For 83 miles from the Cumberland Gap to the Cherokee National Forest stretches one of the most beautiful roads in America: The Historic East Tennessee Crossing Byway. Established as a National Scenic Byway in 2009, the route has roots so deep that its history goes back long before the founding of America. The East Tennessee Crossing Byway is the scenic route from the Kentucky/Tennessee state border to the Tennessee/North Carolina border, but it offers much more than an opportunity for leaf peeping in the fall. Let us take you along this historic route, carving out a little bit of East Tennessee culture for your next road trip.
History of the East Tennessee Crossing Byway and the Wilderness Road
The East Tennessee Crossing Byway begins in the north at the Cumberland Gap, meeting up with the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway in Kentucky. The Byway follows the old Highway 25-E route, which in turn had its roots in the Wilderness Road, of Daniel Boone fame. Boone blazed the pathway through the Cumberland Gap that approximately 300,000 settlers took between 1775 and 1810 to settle in Kentucky. Long before that, the same trail was known as the Cherokee Warriors’ Path, a route Native Americans followed between villages or on war parties that was created by buffalo migration patterns.
The Wilderness Road remained an integral byway connecting east and west, north and south, well into the 1830s, with a stage from Bean Station to Lexington, Kentucky, carrying freight, mail and passengers along its route three times a week. The route only waned in significance after the Erie Canal made travel through the Ohio Valley via waterways possible. The section of road from Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, to Middlesboro, Kentucky, was one of the first roads in the United States to be paved.
Autumn Leaf Lookouts Along the East Tennessee Crossing Byway
You’ll enjoy the scenic beauty along the East Tennessee Crossing Byway any time of the year, but it is especially beautiful in the fall when the ample forests that line the roadway alight with fall colors.
Take in the beautiful autumn vistas throughout the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park at the beginning of the drive. The park offers guided tours through Gap Cave and the Hensley Settlement, and hikes ranging from quarter-mile strolls to multi-day backpacking.
Another must stop is at The Clinch Mountain Overlook, between Tazewell and Bean Station. The overlook provides stunning views of rolling forests along the Clinch River that turn a range of colors during the autumn months. The Veterans Overlook is also a memorial dedicated to the Grainger County veterans and to all veterans who served.
Almost at the heart of the byway is Jefferson County’s own White Pine, Tennessee. White Pine is a charming small town that boasts an amazing local pizza place, White Pine Pizza, as well as a variety of shops featuring antiques, books, and more.
End your road trip in the Cherokee National Forest, encompassing more than half a million acres of deciduous and coniferous trees in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The park offers every kind of leaf peeping experience you could want, from scenic drives to hiking, camping and even white water rafting.
Stop, Shop and Eat Along the East Tennessee Crossing Byway
The East Tennessee Crossing Byway offers much more than scenic views, snaking through some of Tennessee’s most historic towns offering food, shopping, festivals and more.
Attractions: If your travels happen to begin the first weekend in October, start them off with a stop by the Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival in Middlesboro before hitting the road. Open again in late 2021, the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on campus of Lincoln Memorial University offers one of the most extensive Lincoln collections in the nation. Crocket’s Tavern Museum in Morristown can teach you some regional history, as can the Civil War site at the Battle of Bean’s Station.
Dining: Dandridge and Jefferson City are a short detour off the East Tennessee Crossing Byway, but well worth the drive for the dining. We call this area of Tennessee the Lakeside of the Smokies, and for good reason. The East Tennessee Crossing Byway crosses 4 bodies of water along its route: the Powell River, the Clinch River, Cherokee Lake, and Douglas Lake. Cherokee and Douglas Lakes are both nationally known for their boating and fishing and offer beautiful waterside views of the autumn scenery if you’re able to get out of a car and into a boat. If not, try lunch or dinner lakeside at Cook’s Boathouse Restaurant in Bean Station, Lakeside Café in Dandridge, or Off the Hook in Jefferson City.
Shopping: The antique’s stores along the Byway are a sure way to discover a treasure from the past. Possum Creek Antique’s, is located right off of the Byway in White Pine or take the quick trip to Historic Dandridge and stop in at Roper Mansion. Take home the quintessential Appalachian gift, some moonshine, from the Cocke County Moonshine Distillery. Shops along the way also offer artisan pottery, wood arts, and quilting pieces.
A Short Drive but a Long Stay on the East Tennessee Crossing Byway
Even taking the 83-mile drive at a leisurely pace to view all the beautiful fall foliage will get you through East Tennessee Crossing Byway in just a few hours. You certainly won’t need to stay the night, but we’re betting you’ll want to, with accommodations ranging from the luxurious to the rustic, all with beautiful mountain views. There are more than a few in the area, but we’ve put together some stand outs below.
Mountain Harbor Inn, located on the shores of Douglas Lake and just a short drive from the Byway offers stunning views of both the lake and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Shepard Inn, Bed and Breakfast, built in 1820 is located in the heart of historic Dandridge. There are also numerous cabin rentals and campgrounds available in the area.
Other East Tennessee Scenic Drives for Fall Foliage
There are multiple scenic driving trails that bisect or skirt along the East Tennessee Crossing Byway, including the Rocky Top Trail, Sunny Side Trail, and White Lightning Trail. All are part of the state’s Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program. Take the roads less travelled in your car, motorcycle, or RV this fall, and take in the history, culture, and cuisine of the region along with its beautiful autumn colors. Visit the Lakeside of the Smokies to learn all about what Jefferson County has to offer.