The stunning beauty that surrounds U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee draws thousands of tourists each year who come to enjoy the cool mountain summers or marvel at the vivid fall foliage along the route.
But come winter, the crowds fall away and a layer of peace and quiet descends over the peaks and valleys — making this season the perfect time to enjoy a serene experience on the state’s newest Scenic Byway.
The 17-mile Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway begins at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway outside Cherokee and snakes north through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until it hits the Tennessee border. Also known as Newfound Gap Road, the byway possesses an abundance of scenic views, historical spots and recreational opportunities to enjoy during the winter months.
The road begins next to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, open year-round, which features a bookstore and exhibits dedicated to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An on-duty park ranger is available here to provide information about the Park and the people who once lived there. Don’t miss the Mountain Farm Museum next door, comprised of pioneer buildings.
A half mile further down the road is Mingus Mill, an 1886 water turbine mill that for more than 50 years ground corn into meal and wheat for the Mingus community.
Past the mill, the byway starts its ascent, eventually climbing a total of about 3,000 feet. The lack of foliage on the trees only serves to enhance the spectacular mountain vistas along the drive, and clearer visibility during the winter months allows visitors to see a further distance than at any other time of year.
Take in the view about 11.5 miles up the road at the Webb Overlook, named for Sen. Charles Webb of North Carolina, a staunch supporter of the park’s establishment. Or journey another two miles up the road to the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, which boasts spectacular views of the Oconaluftee River Valley below.
The Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway culminates at Newfound Gap, an evergreen spruce-fir forest that straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee at an elevation of 5,046 feet. It was here that President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated the park in 1940. The location is now the site of the Rockefeller Memorial, built to memorialize the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the park.
At Newfound Gap, a seven-mile spur road winding up to Clingmans Dome is closed in the winter, but provides a venue for walking and cross-country skiing. Hiking opportunities can also be found at several other points along the byway.
Fewer crowds and bare trees make winter the perfect season to admire the stunning backdrop of the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway.
This article was written by Julia Merchant, a former reporter at the Smoky Mountain News, who now works as a communications officer for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Raleigh.
While U.S. 441 through the Smokies isn’t the official detour around the I-40 rockslide, it could be the best bet depending on where you are heading in Tennessee.
Snow does fall in the Smokies during the winter and sometimes results in road closures. Visitors should check weather and road conditions prior to making the trip by calling the National Park Service hotline at 865.436.1200.