During the height of the pandemic, the boys and I were desperate for places to go that felt adventurous and new but that were easy to get to and were, obviously, safe. One particular day, we were all a bit stir-crazy so we got in the car, grabbed some Chick-Fil-A and a picnic blanket and hit the road. The Foothills Parkway has been on my local-bucket list for a bit so we made our way that direction to check it out and get the wild-ones out of the house for awhile.
There are two areas of the Foothills Parkways – the small section from I-40 to Cosby, around 5 and a half miles, and then the 33 mile section from Wears Valley to US 129 at Chilhowhee Lake. There is a 33.5 mile section between the two finished areas that is yet to be completed or even started. It is, as the name implies, a scenic road that skirts between the Smoky Mountains and the Tenenssee Valley. On clear days, you can even see the Cumberland Mountains which are about 50 miles to the north, north-west.
The history of the Foothills Parkway is slightly bemusing. This roadway has been in development for around 75 years. My guess is that it will be a 100+ year project by the time it is completed as I can find no information that the unfinished section is in plans to be started.
I-40 to Cosby Section
Let’s start at the smaller I-40 to Cosby section of the road. You can start either at 1-40 or in Cosby. This is a small 5.5 mile stretch of the Parkway and it is, in all honesty, not my favorite part. There are only a few places to stop for views and no hikes. It is worth the drive, but probably not for a trip in-an-of itself.
View of the mountains:
View towards the TN valley:
The main reason to drive this part, I imagine, would be to visit the Cosby area. A mere 30 minute drive to the chaos of Galtinburg, Cosby is a small, quiet, unincorporated town situated on the doorstep to the National Park. A few restaurants – including Docs 3-2-1 Cafe which features ribs and a frivolous, carefree ambiance and a locally-famous apple orchard called Carver’s Orchard are just a few of the fun little stops as you explore this area. There is also a campground at Cosby that is a lesser known place to stay in the area. Other park campground tend to fill up fast but the Cosby Campground is a lesser known place to pitch a tent.
Wears Valley to US129
The larger section of the Foothill’s Parkway is a bit longer and, therefore, offers a bit more to see.
Starting in Wears Valley, make sure you stop and grab a coffee at the Mountain Chick Cafe. The coffee is good and the service is friendly and knowledgeable. You can also check out some local art at one of the several local shops, my favorite being For Artsake Gallery. They have beautiful, locally-made carvings, wall decor and handmade ceramics.
Wears Valley is a small, historic community with magnificent views of the mountains. It was first settled in the late 1700s and is definitely worth spending a few hours exploring. Close to Wears Valley are popular hiking and relaxing spots such a Metcalf Bottoms, Elkmont and the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse.
The Parkway from Wears Valley to US 129 has multiple overlooks.
The views are unparalleled and free of distractions.
Don’t be surprised to see couples taking engagement photos or wedding photos as you drive the parkway.
Before the end of the Parkway, there is a small hike that is definitely worth the stop. Look Rock is a very short walk, around a half of a mile round trip, to a fire tower that gives amazing views of the Smokies and the Tennessee Valley.
Once you get to the end of the Parkway, you will be at Chilhowee Lake. You can go left towards The Tail of the Dragon, which is an 11-mile portion of US 129 that is famous amongst motorcyclists for its 318 curves. This is not recommended for those with car sickness. Going left will take you towards Maryville.
While there are more adventurous experiences in East Tennessee, I love how easy and quick this one is. It is perfect for a half-day excursion to get out of the house.