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.