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.
Is there camping (legal public land) on any of the sections on this route if someone wanted to do it as an easy overnight or part of a longer trip?
Hi Justin. Yes, there are two campsites I’m aware of on the route.
The first is the aptly named Mile High Campground located at mile 11.5. This is also the highest point on the route. It is a private campground. Some of the sites have spectacular views! See https://milehighcampground.com/.
The second is Balsam Mountain Campground located near the summit of Balsam Mountain. Turn left at up the spur road at mile 19.3 and you’ll ride right into it. I believe this is run by the National Park Service. It is closed in Winter. See https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/273848.
I’m not sure if wild camping is allowed anywhere. There may be other legal campgrounds but these are the places I’m aware of.
I rode this right before Thanksgiving and it was an epic route. Prior to the ride at the visitors’ center, a park employee commented on my bike and we chatted about the route I was going on. When I got to the BRP, the gate was closed, so I assumed that meant it was only for cars, since the park employee never mentioned the BRP being closed to bikes when I talked with him. Riding up the BRP alone was pretty awesome, the views were spectacular because the leaves were off the trees. The BIA “highway” was steep and challenging after all the climbing on the uphill. The Heintooga Ridge descent was a fun reward. With the BRP closed and Heintooga Round Bottom gated, I didn’t see another car or person until about 30 – 35 miles in, which was a bit disconcerting, but I was well prepared with plenty of water, snacks, and tools as well as proper cold weather gear. Heintooga Round Bottom road was fantastic, as noted pedaling is optional and in the winter months be prepared with a windproof outer layer.
I plan to try this route this coming Spring. I’ve done climbs before, but this would be my biggest. Anyone have thoughts about the route described by this page, which climbs on the Parkway, vs. this route https://ridewithgps.com/routes/32739215, which climbs on the gravel Bunches Creek Rd instead?
I’ve ridden Bunches Creek up through Big Witch Gap (basically the route you refer to). It’s really steep, but mostly ridable.
The BRP climb that kicks off the first 8 or so miles of the ride is relatively easy, with reasonable grades the whole way through. I found myself a bit tired by the turn onto BIA Highway 407, and then hit my hardest point in the ride when my fatigue was met with the ride’s steepest climbs. That stretch of gravel between the BRP and Heintooga Ridge Rd is no joke. Once you hit Heintooga Ridge Rd, you get a bit of respite with your first descent of the day. From there, the whole ride really is quite easy. You climb very gradually until reaching gravel, and then the descent is truly to die for. I rode it today (12/17) and would highly recommend a winter ride. I rode for at least 20 miles without seeing another person, and long stretches of roads were closed to cars for winter. As one other commenter noted, there are a fair number of downed trees on the gravel road during the offseason, so just keep an eye out and don’t get out of control with speed around the corners. Highly recommended route.
Hit this route last weekend. Leaves were at their peak color. Roads inside of Smoky Mtn Park were closed to vehicle traffic. I definitely recommend this route and especially this time of year. The descent of Heintooga Rd is pretty rough for my 38’s and a little scary covered in leaves! Once at the bottom the views more than make up for the work. Get there if at all possible. I had to take time off work to make it this time of year and I’m so glad I did. Thanks for logging this route.
A friend and I just did this route as a two-day bikepacking venture. It would be a perfect single-day ride but we were interested in giving our fully loaded bikepacking rigs a good climbing test, which the first 12 miles definitely is. What a beautiful route, though! Overnighting at Balsam Mountain Campground (seasonal, requires reservation) worked well. We were pleased to discover that the descent had zero sketchy parts – even with loaded rigs – the grade and surfaces were very manageable the whole way down. Note that we were tempted to check out an intriguing loop of road on the map along the way down, but the camp host advised us not to do so to avoid infringing on Cherokee tribal privacy – so we stuck to this posted route down which drew no objections. The lower leg following the creek was indeed really wonderful. Thanks to this site’s staff for providing such a helpful and well documented source for fantastic rides across the southeast!
This is an absolutely spectacular route! Rode it in the winter counter clockwise when Heintooga was closed to cars (a fair number of trees down to) but the gravel sections are simply unbelievable. Riding along the creek with no one around … such as good ride.
Craig, the word “Spectacular” doesn’t even seem to do justice. The route was scouted 10/12 while the leaves were turning as seen in the photos. Even so, I’m envious that you climbed gravel and descended through the tunnels! I was wondering if it could be done this way and am sitting at my desk super stoked at the thought of going back. Thanks for the information!!!