This road trip originates in Washington, DC, and grants almost a full day of exploring the historic monuments that pepper that city. From there, the trip spends a day each at the Shenandoah and New Gorge River National Parks before reaching the home of the Great Smoky Mountains for a couple of days.
The itinerary can last as few as 7 and as much as 10 days, and covers almost 800 miles (1,280 km), accounting for over 14 hours of driving.
I like the idea of starting out in Washington, DC, but this trip can easily be reversed to start in Charlotte instead. Either direction is fine, but the majority of the days are taken up in Gatlinburg, TN – the central city of The Great Smoky Mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains NP is the most visited national park in the Unites States, but it is spread out enough to never feel too crowded.
Fly into either of the major Washington, DC airports (Dulles or Reagan) and find a place to stay for the night near the city center. To find cheaper hotels, look slightly further away, but within a WMATA train route. This will allow you to get into the city without needing to find parking downtown.
DC National Monuments
There are so many historical sites within Washington, DC, that it will be impossible to see them all within one day. However, you can certainly visit most of the major highlights in about 4-6 hours.
The area between the US Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial is call the National Mall. All three spots are must-see locations for anyone visiting Washington, DC for the first time. Along the National Mall, you’ll find most of the Smithsonian Museums, and dead center is the Washington Monument. The museums are free to enter, so arrive at opening will be best to beat the crowds.
The next location is 76 miles away (~1.25 hours).
This is an easy trip to make after a mostly full day of exploring downtown DC. Head west on Interstate 66 towards Front Gap, VA to shack up at your next place to spend the night.
Shenandoah National Park
Front Royal, VA
The Shenandoah National Park follows the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles (169 km) in Central Virginia. The park is broken up into three sections, each designated by roads bisecting Skyline Drive along the ridge of the mountain range.
The most popular time to visit the park is during autumn, when the leaves begin to change. If you decide to visit at this time as well, expect long lines at entrance stations and traffic along Skyline Drive.
Since we will only be spending one day here, the plan is to find a place to stay at the top of the park in Front Royal, VA. Looking on Airbnb, there are loads of available homes for rent, with many more located in neighboring towns Strasburg and Stephens City.
The main part of this trip through Shenandoah will be taking the 105-mile Skyline Drive. Begin the day by entering via the Front Royal Entrance and work your way south, towards Rockfish Gap, which is the end of the scenic highway.
Along the way, there are numerous overlooks to stop at to stretch your legs or to take a short hike. The easiest hike is the Lands Run Falls Trail at milepost 9.2. This 1.2 mile round trip hike starts on a dirt road and ends at a waterfall before you make your way back up to the parking area. The Dark Hallows Trail at milepost 50.7 is another short and easy hike to a hidden waterfall.
The next location is 210 miles away (~4 hours).
Upon existing Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, we are going to begin our trek to Fayetteville, WV, home to the famous New River Gorge Bridge.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
The New River is a rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons, and is among the oldest rivers on the continent. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was recently designated a national park in 2020.
There are only primitive camping sites inside the park. However, there are plenty of Airbnbs and hotels in the surrounding towns. We chose Fayetteville, WV to stay in, and it was perfectly suitable for our one-night stay in the area.
The New River is the main attraction at this park. Guided whitewater rafting tours and kayaking can be done on the 53-mile stretch of the river inside this National Park.
There are plenty of hiking trails available as well. The Grandview Rim Trail (3.2 miles round trip) is a moderate effort trail that culminates with the Main Overlook overtop the New River.
The Kates Falls Trail (1/2 mile round trip) is a hard yet short trail that leads to the spectacular Kates Falls. An easier waterfall trail is the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk, which is only one-quarter of a mile long and easily walkable.
The next location is 281 miles away (~5 hours).
The road trip southwest towards Gatlinburg, TN will take about 5 hours from the New River Gorge NP. Along the way you’ll go through the towns of Beckley, WV and Kingsport, TN, which aregreat places to get out and grab a bite to eat.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The most visited National Park in the United States is located in the eastern half of Tennessee. Entrance to the park is free, and the town of Gatlinburg, TN is full of stores, restaurants, and activities for the whole family. This park can easily take up a full week’s worth of vacationing, but for this trip, we’re going to be here for only a couple of days.
You should have no trouble finding a place to stay here. The area surrounding Gatlinburg is littered with hotels, cabins, Airbnbs and plenty of other options to spend your nights nestled in the wilderness.
We found a small cabin that easily fit the five of us that was about 15 minutes from downtown. The traffic was light at first, although it could get a little busy once in the heart of the city.
When we were here, our kids were small, so we took a day off from the outdoors and visited Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the neighboring town of Pigeon Forge, TN. If our kids were a bit older, I would have loved to do the Skylift Park and/or the Ober Aerial Tramway.
The other days were spent hiking. One day we took a ride out to Cades Cove. This historical town once had nearly 700 people call it home back in the late 1800’s. It is now a spiderweb of easy trails, old buildings and interesting history tours. It was a lot of walking that day, but it was well worth it.
We also took two “driving” trails. The first was the harrowing drive up Newfound Gap Road. It is hard to explain the 3,000 elevation change within the 33-mile trek up the side of a hill. While this is a must-take scenic drive, make sure you have a full tank of gas first!
The second driving trail was the 5.5-mile loop of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It was a slow and easy drive with so many beautiful sights – including an enormous black bear that did not care to get off the road.
We also hiked a bunch of trails too. Rainbow Falls (5.5 miles round trip) was a moderate trail that ends on top of a waterfall. The hike can get rough at times, but we did it with three children, so it wasn’t too bad. The Forney Ridge Trail is another moderate trail that spans 3.5 miles round trip. It starts at Clingman’s Dome (another must-see) and reaches the picturesque view atop Andrews Bald.
The next location is 200 miles away (~4 hours).
When it’s time to head home, go east towards Charlotte, NC. This route can either take Interstate 40 or US Route 441, each snaking through the heart of the Smoky Mountains.
If you decide to take the US Route 441 road, you’ll spend some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which their site calls “America’s Favorite Drive“.
We chose to fly out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport because it is of one of the most accessible airports in the country. It is the second-largest airport on the East Coast, behind only the insanely huge Atlanta airport. You will not have any trouble finding a flight back home out of this airport.
I always like to stay the night in the city before my flight. Seeing as it’s a 4-hour drive from Gatlinburg, it just made sense this time as well.