I did this drive several times during my time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area – like so many other things here, once was definitely not enough. I saw it at different times of the day, both in fall colors and when rhododendron were blooming like crazy alongside the road.
It’s a short drive in terms of miles (6 of the trail itself), but I’ve spent hours there totally enchanted.
You’ll pass the Bud Ogle Cabin and through the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before you get to the entrance to the motor trail in about 2 miles.
This six mile loop of narrow, winding road insists that you take it slow – not only in terms of speed limit, but be sure to get out of your car and explore the sights and sounds of nature and echoes of the past abounding here.
Don’t miss this viewpoint early on the trail with a paved pulloff. My favorite view of it was when it was all decked out in fall colors.
As beautiful as the scenery is from the car, don’t miss the chance to go back in time to visit some of the historical cabins and barns and imagine the lives of the early settlers who lived here.
Jim Bales Place
The cabin and out buildings here are not in their original location, but going inside gives an idea of the basic accommodations families built for themselves here.
Ephraim Bales Place
Down the road is Jim’s older brother’s place. He and his wife, Minerva, raised nine children in this two room cabin! Privacy was obviously non-existent, but building required cutting trees and hard work, so no one built anything larger than absolutely necessary at that time. They lived here from about 1890 to 1930.
The Alfred Reagan Place
This “saddlebag” style house really looked out of place to me when I first saw it. But according to the Reagan House History (NPS), originally, the house was an unpainted split, hand hewn log cabin characteristic of the earlier ones seen before Reagan moved here. At some unknown point, Reagan raised the roof, added two attic rooms and covered the exterior and interior walls with these sawn boards. The tour booklet explains, “The Reagans used all three colors that Sears and Roebuck had.” The closed door in the middle is the central chimney and staircase leading to the upstairs lofts.
Alfred was really the entrepreneur of his time, and among other ventures, ran the grist mill across the road:
Reagan designed his mill so that it ran when others were shut down for lack of water. Everyone needed bread but not everyone knew how to build a mill, so he charged a portion of the finished product in exchange for the grinding.
If you walk down the steps to the left of the mill, you can view the workings of the wheel underneath the building, but this view completely captivated me. I stood in the cool, crisp water to get this shot and just stood here soaking it all in from both directions for a while.
My favorite time to visit was when the rhododendron were blooming in July. When I drove here in the fall, I kept seeing the humongous bushes all over the place, and that was really one reason I stayed in Tennessee through the winter – so I could see this drive when they were blooming.
I was certainly not disappointed – they really added to the overall beauty of this dreamy drive.
Alongside the road is fantastic…
But by the water was my absolute favorite. Roaring Fork is the name of the mountain stream running through the area.
This is called “The Place of a Thousand Drips” – although no large plunging waterfalls can be viewed from the road, especially after heavy rainfalls, this location can sometimes have hundreds of these smaller versions along this canyon wall.
There are two very popular larger waterfalls that can be hiked to from the road – Rainbow Falls (5.4 miles round-trip) and Grotto Falls (3 miles round-trip). I may shoot for the Rainbow sometime, but I truly enjoyed the trek to the Grotto – the only falls in the Smokies that you can walk behind. See my blog for that hike on a trail filled with rhododendron.
At the end of the road almost back to the modern life of downtown Gatlinburg, I always like to stop at Ely’s Mill, originally built in the 1920’s now being renovated. Nice folks, crafty items, homemade treats and local honey, and one of the neatest gates I’ve ever seen.
Where Is It?
From downtown Gatlinburg: The stop lights in town on the main drag (Parkway) are numbered, and you can access Roaring Fork from either #6 or #8 – both are clearly marked.
The road is closed in winter beginning December 1 and opens in early spring. Pick up the $1.00 booklet “Roaring Fork Auto Tour” at one of the visitors centers to follow along with the interesting info provided about the stops and attractions.
There are vault toilets at a couple of the trailheads along the drive, but no visitors center or food, so plan ahead. No buses, trailers or RVs allowed.