Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip: 5-Day Knoxville Loop

With just five days, you can explore Knoxville, traipse into Dollywood, log some quality trail time, explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park, catch an amazing firefly display, ride a steam train…and drive a short, but beautiful, section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Day 1: Knoxville to Dollywood (43 miles; 1 hour)

Grab a tasty breakfast at Pete’s Coffee Shop in Knoxville, then head over to the Sunsphere for a selfie in front of the city’s golden-crowned monument. Get a feel for the people and culture of East Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains at the East Tennessee History Center downtown, then hit the road, following US-441 south toward the mountain towns (and tourist meccas) of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Have lunch and check into a hotel in Gatlinburg, then backtrack to Pigeon Forge and spend the rest of the day at Dollywood.

The Sunsphere, a golden sphere structure in Knoxville, Tennessee.
World’s Fair Park Sunsphere in Knoxville. Photo © Melinda Fawver/123rf.

Day 2: Dollywood to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (44 miles; 2 hours)

Have breakfast at the Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg, then follow US-441 south two miles into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stopping at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up maps and park tips. Set up camp in the Elkmont Campground. Here, for a two-week window in the summer, one of only four colonies of synchronous fireflies in the United States puts on a dazzling show, so reserve your site early. Drive a loop around Cades Cove, which was once home to a mountain community. At the various buildings throughout the community, you can stop and hike, so pick up a map at the visitor center, select a couple of hikes, and hit the trail. Wildlife viewing is awesome here, with massive herds of deer and black bears playing in the boughs of apple trees. Good dinner options are located in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Day 3: Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Cherokee (47 miles; 1.5 hours)

After breakfast, begin your cross-park drive via Newfound Gap Road. You’ll find trailheads all along this twisting mountain road, but for a hike with impressive views, save yourself for Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee and GSMNP. You’ll see signs for Clingmans Dome as Newfound Gap Road crests the Smokies. Head down this spur road to “climb” to the top (the summit is accessible via a walkway and concrete observation platform, not much of a climb) for jaw-dropping views. From here, a 1.75-mile trail leads to Andrews Bald, the highest such meadow in the park. In summer, the trail is bombarded with flame azalea and rhododendron.

The Clingman's Dome observation platform at dusk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Clingman’s Dome observatory lookout in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo © Sean Pavone/123rf.

After hiking to Andrews Bald, get back to Newfound Gap Road and descend into North Carolina and the town of Cherokee. Browse the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, then stop in at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian across the street or Oconaluftee Indian Village just up the hill. Spend the night at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino or opt for a campground or nearby chain hotel.

Day 4: Cherokee to Bryson City and Cataloochee (69 miles; 2 hours)

Try your hand at the nickel slots on your way out of Harrah’s (you never know) before stopping at Granny’s Kitchen for a country breakfast buffet. Your next stop is the nearby town of Bryson City for a mountainside ride aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. You can pair your train ride with a little white-water rafting or zip-lining, or you can keep it tame and simply enjoy the scenery.

Backtrack to Cherokee and hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today, you’ll traverse 25 miles of the Parkway, including some of the road’s most rugged mountains and impressive overlooks. After following the Parkway for a short ways, exit onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway (US-441) and head north toward Waynesville, where you can grab lunch before connecting with I-40 and making your way to the beautiful Cataloochee Campground on the North Carolina side of GSMNP. Cataloochee is another former mountain community, but this one has a few residents: elk. Cataloochee is a prime spot to see them. Be sure to bring in something to cook; it’s a bit of a drive back out for dinner.

An elk bull stands in the grass.
An elk in the Great Smoky Mountains. Elk were reintroduced in the Great Smoky Mountains from herds thriving along Kentucky’s eastern border.

Day 5: Cataloochee to Knoxville (96 miles; 2 hours)

If you missed the elk last night, get up early and watch the tree line at the edge of the fields. You’ll see them eating their way around the perimeter. Take a little time this morning to check out the haunting and picturesque old church and hike among the other structures in Cataloochee.

When it’s time to leave, I-40 will carry you right back into Knoxville in time to get lunch at Stock & Barrel, The Tomato Head, or any other restaurant on Knoxville’s Market Square.

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