The most spectacular drives in the tri-state area take in the western mountains of North Carolina. The city of Asheville, the most cultural and beautiful of North Carolina, can be your gateway. The major attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but you can also take some of the grand scenic tours of the South, especially a trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway and a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Day 1: Asheville
Noted for its eclectic architecture, Asheville lies 115 miles west of Charlotte. Many visitors prefer to make it their vacation center for touring the Blue Ridge Mountains; it is also the city closest to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Asheville's major attraction is the Biltmore Estate, the former country mansion of the Vanderbilts (allow at least 2 hr.). You can also spend an hour or so shopping in Biltmore Village. You can visit the memorials to Asheville's famous literary star, novelist Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel fame. Overnight here at the best accommodations in the mountains.
Day 2: Cherokee
On the morning of Day 2, it's only a 48-mile drive southwest to Cherokee, which can be your actual entrance into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Follow I-40 west out of Asheville, detouring onto Route 19 for the final run west into Cherokee. Here you can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. That night, attend the most popular outdoor drama in America, Unto These Hills. Overnight in Cherokee.
Day 3: The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
While still based in Cherokee, you can head west on Day 3 along Route 19 to Bryson City to board the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. (Cherokee to Bryson City is only 11 miles.) It's the greatest train ride in all the South, crossing 53 miles of track and going across 25 bridges. Most tours take 4 1/2 hours. Considering driving time from Cherokee and lunch breaks, allow the better part of a day for this fascinating journey into nostalgia. Return to Cherokee for the night.
Days 4 & 5: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
On the morning of Day 4, head northwest along Route 441 in the heart of the park, detouring to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, at 6,642 feet. It's signposted. A secondary road leads to a parking lot, a distance of 7 miles. From here, you can climb the half-mile to the greatest viewing platform in the park.
Return to the main road (441) and continue northwest to Newfound Gap, the center of the park. After stopping to take in the views, continue up the road for another stop at the twin peaks of Chimney Tops. Route 441 continues to the northwest for a final stopover at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. For accommodations for the night, consider driving the short distance into Gatlinburg across the border in Tennessee, which has the area's widest range of accommodations, especially in the budget category.
On Day 5, leave Gatlinburg in the morning, continuing west on Route 321 until you see the turnoff for Cades Cove, which is reached by following Little River Road into the cove. After touring the 11-mile Cades Cove loop, you can see more of the park by following a series of winding roads that cut south through the western scenery of the park, leading you past Fontana Dam into Fontana Village, found along Route 28 on the southern rim of the park.
After stopping for refueling and a snack, head east to the town of Dillsboro, which has some of the best accommodations in the area. From Fontana Village to Dillsboro, a distance of 46 miles, go east on Route 28 but turn left onto U.S. 74 at the junction. Continue along until you reach U.S. 23 and U.S. 441, which will take you into Dillsboro (just follow the signs).
Day 6: The Blue Ridge Parkway
Part of the National Park Service, the Blue Ridge Parkway, traversing five counties of the High Country, is the greatest scenic ride in the entire South. It actually begins at Rockfish Gap between Charlottesville and Waynesboro in Virginia, stretching for some 469 miles. Many visitors travel the entire length. If you don't have a generous amount of time, you can join the parkway after a night in Dillsboro. You can spend a day if you travel leisurely with stopovers along the parkway, reaching the Boone/Blowing Rock area in the late afternoon. From Dillsboro, head east along Route 23 until you reach the entrance to the parkway. Get on this scenic route and travel it all the way to Blowing Rock, a distance of 142 miles to the northeast. It's one of the drives of a lifetime.
Overnight in Blowing Rock, Boone, or Banner Elk.
Day 7: Blowing Rock, Boone & Banner Elk
These scenic towns lie close to one another, so you can easily explore them all in 1 day. If you began the morning at Blowing Rock, you can see the fabled rock itself, enjoying panoramic views from its observation tower. Take Route 321 north to Boone, which lies in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you're traveling with kids, stop at the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park along the way.
The distance between Boone and Blowing Rock is 8 miles. At Boone, explore the Daniel Boone Native Garden and the Hickory Ridge Homestead Museum.
After Boone, drive along N.C. 194 to Banner Elk, a distance of 17 miles from Boone. Here you'll find one of the highlights of the trip, a visit to Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak in the Blue Ridge.
And that's it. For those with more time, the highlights of Georgia loom on our fourth and final drive through the Old South.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.