Newfound Gap
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Discover the Must-Stop Points of Interest on Newfound Gap Road Trip

Newfound Gap Road is a literal rite of passage through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It threads through the heart of the park, connecting Gatlinburg (Tennessee) and Cherokee (North Carolina).

The scenic drive cuts through the lowest driveable part of the park at Newfound Gap, which is still almost a mile high. You’ll climb and drop thousands of feet if you drive the entire 31-mile length, tackling steep inclines, hairpin turns, tunnels, and even a loop-the-loop.

You’ll be amazed to find out how much thought went into every element of Newfound Gap Road, including its location at the state line and a crossing spot of the Appalachian Trail.

We’re going to help you do more than drive this National Scenic Byway through America’s most visited national park; we’re going to help you experience every last waypoint.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap I photo credit: anthony heflin / Shutterstock

What is Newfound Gap?

The road is named after the “gap” in the mountains. If you’re from back East, you’d refer to this as a notch, such as Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont. In the Rockies and Sierras, it’s called a pass, as in Donner Pass.

The name comes from the fact that for years, Indian Gap was believed to be the lowest crossing point on the ridgeline. It was used for centuries by the Cherokee and then by settlers. However, in the 1870s, a different gap 300 feet lower was discovered. The “newly found” gap became “Newfound Gap,” and the road was named after that feature.

Why is Newfound Gap So Important?

It helps to understand the timeline of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to learn why this gap road was necessary. We should also note that this road initially had little to do with a national park but was more about traffic getting between the two states.

Indian Gap Over the Mountains

Over thousands of years, the Indian Gap trail was the north/south route through the mountains. When settlers arrived, the Cherokee were mostly forced out by the Trail of Tears in the early to mid-1800s. Yet newcomers used the same Indian Gap route. In the 1860s, it was even a toll (dirt) road called the Oconaluftee Turnpike.

The Automobile Age

By the mid-1920s, automobiles were becoming more common, and both states wanted a better road to cut through the Smokies. At the same time, a group called the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission was sniffing around to add a new national park.

In May of 1926, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was approved by Congress. The roads already built weren’t up to National Park Service standards. Planning was underway to shift from Indian Gap to Newfound Gap, 1.5 miles east.

The Depression & War

Newfound Gap Road has historical significance as it was constructed as part of the New Deal programs during the 1930s, providing employment opportunities during the Great Depression. By 1936, the minimum land requirements were met to establish the park. Dedication happened in 1940 at Newfound Gap.

All the while, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) focused on building roads and trails, with park official Robert White stating, “Undoubtedly, the 17 CCC camps stationed in this Park have helped develop… at a much more rapid rate than any other Park ever built by the Federal Government.. the Park has advanced at least ten years.”

World War II brought work to a halt and left previous work in shambles, including the tower on Clingmans Dome. Newfound Gap Road was completed, but far from a safe or up-to-par road.

Post War Compliance

As the economy bounced back after the war, work began in earnest to tend to every corner, curve, hairpin turn, roadway greenery, scenic viewpoints, and quaint trails align the way.

Throughout the years of relentless attention to standards and beautification, Newfound Gap Road became a National Scenic Byway in 2021.

Newfound Gap | photo via erikarymer

Driving Newfound Gap Road

Your map program will tell you it takes about an hour to drive this road. If you can do it that quickly, you’re doing it wrong. Let’s go through the various stops along the way. We’ll start from Gatlinburg and work our way to Cherokee.

The scenic byway’s northern terminus is at U.S. Highway 441 and Ski Mountain Road. Several pullouts, parking areas, trail access, and “Quiet Walkways” are alongside the road.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 0 – 4

In the first two miles, you’ll go through the Sugarlands Valley, reaching the visitor center, which can take you to Cataract Falls, Fighting Creek Nature Trail, or Sugarland Valley Nature Trail. Bullhead View Quiet Walkway is at mile marker 2.7.

The road then intersects with Husky Gap Trail and Riverview Quiet Walkway about 3.4 miles in and leads to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

The first overlook comes just shy of mile marker four at Carlos Campbell Overlook, which is 2036 feet in elevation, 590 feet higher than Gatlinburg. Jim Carr and Balsam Point Quiet Walkways are in this section.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 4 – 8

Just more than six miles in, you’ll come to the Chimneys Picnic Area at an elevation of 2,739 feet. The Cove Hardwood Nature Trail lollipops around in less than a mile, and it’s an idyllic spot for spring wildflowers.

The first tight turns of the road come back to back here. One of the best views of Chimney Tops is at mile marker 7, after the turns. The name comes from the peak at the top, “like a chimney flue,” a novelty in the park with more domed ridges.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 8 – 14

If you want to hike Chimney Tops, you’ll find the parking area at 8.6 miles and a small parking area with about 30 spots, but there is overflow parking just up the road. The trail is 3.5 strenuous, steep miles. You cannot reach the summit for safety reasons. This is the area where the infamous fire of 2016 started.

Just shy of nine miles in, you’ll reach the start of The Loop, which is where Newfound Gap Road overlaps in a loop. It was determined this was the safest way to navigate this steep stretch where you go up 10 feet for every foot of the short loop. A parking pullout is available right before the brief lower tunnel at the entrance to The Loop.

You’ll pass about five pullouts on the way to the Alum Cave Parking Area at mile marker 10.3. The Alum Cave Trail is one of the favorites for ascending Mount LeConte.

Even if you don’t want to take the full five-mile hike to the top, you can get to Arch Rock (2.8 miles round trip, 4,300 feet) or Alum Cave Bluff (4.6 miles round trip, 4,950 feet). Inspiration Point (4,700 feet) is two miles into this hike and arguably one of the best views in the park.

CAVE EXPLORER? It’s worth noting that Alum Cave isn’t a cave; it’s a concave cliff from above hanging over the trail, giving the appearance of a cave.

As you go toward mile marker 13, the road bends a little bit more before the big turn and the Morton Mountain Tunnel. Every bit of this road was intentional, including the tunnels. While they serve the functional purpose of safety and access, they also protect the wilderness views with no roads on the ridgeline. Even materials used in the tunnel and along the road were made of local stones and plants.

HONK HONK: It’s a tradition in the Smokies to honk when you go through a tunnel, despite the noise it creates and the startle it causes to other drivers. Be prepared to hear honks.

One of the best sunset views in the park is just under 14 miles in at the Ben Morton Overlook (4,826 feet).

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap | photo via aaverly

Newfound Gap

About a mile from the overlook, you’ll find the large parking area for Newfound Gap (5,049 feet). Here, the state line separating Tennessee and North Carolina crosses through the parking lot while the Appalachian Trail crosses the other direction.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the stone memorial that rises from the edge of the parking lot. This is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, in honor of John D. Rockefeller Junior’s mother. The family was critical in helping secure the funds to buy park land. This is also where President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood when dedicating the park in 1940.

While soaking in the views from the overlook, be sure to notice the lower stone trail with kiosks along the way. It’s yet another endeavor of designers to keep education aspects in front of you but not block the views.

You can also take the AT in either direction, but heading west toward Indian Gap is a real treat to see the wagon grooves for the road that once was the only way through this gap. Another option is to hike seven miles to Clingmans Dome.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 15 – 20

Now we’re on the North Carolina side of Newfound Gap Road, in a forest similar to what you’d find in Maine more than the South. Another great scenic viewpoint, Luftee Overlook, is just past Newfound Gap. The Thomas Divide splays out before you.

Around mile marker 16, the Deep Creek Trail meets the road. However, unless you’re up for a 14-mile one-way hike, opt for the other trailhead of Deep Creek near Bryson City. The waterfalls are much closer.

It’s worth clarifying that the Swinging Bridge stop ahead is near mile maker 17, specifically that there is no swinging bridge. The pullout leads to a rather steep Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway, with a trail that can easily be lost. The best use of this stop is to walk the catwalk (aka cantilevered bridges) along the edge of the park. The landscape naturally gives you small windows to peek through down Deep Creek Valley.

Take time at the Charles Webb Overlook at 17.7 miles in to see great views of Clingmans Dome. The Thomas Divide Trailhead is next, but that’s a nearly 15-mile one-way hike along the ridgeline.

Next up is the History Exhibit Overlook, around mile marker 18.5, with a kiosk explaining the different views during the logging years in the Smokies.

Another Quiet Walkway awaits at 19.5 miles in, and while it’s called Beech Flats, it’s actually the old road that crossed the mountain. You can take it all the way to Newfound Gap, but be prepared to bushwhack, as the trail isn’t maintained well.

You have the last two sharp turns of the road here.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 21 – 25

Aside from a couple of pullouts, the next stop is at mile marker 23 for the Kanati Fork Trail or Quiet Walkway. The trail is 5.5 miles out and back, but don’t expect scenic views. Wildflowers and fall foliage make it worthwhile, but it’s a challenging trail. The walkway is shorter and easier.

A short distance down the road is the Kephart Pront Trail (2,750 feet), about 4.2 miles roundtrip, with some of the CCC camp remnants along the trail and old logging railroad lines. You also get to see the Oconaluftee River. Log bridges go over the waterways.

Near the 24-mile mark, you’ll come to a parking area for Cliff Branch Falls. The 12-foot waterfall is on the other side of the parking area, but it’s mostly worth stopping after heavy rain.

Almost exactly at mile marker 25, you’ll come to the Collins Creek Picnic Area, where there’s also a Quiet Walkway that leads to a campground.

Newfound Gap Road: Milemarker 25 – 31

Smokemont is the next stop at mile marker 27, a former logging and railroad village named Bradleytown. A historic church is here, and one of the best campgrounds for families is just to the north. Trails spiderweb out in all directions, and this might be a good time to explore one of those by horseback. The Smokemont Riding Stables is in this corridor.

Up next, you’ll pass a couple of pullouts alongside the Oconaluftee River, considered sacred by the Cherokee people. Several short cemetery trails jut out the west side of the road.

Mingus Mill at mile marker 30 is a popular stop. The mill has been operational since 1886 but check the link above because it is undergoing an extensive rehab project. Mingus Creek Trail goes for miles into the backcountry.

Our journey is coming to an end with the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center, but be sure to stop here to see the Mountain Farm Museum and get great views of the river. You can also walk the river trail for 1.3 miles each way.

Newfound Gap Road’s southern terminus is where the Blue Ridge Parkways starts its journey to Shenandoah National Park.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap | photo via sandipan_bhattacharya

Other Scenic Drives from Newfound Gap

Driving Newfound Gap Road can take you to some other incredible locations.

The seven-mile road to Clingmans Dome is right by the gap, and it takes you to the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. At the top, a parking area sits about a half mile from the walkway up the observation tower, with a view of more than 6,6,50 feet in all directions.

NOTE: Clingmans Dome Road closes between April 1 and November 30, but if you park at the Newfound Gap lot, you can walk or ski the road to the high point.

For a longer drive, you can bag two peaks on the roads of North Carolina. Take Newfound Gap Road south to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow that for 38 miles, and you’ll reach Richard Balsam, the highest point on the famed Parkway at 6,053 feet.

Newfound Gap Weather

On an average day, Newfound Gap will be 10-20 degrees cooler than the lower elevations. Unfortunately, it also means fog and clouds will be more likely to impact views. Sometimes, just waiting about 30 minutes can clear out the obstructions.

Unlike the lower elevations, Newfound Gap gets up to 70 inches of snow a year. Since it’s a major north/south route and a U.S. Highway, it does get plowed, but it is still subject to closures during storms. This can happen even if there’s just a light rain or overcast in Cherokee or Gatlinburg.

Always check road conditions before you go.

Newfound Gap-Winter-
Newfound Gap I photo credit: Daniel Korzeniewski / Shutterstock

Is Newfound Gap Worth It?

It’s interesting how some historical documents even refer to Mount LeConte as having the best views in the park, not the highest point at Clingmans Dome or even Newfound Gap. However, they all have amazing views.

Remember that the best engineers and park designers in history handpicked each overlook. Kiosks are placed at each one to explain why it is a significant location.

The road isn’t necessarily a white-knuckled drive, but it is important to stick to the speed limit, keep your eyes on the road, and yield to wildlife. If you want to go slower than the flow of traffic, use those pullouts. Explore the Quiet Walkways. Make a day of exploring Newfound Gap and enjoy all the things to do in the less-crowded Cherokee, North Carolina.

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