Plan a Fall Road Trip: Knoxville to Asheville

If you love the leaves, hit the road to get a look at some of the Southeast’s colorful scenery.

Fall road trip iStock

Rising majestically from the mist, the mountains and forests along the Tennessee-North Carolina border entice travelers all year long. But fall is a special time to jump into the car and hit the roads to see natural beauty spilling down the Appalachian slopes—lush, verdant foliage morphing into earthy oranges, yellows and reds at every turn. Here’s a road trip that lets you see the entire colorful range. With some stops along the way, you can make it a multi-day getaway.

  • Distance: Approximately 140 miles
  • Time: Approximately 3.5 hours

Get your brakes checked. Much of the drive will take you down steep mountains, and it’s better to downshift—using your engine’s lower gears to control your speed—than put extreme wear on your brakes and possibly burn them out. You’ll want to be sure you have fresh brakes for when you really need them. AAA Members can get a free vehicle maintenance inspection at more than 7,000 AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities around the country, and arrange to make any repairs necessary.

It’s appropriate to launch a mountain driving tour here, as Knoxville’s residents led the charge to get the Smoky Mountains dedicated as a national park in 1940. Indeed, the city has a long-standing appreciation for visual beauty, and the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Tennessee campus is testament to that, with more than 200 Egyptian artifacts and high-quality decorative and fine arts as part of its collection. It’s a designated AAA GEM (“Great Experience for Members”).

  • Also: If basketball is your passion, head for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame , another AAA GEM, to see how the game has progressed since its 1892 roots. Be sure to check out the accomplishments of Pat Summitt, who coached the women’s team at nearby UT. Summitt, who died in June 2016, is history’s winningest college basketball coach—men or women.

From Knoxville, take Interstate 40 east to State Road 66. Take S.R. 66 south to U.S. Highway 441. Take U.S. 441 south to U.S. Highway 74. Take U.S. 74 east to I-40. Take I-40 east into Asheville. To break up the drive, check out the following along the way:

  • Gatlinburg is packed with attractions, amusements, gift shops and restaurants—the last commercial stronghold before the mountains. Dozens of hotels, B&Bs and cabins make this alpine-themed village a good overnight getaway. For an overview of the surrounding vistas, the Ober Gatlinburg recreation complex offers chairlift rides that take you high above it all.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s most visited. In addition to the splendid natural scenery you see while driving through, it’s worth exploring the areas within it. Cades Cove is a broad valley with the best opportunities for wildlife viewing. Clingman’s Dome is the park’s highest peak. Newfound Gap is the park’s largest pullout—and a great place to catch a sunrise.

The Smoky Mountains give way to the Blue Ridge Mountains, creating more chances for natural splendor, as part of the drive borders Nantahala National Forest. In the city, Biltmore Estate shares natural beauty that lingers. Completed in 1895, the 250-room French Renaissance chateau (filled with paintings, tapestries and other treasures) was a home for members of the Vanderbilt family—surrounded by 8,000 acres of lush gardens, vineyards, farmland and more. It’s also a AAA GEM attraction.

  • Also: Stroll around the compact downtown to see the city’s artistic spirit. It’s easy to find street-corner musicians in front of the studios of painters and potters who work in the River Arts District. The district consists of 22 former industrial and historic buildings spread along a one-mile stretch of the French Broad River—where you can easily spend a day visiting artists and grabbing a bite of local cuisine.

Find more tips and detailed information about driving through Tennessee and North Carolina, and visit AAA Drive Trips for more road trip ideas.

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