Over the Smokies

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series US441
Abandoned roadbed of the old US441/Newfound Gap Road
Abandoned roadbed of the old US441/Newfound Gap Road. Photo by David Haas, 1996

One of the spots I’m sure to get to is Newfound Gap, the point where US441 crossed the main ridge of the Smoky Mountains and the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. I visited there many times as a child, and my parents did the same long before I was born. For the most part, US441 in the park follows the old road, which followed the old Cherokee trail, coming out of Gatlinburg, but just before where the famed “Loop” — built to replace a pair severe switchbacks — is now, the old road went almost due south along a stream called Road Prong, eventually crossing at uncreatively named Indian Gap.

The Cherokee were quite fond of taking the shortest route possible, so they didn’t do too much switchbacking, preferring to climb more or less straight up and then straight down the mountains, a knack the white folk never seemed to get. There were and are numerous trails through the mountains — some of them preserved as Forest Service roads — and William Thomas, a white guy who was adopted by the Cherokee peace chief, picked the Indian Gap trail to widen so settlers down below could easier access saltpeter mines on Mont LeConte in Tennessee. And it was a toll road!

But after a Swiss geographer found another, lower gap over the mountains in the late 1800s, a new road, incorporating all those switchbacks and hairpin curves the settlers seemed to prefer, was built on the North Carolina side. That, of course, predicated a new road on the Tennessee side, with all the requisite turns that met up with the older road at Road Prong.

That new gap, by the way, got an equally uncreative name — Newfound Gap, because, y’know, it was new found.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 4.31.53 PMAnd so it stood, for the most part, until the late 1900s, when a new and gleaming US441 was built along Thomas Ridge, high above the older road that followed Beech Flats Prong. The old road has largely been taken over by vegetation, but it’s still accessible from some parts, including right off the Newfound Gap parking lot where it’s always been.

The road to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, passes just below Indian Gap a mile and a half from Newfound Gap, and the Appalachian Trail goes through it. The Road Prong Trail follows traces of the old road down into Tennessee from there.

So yeah, I’ll get back up there and visit some of those old roads, but the trip will be planned carefully. It’s many a day now that the 35 miles of US441 between Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg are bumper-to-bumper. So I’m thinking one day in the middle of the week, and not in the fall, would be ideal.

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