I’m sure many of our regular readers remember our recent visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier this fall and have already taken in the beauty of America’s favorite drive for themselves. The Parkway, full of sweeping vistas and traversing the highest Appalachian peaks, is by far the most beautiful road east of the Rockies. It’s also the most crowded. Once again it is shaping up to garner the most visits of the entire national park system this year.
Plenty of you would no doubt be surprised if you knew that the parkway was at one point supposed to take an entirely different course that would have brought it through our own mountains along the state border. As the route was being established in the 1930s, Tennessee state leaders tried in vain to keep it from following the current path through Asheville and Cherokee, as they hoped for the state to benefit from the increased tourism and visitation it would bring to the region. Alas, it was not to be, but that did not stop some from dreaming up an alternative.
That substitute took the form of the Foothills Parkway, a much shorter version of its big brother that would serve to connect the communities that lay along the northern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park while also providing unparalleled views of the park’s highest peaks. Congress quickly approved the project in 1944. Prime land along the Smokies’ foothills was purchased over the next decade, and ground was finally broken in the 1960’s. The first three sections totaling twenty-two miles were completed fairly quickly.
Soon after, however, the fairly quick progress of the 60s came to a screeching halt. Several landslides and loose soil on the extremely steep mountainsides of the following section slowed construction significantly. It also didn’t help that huge budget cuts stripped the Park Service of almost all of the project’s necessary funding. For some time, no construction occurred at all. The culprit was the so-called “Missing Link.” In order to connect the next two sections of the parkway, 1.5 miles of treacherous mountainside would have to be traversed with an ornate system of bridges and backfill.
Funds have once again been granted for the project, and the cash has been freely flowing once again. One of the most interesting pieces of the road was just finished in 2013. Known as Bridge 2, the curving roadway is almost identical to the world-famous Lynn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seeming to float above the rocky slopes, the bridge was designed to minimize the impact on the delicate ecosystems that are found there. According to the National Park Service, the next seventeen-mile section between Walland and Wears Valley is slated to open around June of next year. Thirty-three miles of scenic beauty will then be available for motorists to enjoy.
Currently, there are two different sections of parkway that are open year round. Our personal favorite is the portion that traverses the crest of Chilhowee Mountain and passes by the western edge of the national park. Beginning at U.S. 129, a.k.a. “The Tail of the Dragon,” the parkway passes through the lower reaches of the pastoral community known as Happy Valley. Soon after it begins climbing the slopes of Chilhowee, and it’s here you will get your first spectacular view of the western Great Smoky Mountains. Overlooks are spaced out at convenient intervals, but don’t linger too long. The views only get better the farther you go up.
It won’t be long after you reach the ridge top that you’ll see what looks to be a fire tower on the mountain’s highest knob. This is in fact the Look Rock Observation Tower. Soon you’ll see a parking area on the right, and a walking trail crossing the road. If you would like to take in the one-of-a-kind views available from the tower, it’s only a short half mile climb to the summit along a paved walking trail. Once at the top, views of Thunderhead Mountain, Gregory Bald, and our beloved Rocky Top will take your breath away. Looking west, the wide open expanse of the Great Tennessee Valley stretches out in a panorama that seems to go on forever. On a clear day, you might even be able to see the faint outline of the Cumberland Plateau forty miles away.
Look Rock is the focal point of a recreation area that straddles this portion of the mountain. A ranger station is located here, as well as a small campground and a picnic area that overlooks the view of the Tennessee Valley. Once you’re rested up and have taken in all the sights, it’s time to continue further down the parkway. The next few miles are rather level and straight as the road slips from one side of the mountain to the other. If it weren’t for the stunning views that open up every half mile, it would be easy to forget that you were up two thousand feet on a mountaintop.
After one last overlook teases you to soak in the final views, the road begins drifting down the mountainside as it approaches Walland. Next year you’ll be able to continue across the Little River and then on up the slopes of Bates Mountain to soak in the vistas of the Tuckaleechee Cove, but for now this is where this portion of the parkway ends. An exit ramp leads to U.S. 321, where a right turn will take you into the National Park, or the next portion of the parkway farther on.
To complete the last little piece of the current roadway, we have to jump all the way over to Cosby. Starting off U.S. 321 just a few miles south of Newport, this portion traverses a portion of Cherokee National Forest and finally ends at an interchange with Interstate 40. The views this time cover the eastern portion of the park from Mount Cammerer to LeConte. While there aren’t any trails on this portion, the views from the overlooks are just as beautiful and make the trip to this portion well worth it.