Plan Your Fall Foliage Journey on Tennessee’s Beautiful Byways
With a rumpled terrain and endless miles of appealing two-lane blacktop, East Tennessee is the perfect region for spectacular fall foliage driving tours. Perfect, as in picture-postcard perfect.
It’s time to let go of interstate driving habits, where motorists are hellbent on reaching their destination as quickly as possible. Slow down and enjoy the splendor of autumn.
Here is an invitation to cross over bridges spanning sun-dappled rivers and drive past cornfields and grazing cows, and cruise one-stoplight towns and history-laden cities.
East Tennessee’s roadways have received national and state recognition for their scenic beauty. This part of the state has two National Scenic Byways and the majority of the six Tennessee Scenic Byways. The Tennessee Scenic Highways are identified with signage of the Tennessee mockingbird.
Motorists on the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway move effortlessly through the centuries. They trace the path used by Cherokee warriors, follow the original Wilderness Road carved by pioneers across Clinch Mountain, and traverse the Dixie Highway used heavily in the Civil War era. The longer you stay in the area, the more it reveals itself. You will discover the boyhood home of Davy Crockett in Morristown and uncover moonshine secrets in the hollers of Cumberland Gap.
The Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway lets you drive above the clouds as you ascend into the deeply forested Southern Appalachian Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Departing from Tellico Plains, you drive along clear, burbling streams and may make a picnic stop at one of many lookout points along the winding roadway. The Cherohala Skyway goes from 800 feet in elevation to 5,300 feet, so this exhilarating experience will lead you to say I can’t believe my eyes.
If the Cherohala Skyway whets your desire to see more, then you are in luck. This part of East Tennessee, known as the Tennessee Overhill Region, also offers the Ocoee Scenic Byway. It unspools through a historic copper and coal mining area and features steep bluffs, rushing rivers and peaks shrouded in mist. The Hiwassee River Road, named after Tennessee’s first state scenic river, meanders through forest and farmland where deer and songbirds animate the timeless landscape. Opportunities for fly fishing, rafting, kayaking and hiking will make you trade your car keys for a fly rod, paddle, or walking stick.
This southeastern corner of Tennessee also features the Sequatchie Byway, or State Route 28, which follows the contours of the Sequatchie River for about 60 miles. You drive past a farmer riding a tractor across freshly mowed acreage, weathered barns looking across pumpkin patches, old-timers sitting on sagging front porches, wildflowers carpeting a meadow, and communities seeing little change in the last 100 years.
The Great Smoky Mountains Byway wends through the foothills and offers many gorgeous photo-ops of mountains thick in evergreens and hardwoods. It connects into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Vividly colored panoramas make it clear why this national park has millions of visitors every year. Traffic can be heavy during the fall foliage season, so to avoid congestion, stick to the country roads outside the park boundaries.
Gorgeous alternatives are the roadways lacing Northeastern Tennessee. Heritage sites punctuate U.S. Highway 11 E and, if you slow down to listen, sometimes the road sings — such as the stretch to Bristol, where country music was born. Music flows out of car windows, church doors and juke joints.
U.S. Highway 27 in Morgan and Scott counties bears the essence of Tennessee — white-frame churches, farm stands, quilt shops, antiques stores, and family-style restaurants. State Route 63 across Scott, Campbell and Claiborne counties rambles through a sparsely populated rural area.
East Tennessee has six themed regional trails for visitors eager to explore the heritage, culture, cuisine and recreation of a region. The themed trails are Pie in the Sky, Tanasi, Rocky Top, Top Secret, White Lightning, and Sunny Side. The trail website has complete driving directions, maps, details on interesting stops along the way, and links to recommended websites for major attractions.
You can put the leisure back into leisure travel by stopping overnight at country inns, bed and breakfast inns and farm stays. Descriptions of the accommodations are on the website of the Bed and Breakfast Association of Tennessee and Smoky Mountain Bed and Breakfast Association. For farm stays, check the Tennessee Department of Agriculture website.
To explore all of Tennessee’s Trails and Byways, head here.