TOTD – Foothills Parkway & GSM Loop

The Foothills Parkway is 33 miles of paved and maintained road that follows the Smoky Mountain ridgeline from US 129 to Walland, Tennessee. It winds through the Nantahala National Forest and provides spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains to the east, and the Cumberland Mountains to the west.


Entrance to Foothills Parkway, Chilhowee, Tennessee

This route has minimal traffic compared to other Smoky Mountain highways and provides a scenic connection between the Tail of the Dragon, and Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At the end of the Parkway, taking a right to head east on US 321 will take you through Townsend, Wear Valley, and Pigeon Forge before depositing you near Gatlinburg. Or you can head south on SR 73 and connect to US 441, while bypassing Gatlinburg.


Foothills Parkway, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee

Gatlinburg can be busy with heavy foot and vehicular traffic on the weekends, as it is fraught with tourist attractions, shopping, and restaurants. We found it more amenable on the weekdays. Then again, we often prefer stopping in the small towns along the way. They seem to have a more local flavor and appeal, then the mass marketed version the tourist towns like Gatlinburg have. But if you have never been there, it is worth a look and crossing off your bucket list.


Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin, Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The road is patrolled by National Park Rangers who are as friendly as they are efficient. On our ride, at an overlook where we took a much-needed break from the saddle, a Ranger was passing by in his vehicle when he spotted our Pennsylvania license plates. He turned around and pulled in next to us at the pull-off. It seems he was born and raised in Hershey, PA, just outside of where we live. He was very friendly and chatted with us sharing the history and stories of the Parkway. His tale starts many years ago, when he visited the area on vacation. He loved it so much, he never left. This is a story you often here from residents here.


Visit with Park Ranger on Foothills Parkway, near Newfound Gap, Tennessee

There is also the chance to see wildlife. We ventured through an area where a herd of elk had come out to graze in an open field. Cars lined the roadway taking pictures, as the Rangers worked to keep people at a safe distance and the elk off the roadway.


Elk fawn along Foothills Parkway, near Townsend, Tennessee

US 321 and the Parkway can return you the way you came, if you’d like. It’s just as pretty riding either direction. But you can also return via the Great Smoky Mountain Loop which takes you through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Near Pigeon Forge, US 441 joins US 321. The two run together till just outside Gatlinburg. By continuing on US 441, you can connect to US 19 in Cherokee, North Carolina, and then on to US 74 near Bryson City. Finally connecting with SR 28 West, leading you back to the southern end of the Dragon in Deal’s Gap. If you are staying in Graham County, North Carolina (a dry county), Bryson City has the opportunity to purchase any beverage needs at distributors and state stores along your route. That’s why they invented saddlebags.


Some of this return route will include highway riding and speeds on US 19 and US 74, before you again hit the tree-lined beauty of SR 28. But these distances are brief and normally light in traffic. SR 28 will also take you past the Fontana Dam and Fontana Lake, which is worth the short detour off 28 to arrive in Fontana Village. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Little Tennessee River on the dam itself.


Fontana Lake, Fontana Village, North Carolina

The loop is 143 miles, if you bypass Gatlinburg, and only about 10 miles more if you loop through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. You can anticipate about 5 hours of ‘on the road’ time. Opportunities for fuel and food are abundant once you exit the Foothills Parkway (first 33 miles).


Fontana Dam, North Carolina

Overlooks offer views of the mountain ranges, Fontana Lake and Dam, and the quaint little towns nestled into the valleys below. It is a scenic and delightful ride.

Fontana Dam

View from the Fontana Dam, Fontana Village, North Carolina

A Farm in the Smokies

Next entry is a well-known, but less frequented, little slice of fun called the “Devil’s Triangle”, of which I am a proud survivor.

2 Responses to “TOTD – Foothills Parkway & GSM Loop”
  1. I’m so enjoying this trip vicariously through you and the amazing photography that I don’t ever want it to come to an end!!!!!

  2. Brad Osborne says:

    Yeah, I wish it would never end either. But alas, reality requires more of me then playtime. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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