To Honk or Not to Honk: Driving Through Smoky Mountain Tunnels

The Smoky Mountains, a haven for adventurers and nature lovers, are also home to several tunnels that add an extra layer of excitement to the scenic drives in the area. Beyond serving as simple conduits through the mountains, these tunnels come with a unique tradition: the honk of a horn. 

Mountain Rock, Gatlinburg I photo credit: Natwick / Shutterstock

Why Do People Honk in Smoky Mountain Tunnels?

One Reddit user asked, “Hey there! I’ve visited the Smokies several times and have always wondered why folks honk their car horns when going through tunnels in the mountains. At first, I thought it was possibly drivers signaling to other drivers to turn their headlights on, but I noticed people do this even with short tunnels. Is it just a thing people do with tunnels?”

Another user answered: “We do it as a fun tradition. I think originally it started as many tunnels were only wide enough for a single vehicle. So you honked when entering so other cars would know the tunnel was occupied and wait their turn. That’s what I was told growing up and it sounded good enough for me!”

Beyond the basic “it’s tradition” responses, answers varied from avoiding the “tunnel trolls” who apparently hate loud noises to ones citing historical reasoning: “I think originally it started as many tunnels were only wide enough for a single vehicle. So you honked when entering so other cars would know the tunnel was occupied and wait their turn.”

Regardless of why it started, we love that this tradition continues in our beloved Smoky Mountain tunnels.

Gatlinburg Tunnel
Gatlinburg Tunnel | photo via huntitall303

Gatlinburg Spur Tunnel

The Gatlinburg Spur Tunnel is a key feature on the Gatlinburg Spur, a section of US-321/US-441 that connects the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. This area is part of the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most visited national parks in the United States.

This tunnel, while functional in serving as a passage through the terrain, also adds a sense of adventure and anticipation for travelers heading into the heart of the Smoky Mountains.

“For many of us, the Smokies are home. And few sights (and sounds) signal an arrival into this majestic Appalachian park like entering the Spur Tunnel, then laying on the car horn to hear it echo throughout. It’s a sort of rite of passage for Tennesseans resulting from our eagerness to enter the park from Gatlinburg. Folks have been honking through Spur Tunnel for generations.”

Outsider | December 27, 2022

Key Features and Attractions

  • Scenic Route: The Gatlinburg Spur is known for its scenic beauty, offering lush views of the surrounding forests and mountains. Driving through the tunnel amplifies the experience of entering a new, natural world, making it a memorable part of the journey into the park.
  • Accessibility: The tunnel is easily accessible from both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, making it a frequently traveled route for visitors looking to explore the national park and its many attractions.
  • Honking Tradition: Like other tunnels in the region, the Gatlinburg Spur Tunnel is part of the local tradition of honking while driving through. This practice, while seemingly simple, connects travelers to the history and culture of the area, creating a shared experience among visitors.
Tunnel on the Parkway (US 441) just north of Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Parkway US 441 I photo credit: Kenneth Sponsler / Shutterstock

Bote Mountain Tunnel

The Bote Mountain Tunnel is an integral part of the experience for many visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Situated on the road leading from Townsend Wye to Cades Cove, it offers a unique passage through the natural landscape, serving as a gateway to one of the park’s most beloved areas.

Key Features and Attractions

  • Location on a Popular Route: The tunnel is located on one of the park’s most traveled roads, which leads to Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the park’s most popular destinations due to its abundant wildlife viewing opportunities, historic buildings, and stunning mountain scenery.
  • Historical Significance: The area surrounding Bote Mountain Tunnel is steeped in history. The region was home to early settler communities in the 19th century, and the road through Bote Mountain Tunnel follows paths that were significant to these communities, adding a layer of historical depth to the natural beauty.
  • Engineering Feat: Like other tunnels in the region, the Bote Mountain Tunnel represents an engineering solution to the challenging terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains. It facilitates easier access for visitors wishing to explore the deeper reaches of the park.
honking in the Gatlinburg Tunnel
Gatlinburg Tunnel | photo via kristinanikita66 / Instagram

Tunnels on Newfound Gap Road

The Newfound Gap Road tunnels, located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, help form one of the park’s most scenic and historically significant routes. Newfound Gap Road features two tunnels: Morton Mountain Tunnel and The Loop

Stretching across the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Newfound Gap Road is a marvel of engineering and natural beauty, offering breathtaking views of the Appalachian Mountains. The tunnels along this route enhance the experience, adding an element of anticipation and wonder as visitors travel through the heart of the Smokies.

Key Features and Attractions

  • Scenic Beauty: The tunnels on Newfound Gap Road are surrounded by the park’s stunning landscapes, offering glimpses of dense forests, wildflowers, and, depending on the season, vibrant fall foliage or serene snowscapes. This route provides some of the most picturesque views available in the park, making the drive an attraction in its own right.
  • Historical and Cultural Significance: Newfound Gap Road holds historical significance, marking the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a vital link between the park’s two states, Tennessee and North Carolina, and was the site where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the national park in 1940. Driving through the tunnels connects visitors to this rich history.
  • Accessibility to Key Destinations: This road, and its tunnels, serve as a gateway to various attractions within the park, including Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, and several trailheads for the Appalachian Trail.
Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap | photo via ani2025

The Tradition of Honking in Smoky Mountain Tunnels

The act of honking in tunnels within the Great Smoky Mountains has become a fond tradition for many. While some might see it as a simple moment of fun, it connects travelers to those who have passed before them and to the local culture.

The reasons behind the tradition vary, from the joy of hearing the echo to superstitions about warding off spirits. Regardless of the origin, honking in these tunnels has become a shared experience that enhances the journey through the Smokies.

This tradition, coupled with the scenic beauty and engineering marvels of the tunnels, makes driving through the Smoky Mountains a unique adventure. Whether you’re a local revisiting familiar routes or a tourist exploring the area for the first time, participating in this tradition is a memorable way to mark your passage through these historic tunnels.

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