Breathtaking views, dozens of hiking trails, and a string of beautiful recreation areas make the Blue Ridge Parkway the most popular units of the entire National Park Service. Over 16 million explored its 469 miles of blacktop in 2017 alone! Unknown to most of these visitors, there are actually nine other parkways in the system. While five of these are little more than congested urban highways in the Washington, D.C. area, the remaining are more scenic in nature and usually serve to connect larger national parks together. Williamsburg’s Colonial Parkway provides an easy route between the three historic parks that preserve our nation’s oldest settlements. Rather short at only twenty-seven miles, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway fulfills its purpose to connect Yellowstone with its southern neighbor, Grand Teton National Park. Natchez Trace Parkway begins just south of Nashville and follows its namesake trail deep into Mississippi; it is the second-longest at 444 miles.
Foothills Parkway is probably the most unique of these scenic drives, as it currently consists of three unconnected segments. In addition, it isn’t considered to be its own unit, but instead is included as a portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Originally authorized by Congress in 1944, the parkway originally came about due to a bit of jealousy on the part of Tennessee residents. More than a few people were upset when the Blue Ridge Parkway’s route was finalized since it didn’t venture through the Volunteer State. Years of pressure from Congressman B. Carroll Reece finally caused Congress to allow a second, smaller parkway to be developed that would serve to showcase the national park’s iconic peaks from a distance. Construction of the roadway wouldn’t begin for some time, as thousands of acres needed to be purchased across a seventy-mile swath of the Smokies’ foothills. 1960 would see the first signs of construction atop Chilhowee Mountain.
By 1968, the first three segments of the parkway opened to visitors. Segment A begins at I-40 and ventures across English Mountain, while Segments G and H traverse the long ridgecrest of Chilhowee Mountain before descending to U.S. 129. Totaling twenty-six miles, these segments were all that consisted of the parkway for several decades. Later construction would include a section of U.S. 441 just north of Gatlinburg as well as the Gatlinburg Bypass, easing traffic congestion heading into the main entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The next section of the main parkway between Walland and Wears Valley would prove difficult, first due to budget cuts and later due to construction difficulties. When work finally began again in mid 80’s, engineers had trouble getting the roadway across the extremely steep terrain of Carr Mountain just north of Townsend. This led to a short 1.6-mile segment that would become known as the “Missing Link.”
It would take almost twenty years, from 1999 until 2018, for crews to build the intricate series of bridges that would span this gap. November 10th of this year finally saw the opening of segments F and E, giving motorists an additional sixteen miles of roadway to explore. Recently we were able to make it there ourselves during the peak of fall foliage, which for the foothills falls almost a full month after the leaves have reached their zenith in the Smokies’ higher elevations.
We started at Walland and traveled east on the parkway towards Wears Valley. Immediately after crossing Little River, the roadway begins a sharp climb to the top of Bates Mountain. The very first pullover offers a fantastic view of the Little River valley and U.S. 321 far below, wiggling its way beside the river. Bates Mountain is fairly level and the next few miles feel very similar to Chilhowee Mountain. There are several overlooks that look toward the national park, but the best views are yet to come.
After descending to cross a valley, the road steepens considerably as it nears the former “Missing Link.” While it might have given many an engineer a headache, this is by far the most beautiful portion of the Foothills Parkway. Views rival that of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as Mount LeConte, Cove Mountain, and Thunderhead all crowd the horizon. Sidewalks and large shoulders encourage visitors to get out of their cars and walk this spectacular portion, including the newly-constructed viaduct. Similar to the Blue Ridge Parkways’ iconic Lynn Cove Viaduct, this elevated roadway soars above the slopes to protect the fragile ecosystems clinging to the mountainside.
From this point on, the parkway gradually descends. Great views look out over Wears Valley and across to the towering slopes of Round Top and Cove Mountain on the other side. It all ends too soon we must exit onto Wears Valley Road.
Visitors need to understand that while the roadwork is completed, visitor amenities are still absent on this portion. There are no restrooms, trails, or campgrounds, but that will hopefully change soon. In addition, construction might begin on the next section sooner than one might think. According to a statement released by the National Park Service, environmental impact studies are already beginning. $20 million in funding will need to be secured in order to build section D. This will continue across Wears Valley and over Cove Mountain in order to connect with U.S. 441 just south of Pigeon Forge.