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Exploring Tennessee Back Roads from Knoxville to Chattanooga

Experience the Great Smoky Mountains, Tuckaleechee Caverns and Appalachian culture along the way

road trip map of tennessee with destinations marked

Getty Images/AARP

This is a twisty, leisurely trip through Tennessee, with no more than six hours of driving over the five days, much of it along a zig-zagging, scenic route. You'll start in Knoxville, the lively home of the University of Tennessee, then head to the Great Smoky Mountains to explore Appalachian culture and tour the Tuckaleechee Caverns, meander along the scenic Cherohala Skyway, and end up in another cool little city, Chattanooga. You'll definitely need to override your smartphone map's GPS directions, because this is in no way a straight southwestward shot between the two towns. Note that from Chattanooga you're only about a two-hour drive either north to Nashville or south to Atlanta.

COVID-19 update

The unpredictability of the coronavirus means travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Be sure to check Tennessee's Department of Health website for updates before visiting from out of state, and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe travel.

Shops and farmers market stalls in Market Square, Knoxville, TN

Images-USA / Alamy Stock Photo

Market Street in Knoxville

Day 1: Knoxville

Encapsulated in less than one square mile, Knoxville's vibrant downtown showcases beautifully restored 18th-century buildings, murals capturing the spirit of the city and a variety of unique shops and art galleries, especially on Gay and Market streets. A standout among them, the Art Market Gallery on Gay, features impressive works by East Tennessee artisans, from original paintings to fine crafts. Bring your appetite, as more than 80 restaurants serve up dishes to please every taste and budget. Start the day by building your own biscuit from the BYOB menu at Biscuits & Brew. For lunch, a gourmet hot dog and craft beer from Curious Dog will keep you fueled.

Relics from the 1982 World's Fair, the towering Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater, anchor downtown's World's Fair Park, where wide, paved walking trails make social distancing easy. The trails connect to the Second Creek Greenway, which carves a peaceful tree-lined route down to the banks of the Tennessee River. When your feet need a break, hop on one of the free downtown trolleys for more sightseeing.

Where to stay: Bed down in luxury at the Oliver Hotel on Market Square after imbibing a cocktail at its cozy, tucked-away Peter Kern Library Bar, the city's only speakeasy.

Dancing Bear Lodge

Dancing Bear Lodge

Dancing Bear Lodge

Day 2: Knoxville to Townsend (30 miles)

Leaving the city behind, drive south to Townsend, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Known as the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” Townsend lies just 20 minutes from an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two galleries and 13 historic outbuildings honor Appalachian cultural legacy at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. Nearby, the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum provides insightful lessons on the logging industry in the mountains before the area became a national park.

Grab some lunch and road-trip snacks at the Apple Valley Mountain Village. Housed in a barnlike structure, this enormous store sells local artisan products, sportswear and collectibles. Build your own burger at the adjoining café, where 30 toppings vie for your attention and outdoor seating is available.

After lunch, tour the Tuckaleechee Caverns for a look under the Great Smoky Mountains. Highlights at the caverns, which date back an estimated 20 to 30 million years, include the Big Room — nearly the size of a football field — with stalagmites up to 24 feet tall, and Silver Falls, a 210-foot cascading waterfall. Keep in mind: The loop tour covers just over a mile and includes 400 stairs along the way.

Where to stay: Dancing Bear Lodge, a Smoky Mountains’ resort, offers rustic-chic accommodations in one- and two-bedroom cabins with fireplaces and hot tubs, plus a daily adventure basket filled with water, juice, fruit, yogurt and granola.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Cades Cove, a narrow valley near Townsend, Tennessee

Rick Lewis / Alamy Stock Photo

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Day 3: Townsend to Tellico Plains (65 miles)

Leaving Townsend, head out on 321 north to the Foothills Parkway. Your southbound drive along this easy two-lane road ascends the mountains with scenic overlooks and hiking trails along the way. Views to the left feature the misty Great Smoky Mountains while views to the right take in the rugged Cumberland Plateau flatlands. At the Look Rock scenic overlook, a moderate 0.9-mile round-trip hike along the Look Rock Tower Trail leads to an observation tower on the mountain summit. Views of the Smokies extend up to 40 miles on clear days and include Clingmans Dome inside the national park.

The parkway joins U.S. 129 at the Little Tennessee River. A short detour at U.S. 411 takes you to Fort Loudon State Park, where history buffs delight at the recreated British frontier fort — the only British-controlled fort conquered by Native Americans, in 1760.

When you arrive in the small mountain town of Tellico Plains, stop by the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center for information on the Skyway to prep for tomorrow's not-to-be-missed driving adventure. A fascinating collection of vintage photographs and historical artifacts at the adjoining Charles Hall Museum provide a glimpse into the region's history.

Where to stay: Join motorcycle enthusiasts at the Lodge of Tellico Plains, where rocking chairs adorn the front porch and rooms — located in four log-cabin-style houses — range from basic to premier.

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Part of the Cherohala Skyway, TN

JillLang/Getty Images

Cherohala Skyway

Day 4: Tellico Plains to Chattanooga via the Cherohala Skyway (178 miles)

Rise early and make a stop to pick up some fresh-baked sweet or savory pastries at Tellico Plains Bakery for your drive east along the Cherohala Skyway. Spanning 43 miles through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests, the picturesque winding mountain road connects Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Take your time and soak up the views from multiple scenic overlooks showcasing the dreamy, cloud-shrouded Blue Ridge Mountains. After the drive, refuel at the family-owned Lynn's Place in the heart of Robbinsville — a local favorite — for a tasty grilled burger on a toasted bun.

From Robbinsville, follow U.S. 74W toward Cleveland, Tennessee, for more eye-candy vistas as the road passes through a gorge along the Ocoee River. Whitewater abounds in the gorgeous river, which hosted the canoe and kayak slalom events in the 1996 Summer Olympics. A great place to stop and stretch your legs, the Ocoee Whitewater Center along the way houses a visitor center, gift shop, restrooms and a café.

In Chattanooga, celebrate your day of epic views with dinner on the outdoor terrace at the city's chic gastropub, Beast + Barrel, serving upscale pub fare paired with inventive cocktails, craft brews and wine.

Where to stay: Housed in a former railway station, the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo offers lodging in historic train cars-turned-hotel rooms.

Hunter Museum of American Art

Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Hunter Museum of American Art

Day 5: Chattanooga

Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga effortlessly blends outdoor pursuits, engaging history, intriguing art and a burgeoning dining scene into a tidy package.

Perched above the river, the Bluff View Arts District indulges art lovers with the Hunter Museum of American Art, housed in a multifaceted building that combines an early 20th-century mansion with contemporary steel and glass. Nearby, satisfy your lunchtime hunger alongside in-the-know locals at Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria (try the spinach and roasted garlic ravioli with a wild mushroom tomato sauce), then stroll through the River Gallery Sculpture Garden. Descend the bluff with a stroll along the Tennessee Riverwalk. An ideal place to escape crowds, the riverwalk winds alongside the river for 13 nature-filled miles between downtown and the Chickamauga Dam.

Spend the afternoon exploring one of Chattanooga's top attractions, the Tennessee Aquarium, where the River Journey follows the path of a single raindrop from the mountaintop to the river and ultimately into the ocean, showcasing the river creatures along the way. The Ocean Journey picks up with a look at life under the sea. Alternatively, conquer Lookout Mountain with a ride to the top aboard the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. Nearby, Point Park showcases the Civil War's “Battle Above the Clouds.” A leisurely walk through the quiet, uncrowded park leads to unsurpassed views of the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga below.

Come evening, toast your road trip at the Alchemy rooftop bar in the Westin Hotel with cocktails and hearty appetizers served with a hard-to-beat side of the sunset over the city.

Where to stay: Spend another night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo or, for a change of scenery, move to the Westin so you won't have far to go after your sunset cocktails.

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