The Heintooga Ridge route climbs from the banks of the Oconaluftee River near Cherokee NC to over a mile high. The route passes through two of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s iconic tunnels before turning into the woods and entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A 17 mile descent on a one-way gravel road features shelf roads and long sections along rolling whitewater. This 47 mile mixed-surface route is unforgettable and worth the drive from anywhere in the South.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is unique in the world and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all the US national parks. The Heintooga Ridge route provides an amazing sample of both and is easily combined into a longer family excursion or group outdoor experience.
The route starts at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here you will find parking, restrooms and herds of elk in the early morning and late evening. A 0.6 mile gravel footpath along the Oconaluftee River leads to the Blue Ridge parkway. The path is heavily used by tourists and those such as the elderly and infirm who cannot hike more strenuous trails. Soft pedal and enjoy the scenery.
The Blue Ridge Parkway begins without much fanfare. The parkway is designed for passenger cars and grades rarely exceed 7% or 8% so heart rate is manageable with the right gearing. There are a few overlooks and one can hear creeks and small waterfalls just off the road as climbing continues for 7 miles. The route passes through two of the parkway’s 25 tunnels on the way up. Lights are required by the National Park Service and with good reason – the tunnels are very dark and a daybright blinky to warn motorists of your presence is highly recommended!
The course makes an abrupt left onto Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 407 after about eight miles. The black gravel “Highway” parallels the paved parkway and sections are steep. At times you can look down and see sedans on the parkway who’s occupants eat sandwiches without a clue as to what’s in the woods 50 feet away. The forest has an interesting character – it feels old with moss covered trees and occasional views to the north. Pay attention to your GPS on this gravel sector as there are numerous connector roads and it is easy to make a wrong turn. The route summit is reached at the aptly named Mile High Campground before dropping back down to pavement.
Heintooga Ridge Rd is nine miles of spectacular scenery including roadside waterfalls and the Mile High Overlook. It is here that you will enter Great Smoky Mountains National park and encounter the route’s first Balsam trees. Balsams thrive at higher elevations. They smell fantastic and taste the same. Yes, you read that right. Go ahead. Chew a few needles. They are not poisonous and are loaded with vitamin C. Survivalists and country folk know that pine needle tea is actually a thing.
Water and restrooms are available seasonally at the Balsam Mountain Campground and Heintooga Picnic Area at the end of pavement. Spigots will be dry from late fall to early spring and links on the Parking & Logistics tab below will have exact dates. Take a moment to walk up to the picnic area and look at the stone tables built 85 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC helped shape much of our national and state park systems and we owe these long gone men a debt of gratitude.
What follows is arguably one of the greatest gravel roads in all of the Southeast. Pedaling is optional for almost all 17 miles of Heintooga Round Bottom Rd. At the highest elevations it consists of one long shelf road. At lower elevations it parallels the Straight Fork which will be crashing whitewater after heavy rain. It’s middle sections are fast and challenging. The portion inside the National Park is one-way so either side of the road is yours. It just keeps giving until the last inch of gravel.
Paved Big Cove Rd then gives some more, gently descending pavement along the river almost all the way to the finish. Maps indicate a store stop near mile 40 but it is untested and with six miles to go you may opt to blow by and rehydrate back at the car. Water is plentiful on the route for those who choose to filter.
Keep in mind that portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway can be closed due to weather and Heintooga Ridge Rd is gated during the winter. Check the Parking & Logistics tab below for links to the necessary planning tools.
We’d love to hear about local conditions from anyone who rides the Heintooga Ridge route. Adding your experience to the comments section below will provide valuable information for those planning to give it a go.
- A herd of elk grazing as the sun sets against the mountains.
- Descending shelf roads through the national park.
- The smell of balsam trees.
- The whine of a Ferrari engine on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Witnessing to the joy of cycling as people ask, "Which way did you come?" and "How far you going today?"
- This is a eastern alpine environment where sudden weather changes and dramatic temperature differentials are a reality. In fall and spring you can start the ride sweating in a short sleeve jersey and be freezing mid-ride in warmers and gilet at the top of the mountain. Know the signs of hypothermia. Summer storms can pop up with little warning so respect the mountains and with a little planning you will have an amazing experience.
- Bring lights! Keep in mind that motorists on the parkway will be gawking. A bright rear blinky is a good idea in the dark tunnels completely apart from their requirement by the Nation Park Service. A front light will alert the rare motorists of your need to pass on the long gravel descent.
- Parking at the Oconaluftee Visitor's Center is free. The visitor's center has public restrooms.
- Alternate parking is one half mile from the end of the route at the elk viewing fields. The location is indicated on the map.
- The National Park Service sometimes closes sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway due to weather or other conditions. Check the Resources page for a link to the National Park Service real-time map for Blue Ridge Parkway status before heading out.
- Heintooga Ridge Rd will be gated seasonally. Check the National Park Service Seasonal Road Schedule page for exact dates.
- Balsam Mountain Campground and the Heintooga Picnic Area will have flush toilets and water but are not open year round. Check the Balsam Mountain Campground page at recreation.gov and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park picnic area page for exact dates. The water was turned off at both the campground and picnic area on Oct 12, 2020.
- The only possible store stops are near the end of the route. An untested store stop is indicated on the map at mile 40. Plan on self sufficiency.