Panoramic view of tree covered mountains lit up with bright sun beams
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Road Trips

Road Trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Pat Dorri | Updated on 12 July 2022

A road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will take you to one of the most beautiful places you will ever visit, through some of the most majestic mountain scenery, taking in many interesting attractions along the way.

The 580-mile road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes 8 hours and 50 minutes. Key stops are Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, Knoxville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg as well as Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Continue reading to get all you need to make an exciting itinerary, exploring everything this route has to offer. See our recommendations for the best route, things to see, places to stay, and when to make this fantastic trip.

Chicago river running between high rise buildings with bridges crossing and opening out into a marina in the foreground
Wave goodbye to vibrant Chicago when you take this trip south toward the Smokies.
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How far is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Chicago and how long will the road trip take?

Comparison of road trip routes between Chicago and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
RouteDistanceDriving Time
The Direct Route580 miles8 hours and 50 minutes
The Cincinnati Detour600 miles9 hours 40 minutes
The Great Smoky Mountains Loop160 miles4 hours 30 minutes

The quickest route from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 580 miles and takes 8 hours and 50 minutes without accounting for any pit stops or detours you might want to make on your way.

Your road trip will start by the shores of the calming turquoise blue waters of Lake Michigan, and then on to Indianapolis where you can then take our recommended route to Lexington or a detour to Cincinnati, which will add 20 miles and about an hour to your trip.

After making the journey to reach the Smokies, which in itself is an excellent road trip, make the most of this magical mountain wonderland by taking an excursion through the park to fully explore this magnificent landscape.

At 160 miles, this extension to the trip should take a little under 4 hours and 30 minutes, but there will be countless opportunities to stop and admire the stunning mountain vistas and the many fantastic places you will pass along the way.

Tall beach grass glows in sunset light, in foreground of Lake Michigan located in the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore during Autumn in October
Indiana Dunes National Park is a perfect place to stop as you make your way out of Chicago.
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Best road trip route from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most popular road trip route from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park goes through Louisville. We have included a detour that goes through Cincinnati, converging with the main route in Lexington.

The joy of a road trip is having the freedom to take your time and explore, so plan accordingly to take in as many of the wonderful attractions en route as your schedule will allow for.

From Chicago, you will drive along the shores of Lake Michigan on Interstate 90 E until you reach Exit 17 and merge onto Interstate 65 S to Indianapolis. In this car lover's heaven, be sure to visit the renowned Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

From Indianapolis, continue on I-65 and consider a detour to Bloomington city, where you can visit Indiana's oldest park, McCormick's Creek State Park, and marvel at the impressive limestone canyon.

Continuing on I-65, 300 miles into the trip, you will arrive at Louisville, home to the Kentucky Derby, one of the world's oldest and most famous horse races and an ideal place for an overnight stay.

Leaving Louisville, take the Interstate 64 E into the heart of Bluegrass Country, and after 80 miles, you will arrive at Lexington. Rich in cultural and natural history, it is well worth stopping off to explore.

River with small waterfall and rocky banks winds its way through green forest
McCormick's Creek State Park is a beautiful place to explore.
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The Cincinnati Detour

An alternative to our main route, on leaving Indianapolis, take Interstate 74 passing Shelbyville and Greensburg and you'll arrive at Cincinnati, situated on the banks of the Ohio River.

From here, head south and join Interstate 75 where you will arrive at Lexington, where our main route continues.

Leaving Lexington, take the I-75 S heading through the rugged landscape of the Daniel Boone National Forest, one of the biggest rock-climbing destinations in the world, before continuing on to Knoxville.

From Knoxville, head onto the US-441 S, admiring the breathtaking mountain scenery, and you'll arrive at Pigeon Forge, an excellent base from which to explore the Great Smoky Mountains.

Early morning light lighting up red and gold trees on hillsides, with misty mountains in silhouette behind
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes for the perfect scenic getaway.
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A loop around the Great Smoky Mountains

From Pigeon Forge, head south on US-321 to Gatlinburg, where you can enjoy one of the many mountain trails before joining US-441 and heading towards the loop.

The road here takes some dramatic twists and turns and there are plenty of viewpoints to stop and savor the views. Continue onwards, passing Mingo Falls to Cherokee, with its famous Indian Museum.

You'll soon arrive at Bryson City, a peaceful mountain town, where you can ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad or simply enjoy the local crafts and cuisine on offer in downtown Bryson.

From Bryson City, take the NC-28 N and US-129 N, stopping off at the Tail of the Dragon, a lookout area offering spectacular lake and mountain views, before continuing along Foothills Parkway.

This part of the route is a hidden gem, as Foothills Parkway is a section of the national park that has become almost forgotten, and it's easy to see why the locals want to keep it a secret.

Continue your journey past the Gold Mine Trail, before reaching Melrose, where you will take the US-321, passing Townsend and Wears Valley before arriving back at Pigeon Forge.

Best places to stop between Chicago and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are many places to stop between Chicago and the Great Smoky Mountains and you'll pass many cities and be spoilt for choice with accommodation options. Here are our recommendations.

Take a break in Louisville

Louisville is an ideal place to stay, located around the halfway point between Chicago and the Great Smoky Mountains on the Direct Route. It will allow you to relax, unwind, and be fully refreshed before continuing your drive.

There are many hotels and resorts in Louisville, but none beats the elegance and beauty of Hotel Distil, Autograph Collection.

The hotel is conveniently located in Whiskey Row close to the city's main attractions. Many of its rooms offer spectacular views over the Ohio River, and of the Big Four Bridge which is a spectacular sight at night.

Evening view of metal bridge over calm wide river with high rise buildings lit up and reflected in the river
Louisville is a great place to stop on your drive from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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If you plan to see the annual Kentucky Derby, the hotel is close to Churchill Downs, home to the racecourse and also the Kentucky Derby Museum where you can learn all about the history of the world's most famous race.

Take a walk and explore the historical Whiskey Row area with its fabulous selection of restaurants, urban distilleries, and shops. In the bourbon capital of the world, enjoy a VIP experience and take the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Relax in the scenic Smoky Mountains

If you are looking for a place to relax and enjoy unwind after a truly memorable road trip, the RiverStone Resort & Spa will definitely deliver, located in Pigeon Forge at the base of the Smoky Mountains.

This luxury resort offers incredible views of the Smoky Mountains making it the ideal place to stay during your time exploring this beautiful destination. It is close to all the restaurants and attractions that Pigeon Forge is known for.

Empty road turns around a corner in between trees with gold, red and green leaves
Take your time to explore the Smokies in fall.
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After an excursion in the Smoky Mountains, you can return to the heated indoor pool or hot tub, enjoy a relaxing spa treatment, and sample the delights on offer in the resort's sophisticated restaurant.

The hotel is located close to many of the unique local attractions, and a visit to the Titanic Museum will not disappoint. Walk along sloped decks, see the grand staircase, touch an iceberg and witness hundreds of original artifacts.

A ride on the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster will appeal to thrill-seekers, dropping through lush forest landscape, and taking in the awesome mountain views as you hurtle down the track.

Visit the Island, a 23-acre entertainment destination with fun for all the family, and a trip to Pigeon Forge would not be complete without a visit to Dollywood, recognized as one of the world's best theme parks, with something for everyone.

Things to see on a road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has so much to offer and we advise taking at least three days to make the trip, but even then, it will still be impossible to explore everything on this route.

To aid you in your planning, we have compiled our own list of some of the main places to go and the best things to see along the journey.

The Direct Route

  1. Indiana Dunes National Park - This Indy Park that overlooks the shores of Lake Michigan has beautiful beaches, and historical sites, and is ideal for hiking, biking, and nature trails.
  2. Indianapolis Zoo - This is a travelers' favorite, and one of the most popular zoos in the country. You can even take a dive with dolphins.
  3. Fort Harrison State Park – Situated on over 1,700 acres, this park is home to so much history including a World War II prisoner of war camp.
  4. Indianapolis Motor Speedway - The world's most famous motor racing competition, dubbed the Indy 500, takes place here annually. You can visit the speedway and learn about its history.
  5. McCormick's Creek State Park - The oldest park in Indiana, famous for its limestone canyon, maple forest, waterfalls, numerous hiking trails, and fishing grounds.
  6. Monroe Lake - A picturesque 10,750-acre man-made lake, perfect for swimming, boating, fishing, and trail running.
  7. Morgan-Monroe State Forest - This beautiful forest boasts over 24,000 acres of deciduous forests, water bodies, hiking trees, and overall breathtaking nature awesomeness.
  8. Louisville Mega Cavern – Explore the 17 miles of corridors beneath the city. Here, you can take a tour and learn the history of the cavern or try the world's only fully underground zip line.
  9. Kentucky Derby Museum - This quaint museum is dedicated to teaching and showcasing the history of the Kentucky Derby.
  10. Muhammad Ali Center – Learn all about the life and history of the greatest boxer of all time in his hometown of Louisville.
  11. Market Square - This historical downtown attraction in Knoxville is the best place to mingle with locals, shop, wine and dine, and explore the city's vibrant nightlife.
  12. Pigeon Forge – This picturesque mountain town is the home of Dollywood, a theme park, and home to a museum dedicated to the country legend Dolly Parton.
  13. Titanic Museum Attraction - It is a half-scale replica of the original Titanic dedicated to telling the story of the RMS Titanic, including interviews of the survivors.
  14. Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies - With more fish than Gatlinburg's total population, it is one of the most breathtaking aquariums you will ever see.

Cincinnati Detour

  1. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden – Considered one of the best in the country, renowned for its endangered species, including gorillas and white tigers.
  2. Cincinnati Art Museum – This prestigious museum has over 67,000 works of art and Is famous for its 19th-century European and American paintings, and an outstanding pottery gallery.
Historic buildings and commercial properties on the Market Square in Knoxville, TN.
Refuel in Knoxville's Market Square before heading on up to the Smokies.
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Best time to go on a road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains will be memorable whichever time of year you decide to go, which is all dependent on your preferences for the weather and the season.

If you choose to visit during spring, the crowds will be significantly smaller and hotel prices relatively low. Do bear in mind some attractions may be closed as they transition from winter.

The period between June and August is an excellent time to go on a road trip from Chicago to the Great Smoky Mountains. Expect to see lush greenery as you drive down the route and hit the mountains.

Summer has temperatures reaching as high as 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the mountainous environment of the Smokies, the uneven topography can see it drop to 20 degrees.

Music lovers can experience the Motown sound at the Sounds of Soul in the Smokies Festival at the end of July. Fans of all ages can take a nostalgic journey through musical history with the hits of Stevie Wonder to the Temptations, and many more.

If you appreciate the beauty of foliage in the fall season, making the trip in autumn is for you. You can also catch Oktoberfest at Ober Gatlinburg, a festival of Bavarian food, drink, and music accompanied by the fabulous Smoky Mountains Oompah band.

Making the trip in the winter months will make for stunning viewing with the mountain peaks covered in snow. It's a popular time for winter sports lovers and skiing enthusiasts and the local Christmas markets make it extra special at this magical time of year.