If you're looking for an escape from the traffic on the more heavily-traveled roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, here's a great option for the fall color season, or for a late spring or summer drive next year: the Balsam Mountain Road.
This Great Escape does come with a few caveats.
First, you have to leave the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a few minutes to reach the beginning of this drive—but you won't give up a bit of scenery. Access to the road is via the Blue Ridge Parkway, near the southern entrance to the Smokies and just north of Cherokee, North Carolina.
Follow the Parkway north for about ten miles, and take the spur road near milepost 458 at the sign for the Balsam Mountain Campground. This road has recently been repaved, has some fine scenic pullouts, and follows the top of the ridge at about 5,000 feet for eight miles to entrance of the Balsam Mountain Campground.
My wife and I took this drive at the end of September, and it was a delight. We saw several flocks of wild turkeys, enjoyed a serenade by a bugling elk at a pullout, and sampled some early fall color, which should be in fine form right about now.
The pavement ends about a mile beyond the campground, at the Heintooga Picnic Area and Overlook, but the best part of the adventure lies ahead. The picnic area and campground were scheduled to close for the season on October 10, another indication that this area isn't in the mainstream of visitor traffic in the Smokies.
A gravel road leads into the forest at the end of the blacktop and invites you to try the real backroads section of this drive. We enjoyed our recent excursion, but before you decide to follow suit, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, don't wait too long for a fall trip. The road is open for the season only through October 31, and won't reopen until mid-May next year.
Next, if you're on a tight schedule and determined to cover as many miles as possible in a day, this isn't the trip for you, so turn around and head back to the Parkway or the main roads in the Smokies.
Two signs near the entrance gate explain that advice, and provide an accurate summary of what lies ahead if you decide to continue your byways adventure.
One notes that the speed limit is 15 miles per hour, and that's an accurate maximum. The unpaved road is in good shape, but you'll want to slow down for some bumpy spots and a few exposed rocks, so this will be a leisurely drive.
The second reads "Heintooga Round Bottom Road - unimproved primitive access, one-way, no reentry, Cherokee 28 miles, Passenger Vehicles Only."
That pretty well sums it up. Once you start this drive, you're committed, and it's literally all downhill from here. "Passenger vehicles" means your sedan, pickup or SUV is fine, but this isn't the trip for your RV. The park website notes, "Buses, trailers and motor homes are prohibited."
Your speed will also be determined by that of any drivers ahead of you. There are occasional wide spots where slower vehicles could pull over to let others pass, and those same places offer a spot to stop for a picnic or photo op. Our trip, on a late September Friday, was ahead of the peak fall color season, and we had the road almost entirely to ourselves.
The route is heavily wooded, so although there are a few nice vistas, distant views are often hidden by the vegetation. That forest cover makes this a good drive to spot wildlife; we saw wild turkeys, several grouse and a variety of smaller birds. As we eased over to a "pullout" in early afternoon, a barred owl swooped down, perched in a tree only 20 feet away, and watched calmly while we sat in our vehicle and enjoyed a snack.
According to information on the park website, the first 18 miles of this road are unpaved, and near the end of the gravel stretch, the route follows a lovely mountain stream. You'll hit the blacktop once the terrain levels out, and then have about 10 miles of pavement back into Cherokee.
Information on the park website says it takes about an hour to make the trip down the road and back to Cherokee … but you'll need more time if you observe the 15 m.p.h. speed limit and avoid some wear and tear on your vehicle's suspension! We weren't in a hurry, stopped often to enjoy the scenery, and took nearly three hours for the trip.
Signs are a bit scarce as you wind up the drive. When the paved final section of this road ends at a "T" intersection, turn left and you'll be on Big Cove Road, which will take you into Cherokee, North Carolina.
Finally, don't let the various names for the road confuse you—or your GPS. You may see the initial paved section from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Balsam Mountain Campground described as either the Balsam Mountain Road or the Heintooga Ridge Road. The sign at the beginning of the unpaved section refers to it as the "Heintooga Round Bottom Road."
No matter what you call it, it's the only road over this route, and it's well worth the drive … if you're willing to take the time to slow down and enjoy it.