For a delightful Great Smoky Mountains National Park scenic side trip, drive to Balsam Mountain via Heintooga Ridge Road, which begins at Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 458.2, just 11 miles from the southern end of the Parkway. This will take you to Heintooga Round Bottom Road, where you can begin a 24-mile perfect road less traveled scenic mountain drive from the Maggie Valley area to Cherokee, North Carolina.
Plan your drive for late spring through early fall because Heintooga Ridge Road is usually open from late May through October.
For an excellent and detailed guide to the park, head to this guide to things to do in Smoky Mountain National Park.
Reaching Heintooga Round Bottom Road
The first four miles of the paved Heintooga Ridge Road are still within the Blue Ridge Parkway boundaries. There are several high-elevation overlooks along this stretch that look down on nearby mountain ridges. Take a few minutes to enjoy the views, which are quite marvelous no matter the season of the year.
Continue up the mountain and you’ll soon enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with another five miles to go until the end of the paved section. We saw a small herd of elk crossing the road as we neared the entrance to the park.
Along the way, you will pass Balsam Mountain Campground where campers enjoy backcountry fishing in the cool waters of the numerous streams and creeks that wind through the mountains. Fly fishing is particularly good during spring months when large numbers of aquatic insects hatch.
At about mile 9, you will come to the end of the paved road, where you will find a picnic area, the beautiful Heintooga Overlook, restrooms, and a decent amount of parking on the circular driveway.
Pro Tip: If you are over on the other side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and need a place to camp with excellent hiking trails nearby, the Cosby Campground is located just 30 minutes east of Gatlinburg in Cosby, TN.
Flat Creek Trail
If you are up for a five mile round trip hike before beginning your road less traveled journey, you’ll find the Flat Creek hiking trail near the picnic area. Shortly after beginning the trail, you’ll come to the Heintooga Overlook with two benches to relax on and enjoy the views of the Great Smoky Mountains. Continue on the trail through a beautiful high-elevation forest.
Heintooga Round Bottom Road
For an adventurous road-less-traveled drive, take the rustic forest drive on the Heintooga Round Bottom Road, beginning at the end of the paved road near the picnic area. The one lane gravel road runs north along Balsam Mountain before descending into Straight Fork Valley and emerging at the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Watch for wildlife, possibly even black bear running across the road. With around 1,500 bears living in the park, it is not uncommon for visitors to spot one.
The 14-mile Heintooga Round Bottom Road begins its curving route from an altitude of 5,335 feet and descends to about 2,000 feet.
If you are interested in more than a scenic drive, there are many hiking trails along the way, including Palmer Creek Trail, which descends into a beautiful forested valley.
Or, hike the Hemphill Bald Trail, which leads to Hemphill Bald, where you’ll find not only a nice shade tree but also a rustic picnic table and two restful benches. While on the bald, you can enjoy views of Max Patch, Roan Mountain, Mount Pisgah, Cold Mountain, Maggie Valley, Cataloochee ski area and much more.
As you drive, you will pass many beautiful mountain cascades. Very few cars travel this road and despite the rugged area, I found that most types of vehicles should be able to drive it successfully.
The road is sometimes rough and rocky so not suitable for RVs and trailers, however. We drove it without any issues in a Subaru Forester, so a 4WD is not required, but would most likely be quite fun.
Driving time will be about two hours to travel this route, which showcases the botanical diversity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with stands of beech and birch, as well as hemlocks, maples, and oaks.
A drive along this route would be spectacular in the fall with the color-changing leaves. Imagine an immersion in vibrant red, yellow, and orange color, with trees lining both sides of the road the entire way. Check for road closures though, to make sure the roads to get to Heintooga Round Bottom Road are open.
One-Way to Two-Way Road
Most of this drive is one-way with plenty of broader areas if you wish to pull off to enjoy the scenery or let faster moving cars pass. Just one car passed us the Sunday in mid-July when we drove the road.
At the large, flat area known as Round Bottom, the one-way road becomes two-way travel but there are plenty of places where vehicles can pass each other without issue. Signs warn drivers that the road is now two-way, so you’ll know when the change occurs.
The last few miles of the road less traveled adventure are my favorite since the remainder of the drive is alongside Straight Fork Creek, with a couple one-lane bridges and beautiful creek views. If you are a fisherman, there are plenty of places to stop and cast a line.
Since there are no road signs leading you to Cherokee at the end of the drive, continue until the dirt road becomes the paved Straight Fork Road, then turn left at the stop sign onto Big Cove Road. Travel about 10 miles on Big Cove Road and it will take you to the heart of Cherokee.
You’ll pass Mingo Falls near the end of Big Cove Road if you want to stop and hike the 0.4 mile trail to reach the falls.
You can easily make a full day of this road less traveled itinerary if you include a couple of photo stops, a picnic lunch, and maybe even some hiking or fishing.
Our entire day of travel from Maggie Valley, down Heintooga Round Bottom Road, and back to Maggie Valley was about 55 miles total.
If Asheville and the Biltmore Estate area is your home base, the Heintooga Round Bottom Road drive is only about 45 minutes away.
Have you ever driven down Heintooga Round Bottom Road? Do you want to? Let me know in a comment below!