You can see some amazing scenery when driving from Knoxville to Gatlinburg. We drive this route often, and which way we go depends on if we’re in a hurry or looking for good scenery!
Here are the driving directions for three routes. The first is the fastest route. The other two are more scenic but longer.
Route Overview: Fastest Route
Next, you’ll have to make a stop at the world’s largest Bucc-ee’s gas station in Sevierville.
Then, 30 minutes and $50 in Buc-eee’s snacks later, go south through Pigeon Forge.
About 2/3rds of the way there, you’ll pass through Pigeon Forge. Depending on what time you are driving through (hopefully not a weekend), traffic can be prolonged moving through Pigeon Forge.
If so, Google Maps should offer a reroute option to avoid some of it and take Veterans Blvd to bypass some of it.
With this route, you’ll be on mostly open roads. But you’ll sacrifice some of the scenery of the scenic route we’ll look at below.
the Scenic Route: Scenic Detour Through Townsend
If you’re looking for a more scenic route from Knoxville to Gatlinburg, consider detouring through Townsend.
This is the route we usually take when looking for good views to show friends and family new to the area.
This route takes you south towards Maryville and Alcoa, entering the mountains around the small town of Walland..
This alternative route adds more time, but the views and small-town sights are worth the extra minutes spent on the road.
The views are unique throughout the year, including some great views whenever there’s snow on the mountain.
Head south from Knoxville on US-129 S, then take TN-73 E (Lamar Alexander Parkway) towards Townsend.
This drive takes you through the heart of Townsend, a quaint and peaceful town nestled at the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Above is the Apple Valley Cafe, one of the first stops in Townsend. It’s one of our kids favorites because of the great burgers and milkshakes. It’s even got a fun cow condiment dispenser.
The Abbey Restaurant is another great stop in Townsend. Built out of an old church, this is a great place for a lunch on the river:
The below picture was in March, before the leaves hadn’t grown back but the temperatures were still warm enough to enjoy an outdoor lunch!
During summer, there’s great river rafting on the river that runs through Townsend.
After you pass through Townsend, you’ll climb through some windy roads before ending up in Wears Valley, a picturesque valley with craft stores and wineries.
You’ll know you in Wears Valley after you pass several outdoor lots filled with wood-carving statues. Though this route is slightly shorter than the route we’ll look at below, it’s quicker, has sharp turns, and is less prone to snow closures.
Scenic Extension: The South Route from Townsend
After leaving Townsend, an even more scenic option is to head southeast.
You’ll pass the Townsend Wye swimming area below, then follow the river and climb some mountains, for most of the trip to Gatlinburg.
In the summer, cool off at the Townsend Wye, a popular swimming spot where the Little River and Middle Prong of the Little River converge.
The Wye is located where the road splits off to turn towards either Cades Cove or Gatlinburg.
This area offers cold, clear water, perfect for cooling off on a hot day.
Parking at Townsend Wye be busy, especially on a hot weekend day. Arriving early in the day or visiting on a weekday can increase your chances of finding a parking spot. Watch children always while swimming, as the water flow can be fast.
This is one of the most scenic ways to get there. However, if your family members tend to get car sick, be aware that this road has many turns and hills.
Also, whenever there’s snow, this route is likely to be closed. When we took the Google Maps screenshot above, it was the day after several inches of snow. And the road will be likely closed for several days.
It’s a beautiful drive, with a section that winds along the river before climbing back up the mountains toward Gatlinburg.
If you didn’t stop for lunch in Townsend, Metcalf Bottoms is also a great spot for a picnic lunch. There’s plenty of parking and picnic areas and places to climb down for a walk in the river.
Cades Cove is a great stop just off this route, one of the most scenic areas in the park. The loop around the valley is the perfect place to spot wildlife. On our first two trips to Cades Cove, we saw black bears both times.
Foothills Parkway Mountaintop Route
For some mountain-top views, take a detour before reaching Townsend to the Foothills Parkway. This new road is a breathtaking scenic drive that bypasses the town and takes you high into the mountains.
The map above takes you from Knoxville to the middle of Foothills Parkway. This location is labeled as ‘Foothills Parkway’ on Google Maps driving directions. You enter the ramp to the Parkway around Walland.
Add it to your directions as a multi step trip, or navigate to “Foothills Parkway”. This will take you to the middle of the parkway, with some nice overlooks.
From there, you must reset your Google Maps directions to Gatlinburg. As it’s a bit out of the way, Google Maps routes you around the Parkway if you try going directly to Gatlinburg from Knoxville.
The Foothills Parkway provides different overlooks with top-of-the-mountain views. This makes it an ideal spot for photo opportunities. The downside is you’ll miss the town of Townsend.
Tip: If we take family or friends to Gatlinburg for the first time, we’ll usually take the Foothills Parkway and Townsend the other way.
And if there’s low gray clouds, or if its raining, skip the Parkway. There won’t be any views, as you can see from our picture on one of our favorite lookouts:
Other Stops Along (and slightly out of the) Way
- Mt. LeConte – For the more adventurous families, consider hiking to the summit of Mt. LeConte. The mountain offers stunning views of the surrounding area. Keep in mind that this hike may be more challenging for younger children.
- Greenbrier Cove – Another hidden gem in the national park, Greenbrier Cove is a serene area with beautiful hiking trails.
Upon reaching Gatlinburg, you’ll find many fun activities and sights to explore. Read more on our Gatlinburg family vacation guide.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – Continued
Q: What is the shortest distance between Knoxville and Gatlinburg if I wanted to take a more direct route?
The shortest distance between Knoxville and Gatlinburg is approximately 27 miles (43 km) as the crow flies. However, there isn’t a direct route for vehicles that follows this straight line. You’ll still need to use the US-441 S (Newfound Gap Road) as the primary route.
Q: What’s the best time of the year to visit Gatlinburg?
A: Spring and fall are ideal for hiking and enjoying the park’s natural beauty. Summer is perfect for family activities and theme parks. Winter offers skiing and cozy evenings by the fire. Read more in our Gatlinburg by month guide.
Q: Are taxi services available from the Knoxville airport to Gatlinburg? Is there a ride-share option?
Yes, various taxi services, town car options, and rideshare apps are available for transportation from Knoxville airport to Gatlinburg. But, a rental car is strongly recommended because of the distance.
Q: Do you have any hotel recommendations in Gatlinburg?
A: Gatlinburg offers various accommodations, from many options to luxury hotels. Our favorite by far is the Margaritaville Resort. Some other popular choices include the Park Vista – a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel (which is a far away from Gatlinburg’s main attractions) and Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, which features an indoor water park. Be sure to book in advance, especially during peak travel seasons. We’ve had trouble finding last-minute hotels on the weekend.
A road trip from Knoxville to Gatlinburg offers beautiful landscapes. This is a chance to visit vibrant small towns and exciting attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains.