To take a road less traveled, drive to Balsam Mountain via the Heintooga Ridge Road that starts at the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 458.2, just 11 miles from the south end of the Parkway. For the first four miles of this paved, two-lane road, you are still in the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park boundaries, complete with some nice high-elevation overlooks looking down on the mountain ridges. Then you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and continue another five miles to the end of the paved section. Here you will find a picnic area and the beautiful Heintooga Overlook. The one-lane unpaved Heintooga Round Bottom Road begins there.
The 15 mile Heintooga-Round Bottom Road begins its one way curving route from an altitude of 5,535 feet and descends to about 2,000 feet. This rough road can be driven by most vehicles, EXCEPT RVs and trailers. The one way road is closed in winter.
It will take about an hour to travel this route, which will showcase the botanical diversity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through stands of beech and birch, followed by hemlocks, maples, and oaks. The one lane gravel road runs north along Balsam Mountain before starting its descent into Straight Fork Valley to then emerge at the nearby Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation.
There are several hiking trails along the way, including Palmer Creek Trail, which descends into a beautiful richly forested valley; or the Hyatt Ridge Trail, the Beech Gap Trail, or the Balsam Mountain Trail. Anglers can fish for trout on Straight Fork. Very few cars travel this road each day. Watch for wildlife, including black bears running across the road.
At the broad, flat area known as Round Bottom, the one-lane road becomes two-way before it joins the paved, two-way Big Cove Road north of Cherokee, North Carolina. Round Bottom also has one of the drive-in horse camps in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are no signs to lead you to Cherokee at the end of the road. You basically turn left on Big Cove Road and go down hill about ten miles to Cherokee. On your way be sure to stop and make the short hike to Mingo Falls.