Smoky Mountain Loop
141 Miles/5 Hours Travel Time
Beginning at the US 129/NC 28 intersection in North Carolina where the large metal dragon guards the highway, take US 129 north. The Tail of the Dragon begins in .7 miles at the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line. In the next 11 miles there are 318 curves of vary difficulty. The Dragon ends as you cross Tabcat Bridge.
There are a number of paved pull-offs to allow faster traffic to pass or to stop at and watch the parade. The most popular pull-off is the Tail of the Dragon Overlook with scenic views on each side of the road. Looking to the south you will see Calderwood Dam/Lake and forested mountains of the Cherokee National Forest. Looking to the north is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park which borders the enter length of the Dragon on the northern side.
Many visitors make several runs back and forth on the Dragon. It is only 11 miles and takes about 20 minutes one-way.
Crossing Tabcat Bridge US 129 then straightens as it follows the shoreline of Chilhowee Lake. Lakes in the region are named for the dam that creates them. This section of US 129 is very easy to forget about your speed. The limit is 50 mph and it is a very lucrative spot for the Tennessee LEOs to make some money.
Three miles from Tabcat Bridge is the Foothills Parkway. This 16 mile stretch of the Smoky Mountains is very scenic with views to the west of the flatlands of Maryville. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Cumberland Mountains some 50 miles distant.
At US 321 take a right and head into Townsend. Here there are a couple food/fuel options before entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From here to Cherokee where the next fueling stop is located is 50 miles.
Leaving Townsend stay straight onto TN 73 aka Little River Road. This 20 mile two-lane winds through some of the most scenic mountain areas you can find. Years ago Reader’s Digest named it one of the top ten scenic roads in America. Along the way you will pass the turn-off to Cades Cove, an 11 mile, one-way loop around a hidden mountain cove with period settler’s homes, farms and churches. Good chance you will see a bear or deer. WARNING: There are only three ways out of the loop. Two are one-way gravel roads and the third is back out the way you came in. The 11 mile loop will likely take an hour or sometimes more. We highly recommend taking this tour first thing in the morning before the crowds come.
Back on Little River Road there are a number of scenic pull-offs, hiking trails and picnic spots. Many choose to drift down the river on rented inner tubes.
At the TN 73/US 441 intersection you will see Sugarlands Visitor Center and Great Smoky Mountain Park Headquarters. There are a number of historical structures in the Park.
Take a left on US 441 to visit Gatlinburg just a few miles to the north. Be warned it is a super touristy place. Roads are packed with cars, parking is difficult and sidewalks are filled with tourists.
Take a right onto US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road and climb 39 miles to the top of Newfound Gap at 5046 feet elevation. There is a scenic rest area here with awesome views looking to the east. Want to get even higher? Take the Clingman’s Dome road from the Gap 5.6 miles to the parking area at an elevation of 6311 feet and then hike to the lookout tower at 6643 feet. This is the highest point in the Smokies, the State of Tennessee and the on Appalachian Trail.
From Newfound Gap it is all downhill 17 miles to Cherokee. Along the way you will pass a number of parking areas, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Once in Cherokee you will be visually assaulted with authentic Cherokee Indian relics made in China. For a small fee you can pose with a Cherokee chief in full regalia. Or you can gamble your money away at the Harrah’s Casino. There are some authentic items, but you have to search. Try the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual on US 441 as you enter town. Our favorite “authentic Cherokee shop” is Bearmeats Indian Den located mid-way between Cherokee and Maggie Valley on US 19. It is really a unique gift shop.
From Cherokee you have two choices:
- One is back roads: Take US 19 west all the way through Bryson City to US 74.
- Two is faster: Take US 441/US 19 west half a mile, then US 441 south to US 74.
Then take US 74 west to NC 28.
Here you have two choices:
- One: Take NC 28 west aka Moonshiner 28 for 32 miles back to the point of beginning at US 129. This route takes you near Fontana Dam, a short 1.3 mile out and back. This is well worth a trip to see the largest dam east of the Mississippi and the many scenic views of the lake.
- Two: Stay on US 74/US 19 south/west 14 miles through the Nantahala Gorge, a scenic white water drive. Then take US 129 north for 29 miles through Robbinsville and back to the point of beginning.
- Try to take the US 441 and TN 73 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park first thing in the morning to avoid excessive traffic.
- It is hard to figure travel time in the mountains based on mileage. Consider an average 30 mph as a general rule.
- Plan your fuel stops ahead. At times there may be 50 miles between stations.