GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, TENNESSEE
Out & Back
Congress authorized the Foothills Parkway as a scenic drive to provide magnificent views into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located in East Tennessee, 31 miles of the roadway are open as of 2020. The Foothills Parkway route is 63 miles and 8000 feet of climbing if ridden end to end as an out-and-back. Climbers will love it but even if you don’t have the legs for the whole route then at least do the newly constructed eastern section for its stunning views.
Of the seven federal scenic parkways, only the Foothills Parkway remains incomplete. Over 75 years since it was authorized, 31 miles of the proposed 72 mile roadway are open. Nonetheless, what is open is spectacular.
As a cycling route, the Foothills Parkway couldn’t be simpler. Start anywhere parking is available, ride whatever distance you want, turn around whenever you feel like it and ride back. There are no turns. It is an out-and-back route. Finding water and climbing are the biggest challenges.
As published, the route starts approximately half way between either end of the 31 mile long roadway. A small gravel parking area at the Walland entrance is a popular starting place and you may see other cyclists getting ready. Starting in the middle splits the route in half and your car can be used for refueling/resupply. The map below tackles the western side of the parkway first, followed by more scenic eastern section. Climbing begins almost immediately from the start. Elevation gain is a whopping 8000+ feet for those who choose to ride the entire thing in both directions. The route is adaptable to rides of any length however, as there are literally dozens of parking turn-outs all along the route. Take your pick.
The parkway is part of the national park system and there are no stores directly on the route. A store is located just off the eastern end of the parkway in Wears Valley. Lamar Alexander Parkway’s wide shoulder leads to another store about a mile north of the route start. There are zero services on the western end but there is a nice view of the Tennessee River.
Of the currently open 31 miles, the “Old” western section from the west entrance to Walland has been in use since 1968. The “New” section from Walland to Wears Valley was opened in 2019 and is much more interesting. If you don’t have the time or legs to ride the whole route then opt for the eastern “New Parkway.” If you ride the western “Old Parkway” then be sure to check out the Look Rock Viewing Platform located 1/4 mile up a narrow, gated road at mile 9.2 on the map.
East Tennessee has a thriving road riding scene and the Foothills Parkway has quickly become very popular. Seventeen riders were passed on a Thursday afternoon in April, 2020. Climbs are long but grades rarely go over 7% and are manageable with the right gearing. Descents feature horse-shoe curves which will test your nerve when taken at speed. The views however, are why people come and they are simply stunning.
- The Foothills Parkway is national park land, administered by the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. You will be on federal property when on the parkway and federal laws apply.
- It's a good idea to run both front and rear conspicuity lights.
- Park at the Walland entrance off Larmar Alexander Highway (Hwy 321)
- There are turnouts all along the parkway which can be used to shorten the route or for alternate start locations as desired.
- There is no water and zero services directly on the parkway. Nada. Zip. Zilch. The only stores near the parkway are just of the exit at the eastern end in Wears Valley and one mile north of the ride start in Walland.