Atlanta to Great Smoky Mountains Loop Road Trip

From big-city attractions to America's favorite national park and all the fascinating stops on the way.

Photo: Depositphotos

Wind your way on this hilly and curvy road trip from Atlanta’s big-city attractions to America’s favorite national park, Great Smoky Mountains. On the way you’ll stop at sites that made history and have Instagram-worthy views. Plus, you can check another drive off your bucket-list before reaching Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tenn., a great gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can do this trip on a long weekend, but we recommend you spend at least a week to make the most of this adventure at a leisurely pace.


Start: Atlanta, Ga.

Start your Atlanta to Great Smoky Mountains Loop Road Trip in the “Big Peach,” Atlanta, Ga.

Atlanta is a city full of culture, history, music and a burgeoning foodie scene.

Jump on the Peachtree Trolley for a 90-minute trolley ride through the heart of the city. Designed to be reminiscent of Atlanta’s transportation in the early 20th century, you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time – with the modern convenience of air conditioning of course.

World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta
World of Coca-Cola (Deposit Photos)

Next up, visit the World of Coca Cola. Here, you’ll get a tour of a bottling plant, which is slowed down to give visitors a better look at the process. You’ll learn about Coke’s history and cultural impact and taste their products from all around the world, the classics and new products that are being tested at the Taste It! area. Overwhelmed by choices? Fan favorites include Fanta Pineapple from Greece and Guaraná Kuat, a Brazilian drink that tastes similar to ginger ale with a hint of berry.

Atlanta played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement and was home to activist Martin Luther King Jr. Give yourself at least two hours to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. Tour the house where King was born and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he served as a reverend and pay your respects at his grave. Make sure to stop by Freedom Hall to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement before you continue your journey.

You’ll need to fuel up before hitting the road and in Atlanta, there’s no shortage of good food. In the South, declaring you’ve found Atlanta’s best barbeque amounts to fighting words. We won’t tell you B’s Cracklin’ BBQ is the best, but the out-the-door line speaks for itself. Pitmaster Bryan Furman raises the heritage-breed hogs he roasts over split oak and pecan logs himself. Make sure to try the Carolina Mustard Style BBQ Sauce B’s is famous for. It’s a sweet and tangy blend of mustard and, of course, Georgia peaches.

If barbeque isn’t your thing, head to Buford Highway, an eight-mile stretch of road near the city center that’s packed with more than 20 international communities serving dishes from around the world in restaurants and markets. Or, you could head to the original Waffle House which is located just outside of Atlanta in Avondale Estates. Just remember, while it may be called Waffle House, ordering hash browns is the pro move. Make sure to check the menu so you’re ordering in the correct lingo. Author’s choice? Scattered, covered and smothered.

Chattanooga and Lynchburg, Tenn.

Two hours north of Atlanta, you’ll find the charming town of Chattanooga, Tenn. which ranked in the “Top 52 Places to go” in the world by the New York Times in 2018.

Start by taking the Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain. This trolley-style train is the steepest passenger railway in the world at a 72.7% grade. At the top, you can get out and explore the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and learn about the area’s importance in the Civil War.

Civil war era cannon overlooking Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Point Park on Lookout Mountain
Civil war era cannon overlooks Chattanooga, Tenn., from Point Park on Lookout Mountain. (Photo by Depositphotos)

The beautiful Rock City Gardens also sits atop Lookout Mountain with incredible rock formations and over 400 species of native plants. From the 7 States Panoramic View, you can see Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Other fun attractions include a swinging bridge and a waterfall (pictured at top.)

A trip to Tennessee wouldn’t be complete without trying some Tennessee whiskey. Drive an hour and a half west to the town of Lynchburg to make the pilgrimage to the oldest distillery in the U.S.: the one and only Jack Daniels. There, you can take a tour, sample whiskey and pick up souvenirs at the Lynchburg General Hardware Store. Don’t forget to stop by Miss Mary Bobo’s for a bite to eat and a journey back through time led by a historian. If you’re not up for the Jack Daniels detour, don’t worry. Chattanooga has history-making whiskey as well. Did you know that until 2015, post-Prohibition laws limited distilling to only three counties in Tennessee? Hamilton County, where Chattanooga resides, was not one of them. Founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Co. Tim Piersant and Joe Ledbetter were instrumental in bringing back the historic practice of distilling in Chattanooga. Today, you can visit their distillery in the heart of the city, the first in over 100 years, to take a tour and taste the whiskey.

Spend the evening exploring Chattanooga’s beautiful scenery and vibrant foodie scene. Take a cruise down the Tennessee River on the Chattanooga Riverboat’s Southern Belle or stroll along the river’s banks on the Chattanooga Riverwalk.

Chattanooga riverboat
Chattanooga riverboat (Depositphotos)

If you’re looking for eclectic lodging, the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel is the place to call it a night. Named after the 1941 Glenn Miller song of the same name, the hotel is housed in the old Terminal Station. You can reserve a sleeper train car and feel as if you’ve been whisked back into the past.

Lobby of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel
Lobby of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. (Photo: Flickr/London Looks)


Athens, Tennessee's Eureka Trail in Autumn
Tennessee’s Eureka Trail in Autumn (Photo: City of Athens, TN)

7 Things to Do in Athens, Tennessee
Drive through Athens’ charming historic downtown and it’ll be hard not to stop. When you learn about the gorgeous trails, delicious eats and rich cultural heritage in this Tennessee town, you’ll want to spend a few days. These are our favorite things to do.

Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tenn. is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With the Dollywood theme park, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum and more, Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg is quite the tourist attraction, but don’t let the hullabaloo fool you. The area’s best feature is its natural beauty.

Scenic chairlift overlooking Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Get great views on the scenic chairlift overlooking Gatlinburg, Tenn. (iStock Photo)

Hop on the Ober Gatlinburg aerial tramway at Parkway and LeConte Streets and soar high above the treetops to see the beautiful vistas. Have lunch at the Seasons of Ober Restaurant for more great views.

When you research the Pigeon River, you’d think it was designed with all levels of white-water rafter in mind. The upper Pigeon offers an exhilarating Class III rapid trip, while the lower river is calmer, offering those who would rather take in the peaceful scenery than get their blood pumping, a chance to float gentle rapids and swim in calm swimming holes. There are several rafting companies based in Gatlinburg that offer trips on the Pigeon.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (iStock)

Adventure awaits in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Work your way through the park from Tennessee to North Carolina, stopping for your picks from our Top Things to Do list. Staying near the park for a couple of days? Here’s our plan for the best 48-Hours in Great Smoky.

Think Pink
When you board one of Pink Adventure Tours’ signature pink Jeep Wranglers, you’ll soak up more information than you thought possible on your Smoky Mountains tour. Catch a tour from Pigeon Forge.

Lake Fontana Dam and Marina

Fontana Lake follows the paths of the three mountain rivers that were flooded in 1944 — the Tuckaseigee, Nantahala, Little Tennessee.
Fontana Lake follows the paths of the three mountain rivers that were flooded in 1944 — the Tuckaseigee, Nantahala, Little Tennessee. (Photo by Charles Snodgrass courtesy of the Bryson City / Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce)

If you haven’t fallen in love with the Appalachian Mountains yet, this stop will have you convinced. An hour west of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Fontana Dam is part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and is the tallest dam east of the Rockies. It creates Fontana Reservoir, with over 200 miles of shoreline and 10,000 acres of water to explore.

Start at the Visitor Center and join a ranger-led tour from the observation deck to learn more about the surrounding area.

If those stellar views have you eager to hit the trails, consider checking out one of the world’s most famous hikes: the Appalachian Trail. While this through-hike stretches from Georgia to Maine and takes months to complete, you can get a taste of what drives these hikers by venturing as far as you like on the trail and then heading back to the dam.

If you’d rather find some solitude, catch a pontoon boat shuttle at the Fontana Village Marina and explore Fontana Lake’s North Shore, which isn’t accessible by motorized vehicle. Miles of pristine trails await, as well as excellent fishing.

Back at the Marina, rent a pontoon boat, canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard and explore the water. The Fontana Village Resort, home to the Marina, also offers a variety of lodging and dining options.

Drive the Tail of the Dragon

Tail of the Dragon Road near Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Drive the Tail of the Dragon Photo: Getty Images

You may want to opt for the rental car upgrade as this route includes a thrilling drive. The Tail of the Dragon on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line might just be the most exciting road you’ll ever drive. This adventure is not for the faint of heart. Eleven miles of tight curves, some with banked turns will leave you breathless. This road is a favorite of sports car enthusiasts and motorcyclists and has been featured on the British car show, Top Gear. Start at Cheoah Dam in Robbinsville, North Carolina and drive Hwy 129 north to Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. Cheoah Dam is home to “Fugitive Bridge” which was featured in the 1993 movie The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Stop at Deals Gap to stretch your legs before beginning the true Tail of the Dragon, Hwy 129 north to Tabcat Creek Bridge. There are no intersecting roads or driveways on this stretch of the highway and no semi-trucks are allowed, making it a drive without exterior distractions so you can keep your eyes on the road. Photographers may line the route, snapping photos of your vehicle on the road. Check out after your drive to see if you were featured and to purchase a copy of your photo.

Ocoee Country

Hiwassee River in Tennessee
Upper Hiwassee River (Photo: Courtesy of Polk County Chamber of Commerce)

The land in Southern Tennessee is crisscrossed by rivers, carving their way through gorges and around mountains. This area, known as Ocoee Country after its biggest river, is 60% national forest. It’s a remote and rural outdoor lover’s paradise with hiking trails, whitewater rafting and fishing galore. In between vast chunks of nature, charming small towns dot the landscape offering delicious food, local brews and unique lodging. Here are seven of our favorite things to do in and around towns like Benton, Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee.

End: Atlanta, Ga.