Tennessee byways make perfect destination for family road trips

TML Communications Specialist

Tennesseans hoping for some summer adventure or even to find fall foliage need look no further the longstanding American tradition that is the family road trip.

Tennessee is home to 10 nationally designated scenic routes, putting it fourth on the list of states with the most designated American Byways running through it. The state saw the inclusion of five new routes in 2021 as part of the Reviving the America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019, which added 49 new routes to the national list.

Created in 1991, the America’s Byways system includes 184 routes in 48 states and include 15 All-American Roads and 34 National Scenic Byways. Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation have expressed their hopes that the announcement of these new road designations will encourage travel as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Scenic roads have always been popular with travelers, and support a wide array of businesses, too,” Federal Highway Administration Executive Director Tom Everett said. “Whether hotels, eateries, or gas stations, Scenic Byways and All-American Roads support the nation’s small business community and are economic drivers for entire regions.”

These 10 routes offer plenty to do in terms of outdoor adventure, history, heritage, and local color.

The Cherohala Skyway was christened in 1996 as a 43-mile route between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, N.C. The Tennessee section of the road is 35 miles starting in Tellico Plains and ending at Beech Gap on the state line. The name Cherohala is a combination of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests the road traverses. The skyway took more than $100 million and more than 30 years to construct because of the difficult path it takes through the Appalachian Mountains. When traveling the road, visitors will go from 900 feet below sea level along the Tellico River to a height of more than 5,400 feet above sea level near the state line. Along the way, visitors can stop off at a number of overlooks, picnic areas, and hiking trails that lead through old growth forests, to views of the surrounding mountains, and to cascading waterfalls.

Located in the historic gap in the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland Gap Historic Byway travels from the city of Celina to Harrogate at the Cumberland Gap at an average of 1,304 feet in altitude. When English explorer Dr. Thomas Walker mapped the area in 1750, it opened up travel west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlement and became the location of the Wilderness Road, an immigrant road that brought 200,000 settlers into Kentucky and Tennessee. The Cumberland Gap Historic Byway travels from Celina through Livingston, Byrdstown, Jamestown, Allardt, Rugby, Huntsville, Caryville, Jacksboro, and LaFollette as well as Standing Stone State Park on its way to the Kentucky border, where it ends at the Cumberland Gap Tunnel and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Travelers on this 144-mile route can retrace the steps taken by early settlers including Daniel Boone and the grandparents of Abraham Lincoln.

The route known as the East Tennessee Crossing Byway goes by several names, including Highway 25 East, State Route 32, and the Dixie Highway. This 83-mile route can also be picked up at the Cumberland Gap near Harrogate and traveled Southeast to the Cherokee National Forest. An ancient route that has been used since prehistoric times by paleolithic and Native American hunters as well as by early pioneers, the road was once known by early Tennesseans as the Cherokee Warriors’ Path. This was the favored route used for trading and hunting bison when they were still found wild in Tennessee. From Harrogate, the route passes through Tazewell, Bean Station, Morristown, White Pine, past Baneberry, and then through Newport before following the course of the French Broad River into the Cherokee National Forest and to the Tennessee state line.

One of the longest national byways when taken in its entirety from Louisiana to Minnesota, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the course of the Mississippi and traces the major influences the river itself and then roads connected to it had on American history. The Tennessee section of the route is nearly 180 miles and follows the curving course of the river from Memphis to Reelfoot Lake. Along the way, Tennessee’s section passes through Gilt Edge, Covington, Ripley, Halls, Gates, Ridgely, and Tiptonville. Additionally, the route passes through the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, Lower Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Pillow State Historic Park, the Moss Island State Wildlife Management Area, and Reelfoot Lake State Park.

Like the Cherhola Skyway, the Natchez Trace Parkway was established as a National Scenic Byway in 1996. The Tennessee section is part of a 444-mile recreational and scenic road that traces an important historic corridor in early American history, used by Native Americans, soldiers, slave traders, settlers, rivermen, and even future presidents. Created by Native Americans as a hunting trail, the growth of American settlement and the economic engine that was the Mississippi River bolstered the Natchez Trace into an early major American road. Those who had come south on the Mississippi River could not return upstream by boat and so would travel the trace back northward to connect with steam boats, stagecoach lines, and railroads. The Tennessee section starts near the Loveless Café in Nashville, traveling south through Collinwood, allowing visitors to stop off along the way at numerous sites and destinations, like the Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area and Laurel Hill Wildlife Management Area. The parkway is also a short distance from numerous cities including Franklin, Thompson’s Station, Fairview, Columbia, Mt. Pleasant, Hohenwald, Lawrenceburg, and Waynesboro.

Also known as U.S. 441, this route stretches through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, N.C., for 34 miles. The route crosses its namesake Newfound Gap, one of the major mountain passes located in the park and what was used by settlers as one of the main routes into Southern Appalachia. The route handles more than 5 million motorists annually and is the most traveled road in the park, offering stunning views and access to numerous hiking trails including the Appalachian Trail. At an elevation of 5,046 feet, the route is also one of the lowest elevations at which motorists can drive through the park. Researchers have said the diversity in ecology experienced from driving this one road is greater than a trip from Georgia to Maine.

As part of New Deal projects in the state of Tennessee, the Norris Freeway was constructed in 1934 initially as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s first hydroelectric project: the Norris Dam. The Norris Freeway was established when TVA found it needed a way to transport construction materials from what is now Rocky Top to the dam construction site as well as to better connect with its offices in Knoxville. Along the way, the need to house the dam workforce led to the creation of the city of Norris. When completed, the dam, roadway, an accompanying state park, and planned city of Norris were all dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The nearly 21-mile route takes visitors on a tour of what was one of the most ambitious New Deal projects.

Not only the oldest scenic byway in Tennessee but also the oldest scenic byway in the nation, the Ocoee Scenic Byway was officially established in 1988. A 26-mile scenic byway through the Cherokee National Forest beginning at the city of Cleveland and ending near Ducktown in Tennessee. Along the way, visitors can make stops to climb the Chilhowee Mountains, boating and fishing at Parksville Lake, or canoeing, rafting, and kayaking the Ocoee River, which was also the site of the Olympic canoe and kayak competitions for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The route follows what was known as the Old Copper Road, which was used in the 1850s for transporting copper mined in Tennessee’s Copper Basin in Ducktown and Copperhill to railroads in Cleveland.

A long, narrow valley passing between the Cumberland Plateau and Appalachian Mountains, the Sequatchie Valley follows the course of the Sequatchie River for 78.5 miles along Tennessee Highway 28. The route begins in Crossville, passing through the communities of Pikeville, Dunlap, and Whitwell, ending in Jasper. Additionally, the valley includes four state parks, two state natural areas, three state forests, TVA wildlife management and reservation areas, two National Natural Landmarks, and dozens of registered significant natural features. Stop-offs along the route allow visitors to spend time hiking, camping, picnicking, hunting, fishing, boating, bird watching, and wildlife viewing. The valley also highlights numerous aspects of Tennessee history including the Civil War, agriculture, African-American heritage, bluegrass, folk culture, and coal mining and iron making heritage.

While only around 18 of the more than 43 miles of the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway are located in Tennessee, the route along Tennessee 49 West/U.S. Route 79 takes visitors through some of the most beautiful areas of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Established in 1963, the recreation area is located between two lakes created by TVA New Deal dams: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Starting near Dover, the Tennessee area is well-known for serving as the Buffalo Trace, a route early American settlers and Native Americans took hunting the buffalo herds that once roamed the state. Later on, enslaved Africans were brought to work on iron furnaces on the site. The Tennessee side of the area is home to the 1850-style farm known as the Homeplace, which serves as a living museum. Known for its beautiful spring blooms and breathtaking fall foliage, the Woodlands Trace offers plenty of opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, boating and more.