the Smokies. I found it astonishing that within the Park, where elevations range from 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome, sixteen mountain peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation! Mt. LeConte is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi in that it rises more than a mile from the foot of the mountain to the summit. Once you’ve soaked up the views it’s only 3 more miles on your descent down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. In the Sugarlands Valley there are a multitude of walkways for optimal leaf-peeping, the sugar maples from which the valley takes its name an explosion of reds, oranges and yellows.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the most visited due to its proximity to Gatlinburg. Featuring the usual Visitor Center maps, exhibits and gift shop, there are also rangers on hand to answer any questions, and the 3.8 mile Gatlinburg Trail which allows pets and bicycles – a rarity in the park. The Park boundary includes the stretch of Trail, River and the Road all the way until Pigeon Forge, but the proximity to Gatlinburg and civilization signaled the end of our excursion on the Newfound Gap Road. We headed to Sevierville for a good night’s rest to prepare for our adventures the next day…