The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. Naturally, this makes the area notorious for heavy traffic. This is especially true around weekends, holidays, and during the peak of the autumn colors in the mountains.
I have been traveling in the area for over 30 years and was also a local for several years. I hate traffic, so I naturally looked for ways to avoid it. Here are my tips for not spending your vacation time sitting in traffic.
The Best Route From The North
The traditional way to reach Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to take exit 407 on Interstate 40. From the exit on the interstate to the entrance of the park, it is about 25 miles of traffic through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg.
Many people visit the area on the weekend, so traffic is usually heavier entering on Friday and exiting on Sunday. One simple tip to avoid traffic is to avoid these 2 days. I like to arrive on Sunday and leave before Friday to avoid the traffic altogether.
If you do enter the area from I-40, be sure to take 448 South when you are entering Sevierville. This will seem like the wrong way since there is a big sign with three lanes for 441 South to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. But this way will save you a ton of time.
At the next intersection, turn left on 441 North. Yes, North seems the wrong way to go, but trust me. Continue on 441 North for about a mile to Veterans Boulevard or highway 449 South. Highway 449 is essentially a bypass around Pigeon Forge. It is a divided four-lane highway, so you can make good time. It goes right by Dollywood and enters back onto 441 South on the southern end of Pigeon Forge.
If you want to stop by Margaritaville on the Island in Pigeon Forge, take Jake Thomas Drive. It leads to Teaster Lane which parallels the main road and goes right by the Island. Keep Teaster Lane in mind during your visit to Pigeon Forge; it is a great back-way around the busiest stretch of town.
If you want to just bypass Pigeon Forge altogether, take 449 South until it ends at 441 South. Make a left and you are on your way into Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg is also a heavy-traffic area, often worse than Pigeon Forge. Some people like to cruise through town to see and be seen. There are a ton of shops, restaurants, and attractions. If you have never been, I recommend a cruise through town at least once.
But if your main destination is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, take the Gatlinburg bypass just before you enter town. This is a scenic route that goes up the mountain around Gatlinburg. The bypass ends inside the park, totally bypassing town and traffic.
The Best Alternate Route
If you are visiting the area from the south or the west, I recommend avoiding entering from Interstate 40. Instead, navigate to Maryville, Tennessee, first. Maryville is easy to get to from I-40 or I-75 via Highway 321.
Have lunch in Maryville (I recommend Aubrey’s, you will drive right by it) and continue on 321 North towards Townsend. Where 321 turns to the left, keep going straight. The highway turns into 73 East here, but you don’t turn at all.
This road leads to the Townsend entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the entrance, heading right on Laurel Falls Road leads to Cades Cove, while heading left on Little River Gorge Road leads to Gatlinburg. This area is known as the Townsend Wye.
I really like taking this route to Gatlinburg because it goes through the park where there are no buildings or stop lights, just nature. The road follows the little river and there are even a few waterfalls you can see along the way.
This road ends up at the visitor center at the entrance of the park on the south side of Gatlinburg. If you want to head into the park, turn right, or if you want to head to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, turn left.
How To Avoid Traffic In Gatlinburg
If you are staying in or around Gatlinburg, getting from one side of town to the other can be a pain. On the weekends and around holidays and special events, trying to drive through town can take forever. If you want to explore town, finding parking can also be an issue.
If you are staying in a chalet around Gatlinburg, you are most likely on the mountain to the west of town. These are the best in the area and provide the quickest access to the park. But this area also provides a unique advantage to avoiding traffic.
Scenic Ober Mountain Tram
The main road up to Ober Mountain is Ski Mountain Road. This road starts at the entrance of the park at the south end of Gatlinburg and ends at the Ober Mountain Ski Park.
If you are staying in this area and want to explore Gatlinburg, go to Ober Mountain instead. Yes, go to the top of the mountain. Ober Mountain has an aerial tram that goes directly to the main road in Gatlinburg. You can park there and avoid traffic completely. Just be sure to check when they stop the tram at night, otherwise you will be calling an Uber for a ride back up the mountain.
The bypass is a great way to avoid traffic in Gatlinburg. But there is a little-known entrance/exit halfway around the bypass that is a great time-saver if you are staying anywhere west of town. On this route, you do not have to drive all the way down to Gatlinburg. You can use it to get to the park, Pigeon Forge, or the north end of Gatlinburg much quicker.
About halfway up the mountain on Ski Mountain Road, take Wiley Oakley Drive near the Chalet Village Market. The next intersection will look a little crazy. It is a four-way stop on a hill with Wiley Oakley Drive continuing on a switchback up and back to the left. Here, take a right on Campbell Lead Road.
Continue on Campbell Lead Road for about a mile. You will come to a stop sign seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This is easy to miss because the bypass is not well marked here. There will be a sign on your left that says “National Park” pointing to the right. Make a right here and just around a curve, you will come to the bypass. Make a left for the park or a right for Pigeon Forge.
Hidden Entrance To The Aquarium
Campbell Lead Road is not only a little-known entrance to the bypass but an even less-known way to the middle of Gatlinburg from the bypass or the chalets on the mountain west of town.
Take the same route to Campbell Lead Road I mentioned above, but at the stop sign in the middle of nowhere, keep going straight (or if you are coming from the bypass, make a right). This road is curvy and narrow in some places but goes right by the Skybridge over Gatlinburg and ends up at Ripley’s Aquarium. Note that about halfway down, it turns into Greystone Heights Road, but you can’t really tell. You can easily park in the parking garage behind the aquarium without sitting in any traffic at all!
Alternate Gatlinburg Bypass
If for some reason the bypass is closed or inaccessible, Wiley Oakley Drive is an alternative. This road is curvy with a bunch of switchbacks, but you can follow it from the Gatlinburg Welcome Center North of Gatlinburg all the way to Ski Mountain Road and then to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The entrance to this road from the Welcome Center is somewhat hidden. Enter the Visitor Center parking lot and stay to the left. At the back left corner of the parking lot, the road begins and continues up the mountain.
You have to pay attention to the road signs as you travel this route. There are a few intersections where Wiley Oakley continues to the left or right and not straight ahead as you would think.
The quickest way to Ski Mountain Road is to take Cliff Branch Road after you travel about 1.5 miles. Wiley Oakley makes a loop on the mountain and cuts off at the bottom of the loop. Cliff Branch leads to the crazy intersection I mentioned above and to Ski Mountain Road. From here, you can continue to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.