Drives around the park
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) includes some fantastic drives for your auto. Here are a few we did during our COVID vacation in August 2020.
Heintooga Round Bottom Road
Our favorite was the Heintooga Round Botttom Road. This road is accessed via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a fine drive itself. If going on this trail, you can first stop at the Oconaluftee VIsitor Center. You are also very close to Cherokee, with some activities to do there. We visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
The Heintooga Road is a paved two-laner that takes you to the top of a mountain, where the Balsam Mountain Campground (5535 feet elevation) is located (closed now due to Covid). Once at the top, you can view the Heintooga Overlook and drive back the way you came to the Blue Ridge Parkway, or you can have some fun and take the unimproved one lane road down the other side of the mountain, back to the Cherokee area.
While regular passenger cars often do this road, having the extra suspension travel of a crossover or SUV makes it much easier, with fewer chances of bottoming out on the trail. The road has many switchbacks and sharp turns and will take 60-90 minutes to complete the 26 miles.
We found the Crosstrek ideal on this road, it was quite nimble on the unimproved one-lane road, navigating the ruts, mud, and sand with ease, and never bottomed out.
Interestingly, with the Crostrek PHEV Hybrid, we were able to keep the shifter in "B" mode which does more regenerative braking. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, the battery was well depleted. However, the grade down was steep enough that it not only regenerated enough electricity so that the engine never came on on the way down, but we ended the 26+ mile trek with more battery charge than we started with. It was nice to have the silence of not running the gas engine while on the trail.
If you do this trail, check ahead of time to make sure it's open. Recent storms may cause the trail to be blocked by fallen trees. At the end of the road, you are not far from the Mingo Falls, which is worth the side trip.
Roaring Fork Motor Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a popular loop drive because it starts and ends in the city of Gatlinburg, and is only about 6 miles in length, so it can be done easily and almost any time. The loop portion of the road is paved, one-way, and most any vehicle should be able to drive on it. There are some steep inclines and declines, but nothing that would cause issues.
Besides scenic overlooks, there are different stops one can make at historical sites. These include the Noah "Bud" Ogle Cabin, Ephraim Bales Cabin, Alfred Reagan Tub Mill, and more.
Besides scenic overlooks, you will cross over or be beside rivers on much of the drive, allowing for picture taking, including some small waterfalls.
Parking for a 2.6 mile round trip hike to the Grotto Falls will be found a little past the first overlook. This is a popular hike, and parking can fill up, with many people parking on the sides of the road.
Bear sightings may be common in the morning and evening, as they move into the outskirts of Gatlinburg to look for food. Look along the river banks.
When you exit the loop drive and enter Gatlinburg again, you will be close to the Hungry Bear BBQ. The main entrance is not far from Bennett's Pit BBQ. Basically, you can get some BBQ coming or going.
Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove is probably one of the most popular drives within the Smokey Mountains. Compared to the rest of the GSMNP, it's relatively flat. The complete loop is 11 miles, with many stops along the way at many homestead sites (or buildings from other homesteads moved there).
While it is a one-way loop, there are two areas where one can take a short cut within the loop. This loop has definite opening and closing times, and certain times are dedicated just to bicycles, so check ahead before going there.
Popular stops include; John Oliver House, Primitive Baptist Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, a nature trail, Dan Lawson Cabin, Tipton Place, farms and more. Half way through the e Cades Cove loop is parking for the five-mile round trip hike to the Abrams Falls.
Depending on when you go, there may be a lot of traffic on the loop. Some drivers go really slow and can back up traffic. A bear sighting will almost always cause a traffic backup.
Owing to the popularity of the area, there is the Cades Cove visitor center on the loop as well as the Cades Cove campground near the beginning of the loop.
Partway through the Cades Cove Loop is a one-way road named the Rich Mountain Road, this gravel road (open seasonally) can be driven by most all passenger cars, and takes you to the town of Townsend. Tubing the Little River in Townsend can be a relaxing end to a long day at Cades Cove.
We did not drive the Tail of the Dragon, with its 318 turns over 11 miles, but intend to next time.
Charging the Crosstrek Hybrid
There are few places one can plug-in and charge their electric car in and around the GSMNP. Places like Bennett's BBQ have a spot for electric cars, which is often filled by non-electric cars, plus their pricing is very high.
Cherokee lists a couple locations with a charging port, but none worked while we were there. Some of the GSMNP visitor centers have charging ports, but are difficult to use, and may require buying a card from the desk. Free charging is available at the Tanger's Outlet shopping.
If you are driving a plug-in electric vehicle, charging may require more investigation before traveling.
Once over the mountain, and going downhill on the main US441 drive, you will want to use the "B" mode on the shifter to reduce actual braking, and create more regenerative charging.
Where have you taken your Crosstrek, we'd like to know.