Secret Smokies: An Insider’s Guide to Quiet, Back-Road Spots

The folks at the National Park Service point us in the right direction—away from where everyone else is

It used to be said that a squirrel could go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places in the country left with forests that dense. Chartered in 1934, the park, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, covers roughly 522,419 acres and attracts nearly ten million visitors each year. That’s two times as many as the Grand Canyon. So it can get plenty crowded, as anyone who’s ever sat in a 20-car-deep traffic jam on the Cades Cove Loop can attest. But even in the high-summer months, there are still places where you can enjoy the scenery in relative solitude. We talked to the folks at the National Park Service to point us in the right direction—away from where everyone else is.

photo: NPS

A welcome sign at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cosby Campground, via Highway 321
A favorite with locals, Cosby is only twenty-three miles from Gatlinburg, but you’d never know it for the isolation. Much of the drive along Highway 321 borders the park and there are a couple of excellent stops along the way—Greenbrier for its riverside picnic area and Albright Grove Loop trail, named for pioneering conservationist Horace Albright, where you can see some of the oldest and tallest trees in the Smokies. Once you arrive in Cosby, the out-of-the-way campground is hardly ever full and serves as an easy jumping off point for several nice relatively easy hikes, like Hen Wallow Falls. The terrain passes through a lush forest of hemlocks, poplars, and rhododendron thickets. More experienced outdoorsmen and -women can trek up all the way up to Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. If you prefer to continue by car, there’s a short stretch of the Foothills Parkway just a few miles further down 321, with fantastic views from several pull-offs.

photo: Kristina Plaas/NPS

Fern Branch Falls in Greenbrier.

Balsam Mountain Road
You have to be looking for this backcountry route on the North Carolina side of the park—it isn’t somewhere you’ll simply stumble upon. You can pick up the path near the southern entrance to the park, just north of Cherokee. There’s only a small picnic area and an overlook when you reach the top, but the view, one of the best in the Smokies, needs no dressing up.

The Road to Nowhere
Leaving Bryson City, North Carolina, head northwest on Everett Street, which eventually turns into Fontana Road—or the Road to Nowhere. This sleepy eight-mile stretch winds its way through some beautiful country with views of Fontana Lake before it dead-ends at a tunnel inside the park. The road was started in the 1930s as the fulfillment of a promise the federal government made to the displaced citizens of Swain County, when they gave up privately owned land for the creation of Fontana Lake. Temporary environmental issues halted its progress and construction never resumed. Though the road ends, if you want to continue on foot, there are several trails that are easily accessible.

Rich Mountain Road
One of the park’s loveliest and most remote drives, Rich Mountain Road is a one-way, eight-mile stretch that leaves the park from the extremely popular (read: traffic clogged) Cades Cove Loop. It’s an ideal spot come fall as the leaves turn brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow, but the quiet woodsy route is beautiful any time of year. Park officials recommend four-wheel drive if you want to tackle this rustic tract.

photo: Courtesy of Bob Carr/NPS

Cades Cove Loop Road.

Parsons Branch Road
This meandering valley drive, which can also be accessed near Cades Cove, looks its best in the spring and summer. With eighteen creek fords, you’ll want four-wheel drive on this one-way, dirt road, too. It takes about an hour to traverse its nearly ten miles, and there’s a good chance you’ll have it to yourself for the duration.

Courtesy of

Note: Black bear activity can be high this time of year so check with the Park Service for safety guidelines.