RALEIGH "” The stunning beauty that surrounds U.S. Highway 441 near Cherokee, N.C. draws thousands of tourists each year who come to enjoy the cool mountain summers or marvel at the vivid fall foliage along the route. But come winter, the crowds fall away and a layer of peace and quiet descends over the peaks and valleys - making this season the perfect time to enjoy a serene experience on the state's newest Scenic Byway.
The 17-mile Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway begins at the intersection of U.S. 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Reservation and snakes north through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until it hits the Tennessee border. Also known as Newfound Gap Road, the byway possesses an abundance of scenic views, historical features and recreational opportunities to enjoy during the winter months.
The road begins next to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, which features a bookstore and exhibits dedicated to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An on-duty park ranger is available here to provide information about the Park and the people who once lived there. Don't miss the Mountain Farm Museum next door, comprised of pioneer buildings moved from throughout the park and permanently preserved at this location.
Located about one half mile down the road is Mingus Mill, an 1886 turbine mill that for more than 50 years ground corn into meal and wheat for the Mingus community. The mill's water wheel often freezes during the colder months, turning the structure into a beautiful and unique ice sculpture.
Past the mill, the byway starts its ascent through cove hardwood, pine-oak and northern hardwood forest, eventually climbing a total of about 3,000 feet. The lack of foliage on the trees only serves to enhance the spectacular mountain vistas along the drive, and clearer visibility during the winter months allows visitors to see a further distance than at any other time of year. Take in the view about 11.5 miles up the road at the Webb Overlook, named for Sen. Charles Webb of North Carolina, a staunch supporter of the park's establishment. Or journey another two miles up the road to the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, which boasts spectacular views of the Oconaluftee River Valley below.
The Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway culminates at Newfound Gap, an evergreen spruce-fir forest that straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. It was here that President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated the park in 1940. The location is now the site of the Rockefeller Memorial, built to memorialize the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the park.
Immediately south of Newfound Gap is Clingman's Dome Road, closed to vehicles from Dec. 1 to March 31. Many people use the road during the winter months for walking and cross-country skiing. Hiking opportunities can also be found at several other points along the byway.
Fewer crowds and bare trees make winter the perfect season to admire the stunning backdrop of the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway. Though Interstate 40 through the mountains is currently closed due to a rockslide, the byway is still easily accessible. To get there, take I-40 West to exit 27. From U.S. 74, travel approximately 30 miles to exit 74 towards Cherokee. Follow U.S. 441 past town.
Traveling from Knoxville or Chattanooga, Tenn., take Interstate 40 east to TN-66 (exit 407). Drive south to Sevierville and pick up US 441 South. Continue south on US 441 through Gatlinburg until reaching the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The scenic byway begins at the North Carolina border about 13 miles from Gatlinburg.
From Atlanta, Ga., take I-85 North to I-985 which becomes U.S. 23 North, and eventually becomes U.S. 23/441 North. Continue into North Carolina and follow the road until it intersects with U.S. 74. Take U.S. 74 West to exit 74 towards Cherokee and continue to follow U.S. 441 North. The scenic byway begins just north of the Oconaluftee Visitors Center.
Snow does fall in the Smokies during the winter and sometimes results in road closures. Visitors should check weather and road conditions prior to making the trip by calling the National Park Service hotline at (865) 436-1200.
For additional information on the North Carolina Scenic Byways Program, visit www.ncdot.org/~scenic.