Even in a light misty rain, the evening’s drive on the Cherohala Skyway in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, was an adventure featuring one sweeping view of forested swells and clear flowing rivers after another.
A small community in East Tennessee, Tellico Plains is the gateway to one of Tennessee’s newest scenic drives. The Cherohala Skyway, completed in 1990, links the Cherokee National Forest to the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina with a 43-mile stretch of winding roads and abundant scenic overlooks and vistas.
As a hosted guest of Tennessee River Valley Tourism, I sought these famous East Tennessee scenic drives on an epic spring road trip through the state with my friend Emily. We thrilled at the sinuous turns and swells of the highways, our hands dancing right to left as we navigated curves through some of the prettiest areas of the state.
It took us forever to navigate these beautiful roads, since we hopped out of the car as often as possible to gape in stunned wonder at the vast, green, and spectacular views. We parked by gurgling rivers to wade and collect rocks under the canopy of the Appalachian Mountains. We picnicked on pull-offs and in parks, nibbling almonds and cheese in the embrace of the forest.
Simply put, East Tennessee is beautiful, and a road trip along its scenic drives is a good way to get from one stunning place to another. These four beautiful drives in the region are some of the best (and for you bikers out there, they’re even better on a motorcycle!). Grab your old-school maps, and let’s explore.
1. Cherohala Skyway
This scenic highway weaves from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina, and while gorgeous, it wasn’t cheap. To date, it remains the most expensive roadway built in North Carolina (it carried a price tag of $100,000,000 to complete).
This route is 41 miles of rustic and sometimes desolate country, with 23 miles of it in the thick, wild backcountry of East Tennessee. Named for the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests (get it? Chero and Hala equal Cherohala), the path follows the original routes used by settlers throughout history.
Known for its wild spiral curves and scenic views, it’s a favorite route for motorcycle enthusiasts, but it can be a lonely and dangerous road to travel during the winter months.
The Cherohala Skyway begins in Tellico Plains and follows the bucolic and pretty Tellico River for several miles into the Cherokee National Forest. Don’t miss checking out Bald River Falls, a 90-foot waterfall deep within the forest. The turnoff for the falls is located 5 miles into the Cherohala from Tellico Plains. You’ll turn right on FR 210 and go past the ranger station to the parking lot. If you feel especially inspired, the 5.6-mile moderate Bald River Falls Trail is a pretty stroll that you can do from the parking lot just past the waterfall.
Near the Cherohala Skyway are some notable landmarks worth a visit. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum tells the story of the Native American who singlehandedly created the written Cherokee language. Follow that up with a visit to the Cherokee Memorial on the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum’s grounds, as well as the Chota and Tanasi Memorials.
Another adventure you should experience is The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater, Tennessee. This easy guided tour through a cavern ends at the world’s largest underground lake, The Lost Sea. The tour takes roughly 1.5 hours to complete, but just seeing this immense underground lake is worth the side trip.
Pro Tip: Make sure to fill your tank if you plan to travel the length of the Cherohala Skyway, since there are few gas stations or amenities. We were hosted at the Riverfront Lodge, a pretty riverfront log cabin lodge overlooking the Tellico River and rented out by Mountain View Cabin Rentals. The famous Tellico Beach Drive-In is your place for old-fashioned drive-in food with prices that seem stuck in the 1950s!
The parkway, however, extends past the Cosby and Interstate 40 stretch. Under construction for more than 75 years, the Foothills Parkway also includes 17 miles of spectacular views from U.S. 129 at Chilhowee Lake to U.S. 321 at Walland (home of the famous Blackberry Farm) and continues for another 17 miles from Walland to Wears Valley.
Because we were staying in Cosby, we had ample opportunity to drive the southern stretch, which runs along Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the United States. On this drive are numerous scenic overlooks that glow when the sun sets against the hazy vistas of the surrounding mountains.
Pro Tip: The Foothills Parkway is a great alternative to the very crowded U.S. 441 from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the only route through the national park.
For a fun and wild place to stay near the Foothills Parkway, stop in and see Kelley Williamson of the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners at his Smoky Mountains Premier RV Resort. For an even wilder ride, sign on for his Smoky Mountain Adventure Tour. Just beware if he offers you some of his famous moonshine — it’ll definitely go to your head!
3. U.S. Route 25
One overlooked scenic drive in Tennessee is U.S. Route 25, which begins at the North Carolina state line near Del Rio. It, along with U.S. 70, follows the French Broad River toward Newport, Tennessee, in Cocke County.
This scenic drive gives you unparalleled views of Cocke County, which is home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Martha Sundquist State Forest, and the Cherokee National Forest.
Just seeing the French Broad River, a Tennessee State Scenic River, is worth the driving course through Cocke County. As it approaches Newport, the river feeds into the head of Rankin Bottoms, an Audubon Society Important Bird Area along Douglas Lake. Rankin Bottoms is popular with bird-watchers for its exceptional number and variety of birds, but also for paddling, fishing, and boating.
Past Newport, U.S. Route 25 veers north toward Douglas Lake. This pretty little lake is fed by the French Broad River, the Nolichucky River, and the Pigeon River, and it is a great place to stop for a picnic, fishing, boating, and swimming.
Pro Tip: Just off U.S. Route 25 and U.S. 70 is the French Broad Dude Ranch, a family-friendly working ranch that not only lets you ride horses together, but teaches you an entirely new way of riding. If you stay in one of the rooms at the lodge or hotel, you can get the full cowboy experience, including learning to square dance, driving cattle, going on trail rides, and more.
4. Cades Cove Loop
This 11-mile loop runs through a broad valley full of wildlife, historic sites, and original buildings that offer a glimpse of how the early Appalachian settlers lived. Not only will you see still-open churches and a working gristmill, but you can feast your eyeballs on the stunning views of the valley and surrounding Smoky Mountains.
If you want to explore the area even more, several hikes are located in the cove, including the 5-mile round-trip trail to Abrams Falls and the short Cades Cove Nature Trail.
Because of its popularity, you’ll need at least 2 hours to make the 11-mile drive. The traffic is insane during the summer and fall and on any given weekend, but you’ll never regret taking the time to venture along this historic and beautiful drive.
Pro Tip: Every Wednesday from May 5 to September 1, Cades Cove Loop Road is vehicle-free to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the roads. Unless you want to walk or bike the 11-mile route, plan accordingly!