We'll be settting out early on a mid-April Sunday morning from Shelby, NC headed to Gatlinburg via the Newfound Gap Rd in Great Smokies NP. We'd like to balance seeing as much scenery as possible vs. the driving time. Option 1 is to take I-26 to I-40, to Rt 74 / 23 and pick up the BRP at Balsam. The shorter distance Option 2 is to exit Rt 74 / 23 at Rt 221 / 19, go through Maggie Valley, and pick up the BRP at Soco Gap.
Is the extra time and distance of Option 1 worth it in terms of scenic value? How much additional time would it be?
On the return trip, we are stopping in Asheville for 1.5 days. Rather than go back through the park, we are planning to take Rt 321 east to I-40. The portions of I-40 east of the Great Smokies boundary are labeled as scenic on the AAA map.
Not having been to this part of the country before, I'd appreciate recommendations for best routes back and forth that balance scenic value vs. time spent in the car. Thanks!