The Great Smoky Mountains are famous for its many ways to allow visitors to see miles and miles and miles of thick, forested foliage with unbelievable color changes during Autumn. So famous that people come from all around the world to venture into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just for a few days. So famous that you likely know about this to some extent already. Between seeing the views from high up attractions like Ober Gatlinburg, Anakeesta, SkyBridge and even Dollywood with their rollercoasters, the options for Smoky Mountain viewing are plentiful but potentially expensive. The obvious solution for being able to see the wondrous forests, flora and fauna of the Smokies are the motor nature trails we have where visitors can see nature, historic sites and wildlife for free (not counting the cost of gas, mind).
The first of these motor nature trails that we can recommend is the also-famous Cades Cove Loop, which also doubles as a historical tour of those who settled in the valley. You could spend half a day or longer in Cades Cove alone as it’s an 11-mile loop that includes ALL of the motor nature trail stuff you came to see. If you’ve seen some paintings of Gatlinburg’s historical buildings at the Arts and Crafts Community or on postcards to send to friends and family, chances are they’re the historical buildings and wildlife you can find at Cades Cove.
The National Park Service website writes:
“Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible. Numerous trails originate in the cove, including the five-mile roundtrip trail to Abrams Falls and the short Cades Cove Nature Trail. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top (made famous by the popular song) also begin in the cove.
Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park. Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored eighteenth and nineteenth century structures. Pick up the self-guiding tour booklet available at the entrance to the loop road for information about the buildings you’ll see in the cove and the people who lived here.
An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. While driving the loop road, please be courteous to other visitors and use pullouts when stopping to enjoy the scenery or view wildlife.“
See more on Cades Cove at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cadescove.htm. Cades Cove also has a main website and URL with https://www.cadescove.net.
Next on the recommendations hierarchy is Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail. Located northeast of Gatlinburg off Highway 321 is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Loop which takes you up the western flank of Mt. LeConte. This paved, narrow, winding jewel of a road fords streams and cuts across a deep gorge. It is closed during the winter and at all times to buses, trailers, and RV’s. At the visitor centers you can also find out how to get to the various dirt roads that will take you further back into the mountains and off the beaten path.
The National Park Service again has an excellent summary to provide us here:
“An exuberant mountain stream gave this area its unusual name. Roaring Fork is one of the larger and faster flowing mountain streams in the park. Drive this road after a hard rain and the inspiration behind the name will be apparent. The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area. The 5.5-mile-long, one-way, loop road is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. Please note that the road is closed in winter.”
Before entering the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail offers a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead and surrounding hardwood forest. Highlights include a streamside tubmill and the Ogle’s handcrafted wooden flume plumbing system.
Just beyond the Ogle farmstead is the trailhead for Rainbow Falls, one of the park’s most popular waterfalls. The hike to the falls is 5.4 miles roundtrip and is considered moderately strenuous. If you plan to attempt this hike, be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots and carry plenty of water and snacks.“
See more on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/roaringfork.htm and https://www.gsmnp.com/roaring-fork-motor-nature-trail/.