Nashville to the Great Smoky Mountains road trip

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The dream of the wilderness is real on this Nashville to the Great Smoky Mountains road trip. In the Smokies, the denser forests, clearer rivers and quieter valleys take you back to a different time. As you leave civilization behind, remarkable outdoor adventures begin.

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  • Total distance: 459 mi / 739 km
  • Total driving time: 9 h

1. Nashville, TN

The main attraction on your Nashville to the Great Smoky Mountains road trip is, of course, the Smokies. But for some contrasting fun before the drive takes off the best things to do in Nashville are there for the taking.

Sing along on Honky Tonk Highway

Nashville is often referred to as Music City. If you’re not sure why, just visit Honky Tonk Highway on Lower Broadway in Downtown Nashville.

Day or night its high-spirited bars, also known as honky-tonks, make Downtown Nashville a fun place to be. Like living notes lined up next to each other the honky-tonks pour music onto the streets.

The honky-tonks provide free top-class entertainment 365 days a year. It’s plain good old fun ahead of the drive from Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Catch the Grand Ole Opry

The Grand Ole Opry started as a radio broadcast in 1925. Over the years its success has made the Grand Ole Opry recognized as the show that made country music famous.

Today the Grand Ole Opry’s unique live music experiences are world famous. Every week a mix of country music artists, from established superstars to rising stars, perform on the Grand Ole Opry scene.

It’s not only the number one show in Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry is also the most prestigous stage in country music.

Brightly shining neon signs along Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee
The playful Music City.

2. Burgess Falls, TN

  • Driving distance: 80 mi / 129 km
  • Driving time: 1.5 h

The Great Smoky Mountains is far from the only natural Tennessee gem. On the way from Nashville to the Smokies, you pass by Burgess Falls, one of the most scenic waterfalls in Tennessee.

Route info: Burgess Falls is a detour that in total adds roughly 30 minutes to the itinerary, compared to if you just stick to the highway.

Have a picnic by waterfalls

Burgess Falls State Park protects the environment of the Falling Water River. It’s a natural area home to gurgling river nature, including several stunning waterfalls.

From the parking lot the River Trail elegantly traces the Falling Water River and its falls. It’s a stretch of waterfalls that gets better and better with every step.

After 0.8 miles (1.3 km) the experience culminates at the main falls. There the Falling Water River without hesitation crashes more than 130 feet (40 m) down into the pool below.

Want to make this stop even better?

Then pack your favorite picnic food before you leave Nashville. The gorgeous Burgess Falls State Park is equipped with appreciated picnic tables.

Cascading Burgess Falls as seen from above
Burgess Falls, TN.

Additional stop: Tennessee is a state full of waterfalls. Another such, which is an easy addition to the itinerary, is Cummins Falls. It plunges less than 20 miles (32 km) from Burgess Falls.

3. Pigeon Forge, TN

  • Driving distance: 145 mi / 233 km
  • Driving time: 2.5 h

Pigeon Forge offers a unique experience at the foothills of the mighty Great Smoky Mountains. So near the untamed Great Smoky Mountains National Park you find an abundance of manmade attractions, including an American theme park favorite.

Celebrate life at Dollywood

Year after year millions of visitors enter the gates of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge. It’s the biggest ticketed attraction not only in the Smoky Mountains area but in the entire state of Tennessee.

Dollywood, surrounded by the Smoky Mountains, features everything from fun slides and thrilling rides to diverse shops and memorable shows.

As an extra dimension Dollywood is a park that treasures its past. Many of its themed areas and attractions pay attention to the history and culture of the southern Appalachian region.

Embark the Titanic

Pigeon Forge is just filled with opportunities for your Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park road trip. Another highlight, but of different character, is the Titanic Museum.

In two stories and shaped like the Titanic itself the museum takes you back to the year of 1912. As you embark the ship replica, the experience lets you feel like being a maiden voyage passenger.

Towering Great Smoky Mountain Wheel in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, during red sunset
Pigeon Forge’s Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.

4. Gatlinburg, TN

  • Driving distance: 8 mi / 13 km
  • Driving time: 0.5 h

Well done, you made it from Nashville to America’s most visited national park. Gatlinburg serves as the eastern gateway to the endless amount of things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Covering 522,419 acres the Tennessee and North Carolina park is named after the natural fog that often appears within its borders. No matter if it’s your first or tenth visit, there’s a certain mystique about the Smokies.

Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail

The Roaring Fork is a stream that begins high up in the mountains. Many days the watercourse might seem quiet, but it only takes mild rain for the Roaring Fork to, just like its name suggests, start roaring.

Along this volatile mountain stream the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Trail extends. It’s 6 miles (10 km) long showcasing all the ingredients that you associate with the Smokies.

Highlights along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail include jaw-dropping vistas, historic cabins and the hike to the crashing Grotto Falls.

But you in fact don’t even need to enter the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to find points of interest. At its start the preserved Noah Ogle Place and the trailhead for the awe-inspiring Rainbow Falls lure you in.

Climb Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the spot for unobstructed views. It’s at 6,643 feet (2,025 m) the tallest point of the Great Smoky Mountains and the third most elevated mountain east of Mississippi River.

The 7 miles (11 km) long Clingmans Dome Road treats you with scenic vistas as the road climb towards the summit. From the Clingmans Dome parking lot a paved 0.5 mile (805 m) trail takes you the final stretch up.

At the summit an observation tower provides panoramic views of the Smokies. A clear day you can see more than 100 miles (160 km) in any direction. But even hazy days Clingmans Dome is spectacular.

Where to stay in the Smokies

Deciding where to stay in Great Smoky Mountains can seem a little tricky. However, in Gatlinburg you’re in the front row for both park fun and attractions off the park.

Barn nestled in the woods at Noah Ogle Place
Barn at Noah Ogle Place.

Route info: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open year round, but several secondary park roads are closed from late November to early April. Therefore it’s wise to check the Great Smoky Mountains seasonal road schedule if you plan a drive during the colder months of the year.

5. Townsend, TN

  • Driving distance: 25 mi / 40 km
  • Driving time: 1 h

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a park with two distinctive sides. The eastern side, where you find Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, is the busier one. In contrast the western part is known as the peaceful side.

Although sleepy, Townsend is conveniently positioned for exploring the western side of the Smokies. From its park border location it’s just 20 minutes to the beginning of the timeless Cades Cove.

Take Cades Cove Loop Road

Cades Cove, the most famous valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is widely known for its natural beauty. The 11 miles (18 km) long Cades Cove Loop Road shows you exactly why.

As you tour Cades Cove Loop Road, the enchanting meadows and rising mountains are breathtaking. For scenery or just to disconnect it’s a remarkable spot on the itinerary.

But along the drive human history also calls for your attention.

Once a home to settlers Cades Cove presents a variety of preserved buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its churches, cabins, barns and even a mill tell fascinating stories of its early inhabitants.

View black bears in Cades Cove

Members of the animal kingdom love Cades Cove at least as much as its human visitors. Because of that the opportunities for wildlife viewing are superb in the isolated Tennessee valley.

White-tailed deer, elk, raccoon and turkeys are some of the animals that frequent Cades Cove.

Then there of course are the iconic black bears of the Smoky Mountains. A large, irresistible population of black bears calls Cades Cove their home.

Seeing black bears in Cades Cove is exciting. It’s also a memory for life to bring with you home from your Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit.

Trail framed by lush vegetation in Cades Cove
Trail in Cades Cove, TN.

6. Nashville, TN

  • Driving distance: 201 mi / 323 km
  • Driving time: 3.5 h

After a spectacular drive it’s time to head back to civlization. The final 201 miles (323 km) on the road takes you back to where the itinerary started, Nashville.

Winding bitumen road in the Smokies surrounded by green bushes and trees
Winding road in the Smokies, TN.

Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains road trip FAQ

How long does it take to drive the Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains road trip?

This ultimate Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains road trip loop is 459 miles (739 km) long. Driving it takes roughly 9 hours, not including any stops along the way.

Where should I stop between Nashville and the Great Smoky Mountains?

The main stops on the Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains road trip are Nashville, Burgess Falls, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Townsend. From the gateway towns Gatlinburg and Townsend you effortlessly day trip into the depths of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A nice additional stop is Cummins Falls, positioned less than 20 miles (32 km) from Burgess Falls.

How many days do I need to take the Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains road trip?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone requires at least three full days. Then you need to add time for any side attractions, such as Dollywood, and the time it takes to get to and from the Smokies.

Therefore, the absolute minimum for the Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains loop is 5 days. But for the best experience it’s a road trip that demands a week or more of your time.

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