The Steepest Highway in Tennessee Is a Terrifyingly Treacherous Path

Written by Kathryn Koehler
Updated: November 3, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Tennessee State Highway 297 runs through the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
  • The highway is located in Northeast Tennessee.
  • This 5-mile section of Highway 297 is between Bandy Creek Road and Park Headquarters and has a steep 13% grade.

The fear of brake failure on a steep highway is an adrenaline-pumping experience. One that grips even the most experienced and intrepid drivers with a potent mix of fear and dread. As the descent steepens, so does the pulse. Every curve becomes a test of nerves, with eyes scanning for runaway truck ramps. The tension is palpable.

It’s a heart-pounding reminder of the delicate balance between human skill and mechanical reliability. A split-second decision can make the difference between a safe descent and a white-knuckle freefall. And so it goes on Highway 297, the steepest highway in Tennessee; It is a terrifyingly treacherous path, indeed.

Tennessee State Highway 297 is a major route through the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. It is located in Northeast Tennessee. For a 5-mile stretch on Highway 297 between Bandy Creek Road on the west and Park Headquarters on the east, Tennessee State Highway 297 has a 13% grade. The area is informally referred to as the gorge.

The United States Parks Department suggests using caution, particularly with horse trailers and recreational campers. Continue reading to discover more about highway grades and the area surrounding Tennessee’s steepest highway.

East Rim Overlook - Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, TN.

Tennessee State Highway 297 is a major route through the Big South Fork National Recreation Area.

© Jennings

The Steepest Highway in Tennessee Is a Terrifyingly Treacherous Path: Highway Gradients

In the context of highway gradients, a grade of 13% means that for every 100 units of horizontal distance traveled, there is a vertical rise of 13 units. This indicates a significant incline, and it would be challenging for some vehicles to navigate comfortably. Descending a 13% grade also presents difficulties, however of an entirely different nature. Highway grades are considered to be:

  • 1-3% Grade: Generally considered a gentle slope, commonly found on highways and roads.
  • 4-6% Grade: Moderately steep, often seen on some hilly roads and highways.
  • 7-9% Grade: Considered steep, especially for extended distances.
  • 10-12% Grade: Very steep and often found on mountain roads.
  • 13% Grade +: Extremely steep and challenging for most types of vehicles.
Road grade 13 per cent, road sign in winter

A grade of 13% is very steep and challenging.


Where is Tennessee State Highway 297 Located on a Map?

State Route 297 extends over a length of 62.0 miles and serves as a vital east-west secondary state highway that crosses the regions of Middle and East Tennessee.

Notably, it acts as the main access route for both Scott State Forest and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, facilitating transportation to and from these natural treasures.

Here it is on a map:

Steepest Highways at a Glance

Baldwin Street, Dunedin, New Zealand:35%
Hardknott Pass, Cumbria, England30%
Sonora Pass, California State Route 10826%
Waipio Valley Road, Hawaii, Big Island:20%
Tennessee State Highway 297:13%
Pikes Peak Summit Road, Colorado Springs, Colorado:10%
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier Park, Montana:8%
Monteagle Mountain, I-24, Tennessee:5%

The Steepest Highway in Tennessee Is a Terrifyingly Treacherous Path: Surroundings

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is a stunning and diverse outdoor destination located on the Cumberland Plateau, covering 125,000 acres in Northeast Tennessee and Southeast Kentucky. It is managed by the National Park Service and is known for its rugged beauty, scenic landscapes, and numerous recreational opportunities. The Big South Fork area features dramatic gorges, sandstone bluffs, waterfalls, and dense forests.

The area is characterized by the deep canyons and valleys carved by the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. Big South Fork offers a wide range of trails for hikers of all skill levels. Trails like the Angel Falls Overlook Trail and Twin Arches Trail provide opportunities to explore the park’s stunning landscapes. The area also has an extensive network of horse trails, making it a popular destination for equestrians.

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries provide opportunities for whitewater rafting and kayaking, particularly during times of higher water flow. This is a thrilling way to experience the area’s scenic beauty from a different perspective. The sandstone cliffs in the area attract rock climbers looking for challenging routes and breathtaking views. For those who prefer a more relaxed experience, there are several scenic drives that provide access to overlooks and viewpoints showcasing the area’s natural beauty.

Area Wildlife

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is home to a diverse range of wildlife due to its varied landscapes, including forests, rivers, canyons, and plateaus. White-tail deer are common throughout the park and can be found in wooded areas, grasslands, and near water sources. They are a popular sight in the Big South Fork area. Wild turkeys, known for their distinctive fan-shaped tail feathers can often be seen foraging for food in the forested areas of the park. While not as commonly seen as other wildlife, black bears inhabit the park’s forests.

Coyotes can be found in a variety of habitats around the park. Their distinctive howls can be heard echoing through the Bigh South Fork at dusk. Raccoons are often encountered in campgrounds and picnic areas, scavenging for food. Though they are elusive and rarely seen, bobcats inhabit the area. Red and gray foxes can be found throughout the park.

The Big South Fork is home to red-tailed hawks as well as the occasional bald eagle. The park is a haven for a variety of songbirds due to its diverse habitat. Birdwatchers can spot warblers, sparrows, and woodpeckers. A range of snake species inhabit the area, including non-venomous ones like the Eastern rat snake and venomous ones like the timber rattlesnake and copperhead. Wearing sturdy shoes and carrying a flashlight after dark are recommended. Playful river otters are found in the waterways of the area.

Indigenous Roots

The Big South Fork area was once home to Native American populations. Evidence of their presence can still be found in the form of rock shelters, petroglyphs, and various other artifacts. Petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings made by indigenous peoples. They are typically found on exposed rock surfaces and can vary in complexity and meaning. In the Big South Fork, the petroglyphs are attributed to various Native American cultures that inhabited the region thousands of years ago.

The petroglyphs found in the Big South Fork area have been studied by archaeologists and historians to better understand the history and traditions of the Native American groups that once lived there. These petroglyphs are considered a valuable cultural and historical resource, shedding light on the spiritual, artistic, and daily aspects of ancient indigenous societies. The area also has a history of coal mining and timber harvesting, which is reflected in some of the remaining structures and landscapes.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © White_Fox/

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About the Author

Kathryn Koehler is a writer at A-Z-Animals where her focus is on unusual animals, places, and events. Kat has over 20 years of experience as a professional writer and educator. She holds a master's degree from Vanderbilt University. When she is not writing for A-Z-Animals, Kat enjoys puttering in her garden, baking deliciously healthful treats for her family, and playing with her two rescue mutts, Popcorn and Scooter. She resides in Tennessee.

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