September brings the season's first color to the Appalachian high country. As our cities bear the last of summer's steady heat, the ancient Great Smoky Mountains stir with the cool beginnings of autumnal glory.
Fall tiptoes in unexpectedly early around these forested peaks. Soft blankets of fog snuggle into the verdant valleys and coves, while a bracing chill taps the ridgelines. Even though autumn's peak color generally occurs from October 15 to November 3, trees growing above 4,000 feet often show off between mid-September and early October.
This is the ideal time to explore the mysteries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Summer's crowds have left, and the hordes of leaf peepers have yet to arrive. On weekdays you may even have places to yourself.
Let's face it. Most of us prefer driving through this pristine wilderness instead of hiking. Of the almost 10 million folks who come here each year, 80% have a "windshield visit," notes Bob Miller, a park spokesman. However, we know, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that when two roads diverge in a yellow wood, it's the road less traveled that makes all the difference.
With that in mind, we've driven the back roads of the Smokies to discover the best auto tours. Though some roads are unpaved, all are suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles; you don't need a mountain goat or a fancy SUV.
As you tool down these quiet pathways, be sure to roll down the windows and turn off the stereo. When you choose to leave your car, you'll enter another world, one where streams and thick-shouldered boulders meet under dappled light. Tarry by emerald mosses, soft as velvet. Open your senses to the rich smells of humus and the whisperings of a breeze stirring dense boughs of green hemlocks and silvery beeches.
The best characteristic of these roads is that they help us to slow down. This is where we take in the grandeur of the land.
Secrets of Cades Cove
The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road traverses pastures lined with chestnut oak, magnolia, maple, and tulip trees. Severely congested in summer and fall, this popular route remains pleasantly quiet on September weekdays, especially if you arrive early--before the deer bed down for the day--or in late afternoon. (On Saturdays and Wednesdays through September, only bicycle traffic is allowed in early morning. The road opens at 10 a.m. for automobiles.) Two of our favorite drives lead from here.
Rich Mountain Road, which exits the valley to the north, has long been a top choice. Created in the 1920s by Cades Cove's last residents, the road climbs Rich Mountain before descending into Tuckaleechee Cove and Townsend. It offers photographers calendar-quality vistas of Cades Cove. This road also serves as an excellent escape route when gawkers plug up the loop. Instead of spending four hours stuck in traffic (albeit in a heavenly spot), you can return to Townsend in 30 minutes.
Directions: Rich Mountain Road turns off the loop road at Missionary Baptist Church and goes 9 miles to Townsend, Tennessee. Plan on less than one hour.
Our all-time favorite drive, Parson Branch Road, meanders like a hiking trail through old-growth forests out of the south end of Cades Cove. This narrow and bumpy gravel track fords shallow creeks, crosses the ridge, and traces stream courses. Unfortunately, this past May, torrential rains severely damaged the fragile roadbed. Park officials hope to reopen it in the spring of 2004. Visit our Web site at southernliving.com for updates.
Directions: Take Forge Creek Road from Cable Mill on the loop. The 8-mile, one-way road ends at U.S. 129. Turn right, and follow U.S. 129 to Foothills Parkway (also closed until spring 2004), which leads to Townsend. Plan on four hours for the 65-mile round-trip.
Gadding About Gatlinburg
When you turn onto the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the stunning transition from tourist shopping mecca to a primeval forest fills you with wonder. This route, probably the best-known of our recommendations, winds through boulder-filled chasms, along rushing creeks, and near well-tended historic homesteads.
Try the Trillium Gap Trail, a footpath at the Grotto Falls parking lot. The serene 30-minute hike leads to a 25-foot-high waterfall that you can walk behind. If you feel ambitious, follow the trail onto either Mount LeConte or Brushy Mountain. The shorter Brushy Mountain spur is less strenuous and ends at a pretty mountain laurel stand with views of two of the tallest park peaks: LeConte and Guyot.
Directions: Turn onto Historic Nature Trail/Airport Road from traffic light 8 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Drive 1 mile, and turn right onto Cherokee Orchard Road, which becomes the 5-mile motor trail. Plan on one to two hours, plus any hiking time.
Cherishing Cherokee's Vistas
Heintooga Ridge/Balsam Mountain is a high-elevation area that thrills motorists with views typically reserved for hardy backcountry enthusiasts. A 9-mile drive takes you to a picturesque picnic area and overlook with restrooms.
From this point, Balsam Mountain Road becomes a one-way gravel route and continues onto the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The drive drops through Pin Oak Gap and winds through mature stands of spruce and fir. You'll feel as if you are hiking in your car.
Directions: Exit the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mile Marker 458 at the turnoff to Balsam Mountain Campground. Follow Heintooga Ridge Road for 9 miles to the Heintooga Picnic Area and overlook. From there, continue along the one-way Balsam Mountain Road, and exit onto Big Cove Road in the Indian Reservation. Plan on two or three hours, plus picnic time.
Catching Sight of Elk in Cataloochee
On the lesser visited eastern side of the park in North Carolina, the Cataloochee auto tour explores old settlements. During the last few years, the park added another attraction when it reintroduced elk into the valley. Droves of motorists come to watch during the fall rutting season. Although this place will be almost impassable in a month, now you can sneak in at sunrise and sunset to see magnificent bull elks with 6- to 7-foot racks vie for position in the herd. They'll pose and prance to establish their superiority and sometimes even get into sparring matches.
Directions: From Exit 20 on I-40, travel 0.2 mile, and turn right. Follow the signs on Cove Creek Road 11 miles into the valley. Plan on at least two hours.
For more information: Contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200 or www.nps.gov/grsm. Check with the National Park Service for information on road closings.
"Undiscovered Drives in the Smokies" is from the September 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.