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Eastern Tennessee Tour
Explore Knoxville & the Great Smoky Mountains
The mountains of eastern Tennessee provide some of the most beautiful scenery in America. Knoxville, the major city in the eastern third of the state and home to the University of Tennessee, offers plenty to see and do in a city setting; the small towns and remote mountain areas of the Smokies offer scenery, history, and great roads to drive; and the trifecta of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg is loaded with tourist attractions and things to do for kids and grown-ups of all ages.
On the”Knoxville and the Smokies” Tour, let’s take a few days to explore them all! Ready?
Start in Knoxville, a dynamic college town and Tennessee’s first state capital. The city has about 180,000 people, but the metro area has around one million – and growing. There’s a lot to see and do. And we’ll check it all out at the end of the tour…but there are some gorgeous mountains to wind up, down, and around first.
From the Best Western PLUS Cedar Bluff Inn on the west side, the Best Western Knoxville Suites on the north side, or the Best Western PLUS Strawberry Inn & Suites on the east side, head through downtown Knoxville and hop on U.S. 129 southbound out of town. You’ll see the downtown skyline, the brilliant Sunsphere, parts of the University of Tennessee campus… and they’ll all be there when you get back. Head south to Maryville and Alcoa to get into the countryside.
Continuing southwest on U.S. 411, to your left (the southeast) Chilhowee Mountain dominates the view; Chilhowee is a ridge that defines the western edge of the Great Smoky Mountains; it runs 35 miles long yet is relatively narrow, only three or four miles wide. Foothills Parkway runs that ridge, and it comes later in the Tour. Follow U.S. 411 to Vonore and head southeast on TN Highway 360, which gets us into the curvy spirit of the mountain drive.
The first thing to stop and check out along Highway 360 is less than a mile from U.S. 411: Fort Loudoun State Park. Fort Loudoun was established along the Little Tennessee River by British forces in the late 1750s, one of the first forts west of the Appalachian Mountains (barely). Relations with the native Cherokee ranged during subsequent years from amiable to hostile; by 1762, the fort was essentially abandoned.
Its original location lies under Tellico Lake, which was formed by a dam constructed in the 1960s. The fort’s remains were moved and reconstructed along the new lake’s shoreline, and today you can explore remains and rebuilt sections as part of the state park. Some of the fort’s original remnants were used to build the nearby Tellico Blockhouse, an outpost that served as a brokering and liaison site between Europeans and native Cherokees from 1794 until 1807.
Just across Highway 360 is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, close to where the legendary Cherokee was born. Among other notable pursuits, Sequoyah created a Cherokee syllabry, making reading and writing possible in that language – it’s apparently the only time in known history a member of a pre-literate group of people independently created an effective writing system. Born around 1770 close to the museum’s location, much of Sequoyah’s early life and later accomplishments are chronicled here; there’s also has a nice overlook of the nearby Smokies with plenty of activities both indoors and out.
Continuing south along Highway 360 brings plenty of curves and hints of the mountains on the horizon for the next 35 miles until you reach Tellico Plains and Highway 165, which is the start of the Cherohala Skyway – the next part of our tour. Make sure you’re filled up on gas, snacks, and bio break needs while in Tellico Plains; services were sparse on 360 and they’re non-existent as head into mountains. The town features a brick-oven bakery, a number of stores, and the largest covered bridge in Tennessee (no, it’s not part of the Skyway).
Tellico Plains is the official start of the Cherohala Skyway, a 43-mile road course that takes you up, over, and along Smoky Mountain ridges and through two national forests: the Cherokee and the Nantahala (the road takes its name as a portmanteau of the two; hence,”Chero-hala.”), with portions in Tennessee and North Carolina.
The road cost over $100 million to construct and took decades to complete, finally opening in 1996. It’s considered a marvel of engineering and certainly offers an ideal mix of curvy highway excitement and beautiful, safe turnouts to take in views across elevations that vary by almost a mile. The speed limit on the Skyway is generally 40mph in Tennessee and 45mph in North Carolina; but counting stops for views, bank on at least two or three hours to run the entire route. Note that some straighter stretches may tempt you to go faster, but they are often followed by tight curves… overconfidence is not recommended!
Start with free maps and information at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center in Tellico Plains and then head east on Highway 165 to begin this segment of the Tour on the Skyway. The drive is most beautiful in fall with the brilliant color changes; spring and summer are pleasant but potentially changeable; our September drive of the Cherohala ranged from sunny and low 80s to foggy, rainy, and 57 degrees and back again, all within 40 miles. Winter drives can be treacherous – definitely check weather conditions at the Visitor Center before driving the Cherohala in the cold weather months.
The Cherohala Skyway first stays low, running along the picturesque Tellico River, an excellent river for trout fishing and, during higher water, canoeing and kayaking. A Harley-Davidson dealer named for the skyway greets you near the start as do a few places to eat and relax right along the river before you make the real climb upward and away from signs of civilization.
Cherokee National Forest, which is traversed by much of this Tour, is the only national forest in Tennessee and features over 600 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. A protected area since 1911, the Cherokee National Forest is home to over 260 bird species, 150 fish species, 55 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 40 species of mammals.
Every few miles along the Cherohala, turnouts and overlooks let you enjoy the scenery and track your elevation. It starts with places like Wildcat Overlook at 944 feet, which offers a nice and close look at the river and forest. From there, you progress to overlooks like Caney Branch (1,355 feet), Turkey Creek (2,597 feet), Lake View (3,346 feet), and Brushy Ridge (3,737 feet), all presenting robust views and chronicling the Skyway’s climb in the Smokies.
A brief side detour near Brushy Ridge via Forest Service Road 210 provides access to Bald River Falls, a 100-foot waterfall that you don’t even have to leave your vehicle to see.
A few miles (and many curves) later, you reach the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, as well as the crossing of the Appalachian Trail. Note that Tennessee Highway 165 becomes North Carolina Highway 143 (we follow 143 to Robbinsville) at the line. Also, don’t be surprised if sunny conditions a few miles back have suddenly turned into cooler and foggy weather; this is also the Unicoi Gap, which at 4,470 feet above sea level is frequently cloaked in mist or fog – that’s one of the reasons these mountains are called the”Smokies,” after all.
The climbing isn’t finished; Big Junction Overlook sits at 5,235 feet, and peak elevation of 5,390 feet is achieved at Santeetlah. For a great view on foot, hike the 0.4-mile Spirit Ridge Trail. This walking trail through beech, birch, and maple trees climbs to a point tailor-made for picture-taking, weather permitting; from the summit you can observe a sizeable stretch of the Cherohala Skyway and how it runs the ridges and sides of the mountains.
A twisting and turning descent follows, with beautiful views both along the drive and at overlook stops like Obadiah Gap (3,740 feet) and Hooper Cove (3,096 feet). All of these overlooks include information plaques about life in the mountains, history of settlement, natural wonders, and more.
The descent from here is brisk; it seems like no time before you reach Santeetlah Gap, which sits at 2,660 feet. This is the technical end of the Cherohala Skyway. Adjacent to the end of the road is an access road to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a 3,800-acre tract of publicly-owned, virgin forest set aside in 1936 to honor the famous poet. A two-mile trail in the forest is popular with families, complete with giant yellow-poplar and hemlock trees (some over 400 years old) and a memorial to Kilmer. Our Tour continues through a less steep but still beautiful forested drive via Highway 143 to U.S. 129 in Robbinsville, where we begin the ride back into Tennessee.
From the Robbinsville area, follow U.S. 129 north. The road heads away from Robbinsville, at times winding around and along arms of Lake Santeetlah (can you tell the name”Santeetlah” is popular around here?) The lake – technically a reservoir - was created in 1928 by a dam upstream which we’ll see shortly.
Along a narrow and twisty stretch of U.S. 129 you’ll find the massive Cheoah Dam, which opened in 1928 and created Lake Santeetlah downstream. The dam was constructed by the Alcoa Corporation to help power its operations in Alcoa, Tennessee, which we went through earlier in the Tour. When it was completed, the dam was the world’s highest overflow dam, towering 225 feet.
Fans of the 1993 movie The Fugitive may recognize this as the dam Harrison Ford’s character jump off to evade capture (tip: don’t try it. They used a doll in the film). Just beyond the dam U.S. 129 hugs the shore of the Cheoah Reservoir, which backs up behind the dam for a few miles. The waters are often calm, providing some nice reflections from the trees and hills towering above.
At the intersection with NC Highway 28 you reach Deals Gap, which offers two places to refuel, recharge, and learn about what lies ahead: The Dragon. The Gap itself lies right on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line; after that, get ready for 318 turns in 11 miles!
The Dragon is a wild ride, even with the mandatory speed limit of 30mph (it was implemented in 2005; you won’t believe when riding this that the speed limit was once 55!) The road hairpins, twists, turns, and angles in ways that won’t allow you to keep your steering gear still. To help drivers and riders may in their lanes, they often bank – and sometimes sharply.
While there are a few turnouts and scenic overlooks, there are no side roads, businesses along the route, or cross streets, which minimizes the chance drivers will pull out in front of others. So enjoy the 300+ turns and marvel at the beauty of the surroundings and the colorful names of some curves including Hog Pen Bend, Gravity Cavity, Copperhead Corner, Wheelie Hell, and Beginner’s End. Depending on the year, it can get busy: The Dragon is an international destination for many bikers and sports car enthusiasts.
At the”tail end” of The Dragon, one overlook provides a beautiful view for miles of the mountain ridges, as well as one of the dams on the Little Tennessee River miles way and a few thousand feet below. Shortly after that, head off U.S. 129 and onto the Foothills Parkway.
Foothills Parkway & Townsend
The Foothills Parkway is an 18-mile roadway that runs the ridge of Chilhowee Mountain, the same one we could see from Maryville. Running northeast towards Townsend, the Foothills Parkway offers beautiful views of Great Smoky Mountain National Park to the east and the Tennessee River Valley to the west, which on a clear day or night allows views to and beyond Knoxville.
Plenty of turnouts offer the opportunity to relax and enjoy the scenery. An observation tower at Look Rock offers a 360-degree view, well worth the short stair climb. This is the south section of the Foothills Parkway, which will one day stretch uninterrupted to I-40, seventy miles away. This south section ends at U.S. 321, which the Tour follows to Townsend. Townsend is small and low-key, with less than 250 residents (however, they host a world-renowned horse show each year).
The town is home to the Best Western Cades Cove Inn, an ideal stop to sleep and refresh along the Tour. Townsend features the Cades Cove Winery, which offers free tastings; a nice little outdoor railroad museum with the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum which features a 70-ton Shay locomotive, a log loader, and more; and also underground adventure inside Tuckaleechee Caverns, an extensive natural cave system nestled in the foothills. The one-hour tour is well worth the time.
On Townsend’s east end, U.S. 321 splits off toward Pigeon Forge; we recommend you follow ”Scenic” Highway 73 – it saysv ”Scenic” right there on the sign – to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. The Center offers plenty of information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which lies just ahead. Follow the road into Cades Cove, a broad valley surrounded by mountains and once home to a sizeable town filled with settlers.
Officially now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a beautiful tree-lined drive leads you to the Cove and then a leisurely 11-mile auto loop offers grasslands, mountain views, walk-through opportunities at three original 19th century churches and old homesteads, an original settlement including a working grist mill, and opportunities to get out and not only walk, but take carriage rides through much of the area.
From Cades Cove, head along 73 along the twisty, beautiful pathways to Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s famous mountain resort city. Nestled up against the mountains and hemmed in by ridges on all sides, Gatlinburg has been a popular vacation and getaway destination since the Smoky Mountain National Park and good roads made it easy for people to get to the area for the natural beauty – and increasingly, the man-made attractions. Combining the two is Ober Gatlinburg, the only ski resort area in Tennessee.
The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway connects the summit with downtown Gatlinburg and is quite the exhilarating ride. The ski areas get around 30 inches of snow per year so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the slopes in winter. Any time of year, Gatlinburg is a very popular town for weddings, with over 20 wedding chapels to choose from. The Gatlinburg Bible Museum & Wedding Chapel is, as its name implies, a museum as well as a chapel. And yes, bachelor and bachelorette parties are common all around town.
The heart of Gatlinburg lies along The Parkway, which is also U.S. 441. It serves as the main drag, along which you’ll find a dizzying array of shops, tourist attractions, restaurants, and more. The Hollywood Star Cars Museum features a squad car from Mayberry, the jalopy from The Beverly Hillbillies, a Batmobile, a Camaro from Charlie's Angels, Herbie the Love Bug, and more. There are about 35 Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum locations in the world; Gatlinburg has one of them right along the Parkway. Plenty of shops line the streets, as do plazas that are tucked away a little further and offer everything from local crafts to loud t-shirts.
Also along The Parkway, you’ll find the Smoky Mountain Brewery and three places to try and buy something usually illegal – moonshine. Davy Crockett, Sugarlands, and Old Smoky are all located on The Parkway and offer tastings while offering their recently-licensed products in a variety of flavors… in mason jars.
Towering over 400 feet above these street-level attractions is the Gatlinburg Space Needle, which offers spectacular views of Gatlinburg and the surrounding mountains, night or day. The complex also includes Arcadia, a playground filled with arcade games and kids’ activities; Higher Learning, an educational exhibit sharing facts and figures about the town and mountains; and the Iris Theater, which offers a variety of localized shows. Another nice view of the surroundings can be had with a ride on the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, which lifts you 1,800 to the top of Crockett Mountain.
Right where U.S. 321 and U.S. 441 come together, you have two hotels to choose from: the Best Western Crossroads Inn and the Best Western Twin Islands, part of which literally sits on an island. Across one street is Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Museum; across the other is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, complete with underwater tunnels and exotic sea creatures.
Along U.S. 321 just northeast of the Parkway, how unique is the Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers? It’s the only one of its kind in the world. Imagine over 20,000 salt and pepper shakers on display. Kitschy? Yes. Worth a visit? Yup. It truly gets you in the mood for seasoning. Also off the Parkway you’ll find the Christ in the Smokies Museum & Gardens, the lovely Baskins Creek Falls, which yield a pleasing waterfall after a short hiking trail, and some history at the corner of Parkway and Cherokee Orchard Road with the Historic Ogle Log Cabin. Ogle’s log cabin in essentially the first home built in what is now Gatlinburg and a tour of it will take you back in time.
Gatlinburg is the southern end of a tourist vacationland; head north on U.S. 321/441 along a beautiful parkway six miles to Pigeon Forge.
Pigeon Forge is also a resort city, named for a 19th century iron forge as well as its location along the Little Pigeon River. U.S. 441 (with U.S. 321 along for the southern section) is the main road and is lined with attractions – lots of attractions. The largest attraction is Dollywood Amusement Park; with three million visitors, it’s the most-visited ”ticketed” attraction in Tennessee.
Dollywood Splash Country and the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame are part of the nearly 300-acre complex. Not as well-known but colorful and fun itself is Parrot Mountain & Gardens, which features hundreds of colorful tropical birds – yes, including parrots – and thousands of flowers, plants, and trees across four acres of horticultural splendor. You’ll find it just up the mountains from Dollywood and signs make it easy to find.
Along U.S. 441 is a multitude of arcades, go-kart tracks, restaurants, and more. Dinner theaters are popular: you’ll find the Lumberjack Feud Dinner Show, Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, the Comedy Barn, Smoky Mountain Opry, Biblical Times Dinner Theater, and more. Indulge your inner racer at NASCAR Speedpark or take the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster, the longest downhill ride in the U.S. at over one mile – and you can control the speed from your seat!
You can’t miss the massive Titanic Museum, the ”World’s Largest Permanent Titanic Museum Attraction” (there’s a smaller one in Branson, Missouri). The Elvis Presley Museum will put a swivel in your hips, and for something else you can dig, you and the kids can mine for gems at the Pigeon Forge Gem Mine, which also includes a rock and fossil museum.
The Island is a newer retail and entertainment complex, capped by the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, a 200-foot high ferris wheel with 42 climate-controlled gondolas so you can comfortably enjoy beautiful views of the surroundings any time of the day or night – or year.
Pigeon Forge is a mecca for motorcycle, classic car, and hot rod shows; group and events like the Spring Rod Run, Great Smoky Mountain Truck Show, Camaro, Chevelle, and Nova Nationals, Cobra Mustang Club, Fall Rod Run, the Annual Patriot Festival, and more take place in town throughout the warm months, roughly from April through September.
Amidst all this, right along The Parkway in the southern part of Pigeon Forge are two Best Western hotels, right across the street from each other: the Best Western Plaza Inn and the Best Western Toni Inn, both in the heart of it all.
Blending with Pigeon Forge is Sevierville, the seat of Sevier County. Sevierville serves as the northernmost city in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge-Sevierville stretch while also serving somewhat as a Knoxville suburb (we’ve looped a bit closer to Knoxville at this point). The Parkway/U.S. 441 is still the main road, although a jaunt off to local side streets reveals the handsome Sevier County Courthouse.
The courthouse hovers above the old downtown and historic Sevierville Commercial District, which offers a number of small boutiques, cafes, and other local businesses. On the courthouse square itself you’ll find a statue of favorite native daughter Dolly Parton, who was born in Sevierville in 1946.
The whole area is a shopper’s paradise, including several outlet malls such as Tanger Outlets on top of the boutiques in downtown Sevierville. Flying enthusiasts will like the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, 50,000 square feet of restored Warbirds, exhibits, and rotating showcases through a hangar and, since it’s located along the local airport, flight demonstrations are frequent. The Best Western Greenbrier Inn right along The Parkway near downtown Sevierville is named for the nearby historic valley that once held settlements and now serves as a recreation area.
Once you’ve taken in all the Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg area has to offer – which can take several days if you want to take it all in – it’s time to continue our Drive Tour. The next stop is Newport, which you can access directly from Sevierville via U.S. 441 although we recommend heading ten miles back south into Gatlinburg and following U.S. 321, which is more scenic and closer to the mountains. Newport is town of about 7,000 located along I-40 and U.S. Highways 25, 70, 321, and 441, making it a significant transportation center in the region.
The Pigeon River flows through town and the Great Indian Warpath crossed the river here. The French Broad River is also along the town’s northern edge, and the access it provides to the Tennessee and eventually Mississippi River – therefore making it a port one can access the Gulf of Mexico from – gave the town its name”New Port.” A frontier town in much of its history – lawlessness, the Civil War, and moonshine have made for colorful stories about Newport’s history, although things are much calmer now. The Best Western Newport Inn is conveniently located along I-40; a lovely former hotel downtown called the Rhea-Mims Hotel went up in 1925 along U.S. 25/70 and sits on the National Register of Historic Places.
From downtown Newport, follow U.S. 25 and then U.S. 25E north and northeast through some rolling Tennessee hills and over I-81 to Morristown. The Best Western PLUS Morristown Conference Center Hotel is right along U.S. 25E and I-81, and just a few miles in you can access downtown Morristown via U.S. 11E. This is Davy Crockett territory, and the Crockett Tavern Museum sits on the site of his boyhood home.
A reconstructed 1790s era tavern, the Crockett Tavern Museum offers tours that showcase his history and that of his era. Downtown Morristown has an interesting unique twist: a”Skymart.” In the 1960s downtown shopkeepers created an”overhead skywalk” for pedestrians that also served as a rain canopy for street level below; it was an attempt to compete with the new, air-conditioned malls going up at the time on the outskirts of town. While not successful at the time, curious onlookers and shoppers looking to enjoy the local boutiques downtown are breathing new life into the area; it’s definitely worth checking out.
From downtown Morristown, head southwest on U.S. 11E and follow the signs to Panther Creek State Park. This lovely state park runs along portions of Cherokee Lake, a boating- and fishing-friendly reservoir created in the early 1940s from the Cherokee Dam along the Holston River. The lake covers 29,000 acres and features over 400 miles of shoreline. A large portion of it is visible from a beautiful overlook in Panther Creek State Park, showing the lake, islands in the lake, and hills and mountains in the background. Hiking trails and abundant recreational opportunities abound in the park.
From there, hit U.S. 11E or I-40, which runs parallel to the south, back into dynamic Knoxville. As we noted at the top of the Tour, Knoxville is the largest city in eastern Tennessee, was once the state and territorial capital, and is home to the University of Tennessee. The city has a sizeable downtown and plenty of things to do that will easily fill at least a few days.
On the city’s east side, the Knoxville Zoo attracts over 400,000 visitors annually, showcasing 800 animals and species on 53 acres. A very popular destination, the Zoo includes an elephant preserve, giraffe encounter area, a panda village, and more.
It’s no coincidence that with the success of women’s basketball in Tennessee, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is in the city. It opened in 1999 and is the only hall of fame of its kind in the world; the building is adorned with the world’s largest basketball, a 10-ton orange eye-catcher that weighs 30 tons. Right across the street is James White’s Fort, the site where today’s Knoxville was first established back in 1796.
There are exhibits to see and plenty of events take place there, all with a nice view of downtown right behind. A hop over the bridge on Hill Street brings you to another historic structure, the Blount Mansion. William Blount, a signer of the original U.S. Constitution - had this mansion built in the 1790s and the house served as Tennessee’s territorial capitol for a while. The mansion can be toured by itself or as part of the”Historic Homes of Knoxville” tour, which involves many historic homes and sites on a single ticket.
Other historic locales include: the Mabry Hazen House, built in 1858 atop Mabry Hill and as headquarters for both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War; the Historic Ramsey House, which dates back to 1797 and is constructed of Tennessee pink marble and limestone; the aforementioned James White’s Fort; the Marble Springs State Historic Site, home to Revolutionary War Hero and Tennessee governor John Sevier (and the namesake of Sevier County and Sevierville); the Bleak House on the west side, a 1850s era home which also serves as Confederate Memorial Hall, having withstood attacks during the Civil War; and more.
Downtown Knoxville bustles with everything from college students to business and nightlife activity. Areas like Old Town and Market Square offer shops, bars, restaurants, and nightlife. The Tennessee Theatre, Bijou Theatre, and Clarence Brown Theatre all provide plenty of shows to enjoy. The city proved doubters wrong in 1982 by hosting a successful World’s Fair, and its legacy lives in World’s Fair Park, an attractive green and recreational space between downtown and the UT campus.
Open lawns, horticultural gardens, a statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Tennessee Amphitheater, the Court of Flags Fountains, and the Knoxville Museum of Art all make this a busy yet pleasant space. The park is crowned by the Sunsphere Tower, a gold-colored glass ball hovering 266 feet above the park. The symbol of the 1928 World’s Fair, the Sunsphere has a free observation deck providing great views of the city and mountains in the distance – the very ones we explored in detail on this Tour. The park abuts the Knoxville Convention Center, which hosts plenty of major events.
The University of Tennessee has Knoxville as its main campus; over 27,000 students attend as”Volunteers.” The campus itself lies just west of downtown and along the north bank of the Tennessee River. If you need orange clothes, this is definitely the place to come!
Nyland Stadium, home to Volunteers football, rises above campus and is easily seen along the riverfront – and probably heard, given the stadium can be packed with 102,000 fans during football Saturdays. Nearby is the Torchbearer Statue, recognizable with its eternal flame. Much of the University of Tennessee campus centers around”The Hill”, the oldest part of the university.
Crowned by the majestic Ayers Hall, On campus is the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, which holds an impressive collection in anthropology, archeology, history, and arts. Cumberland Avenue (U.S. 70) threads across the north side of campus and is home to many bars, restaurants, and shops popular with students.
The University of Tennessee was founded in 1794, making it one of the oldest public universities in the country and the oldest secular institution west of the Eastern Continental Divide.