Ken Wise, author of Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains: A Comprehensive Guide, and I are hiking a significant portion of the Lakeshore Trail over the next few days. The original plan calls for a total of 52 miles, including one 24-mile day — an accomplishment that would shatter my not-yet-week-old current personal best of 14.2. I was nuts to even consider this, and with the day fast approaching, I’m getting very nervous. I’ve hiked quite well these last few days, but there is nothing to warrant any serious belief that I can handle 24 miles.
We meet for lunch in Bryson City and travel Lakeview Drive, commonly known as The Road to Nowhere, out of town and into the park. This rather innocuous stretch of road has been the center of controversy for 60 years. A formal settlement on the issue was reached two years ago, but emotions are still high as evidenced by a billboard just outside the park boundary taunting “a broken promise.”
It all began with World War II, the need for aluminum and the electricity to produce it. Alcoa, Inc., owned land along the Little Tennessee River and gave it to Tennessee Valley Authority for a dam project in exchange for electric power. Fontana Dam’s impoundment flooded the only road in that area, NC 288. TVA land north of the lake not flooded was given to the national park, and the federal government agreed to build another road on the north shore. Congress dawdled in appropriating the money, and the promise languished for years. In the late1960’s, construction began, and the National Park Service built six miles of road, including the tunnel, from its boundary outside Bryson City. Environmental concerns from acidic runoff and erosion halted the work.
In a related PR nightmare, then Park Superintendent Boyd Evison, stirred passions with a press release asking family descendants not to place plastic flowers and other non-biodegradable items on family graves in the park. Families joined forces to hold the threat of lawsuit over the park for access to cemeteries, renewing calls to complete the road. Meanwhile, public forums showed that aside from these families, no one else thought the road was a good idea. Even local, state, and federal government officials preferred to avoid the enormous expense and environmental havoc of completing the road in favor of a tidy cash settlement for Swain County, NC. In 2010, $52 million was proposed and accepted.
Annually, the park shuttles families by boat to various inlets along the north shore and drives them to the cemeteries. These yearly Decoration Days allow descendants to place flowers (colorful plastic ones) on the graves of ancestors and spruce up these final resting places.
The famed tunnel is at the very start of Lakeshore Trail’s east end. Wide enough for two lanes of traffic and 1,100 feet long, with each opening framed in beautiful stonework, it bores through Tunnel Ridge, a projection on the south end of Forney Ridge. This small mountain is not named for the road tunnel but rather the rumor that Cherokee had hidden gold in a cave or tunnel here.
Walking the tunnel is a fascinating exercise in trust. The entrance’s light is quickly devoured by darkness, and there is only the distant half moon of brightness at the other end to guide footsteps taken in faith that the invisible ground beneath is smooth and solid. Hikers in front look like dearly departed souls, their silhouettes moving toward the light. Adding to the sensory disorientation is the shower of murmured echoes swirling through the passage. Lightly spoken words from others far away may be plainly heard, not unlike the “Whispering Gallery” in New York’s Grand Central Station. It is quite otherworldly.
People’s egos being what they are, the smooth tunnel walls have become an attractive slate to leave proof of one’s presence. The itch behind “Kilroy was here” still needs scratching, and a colorful collage of spray-painted names, initials, drawings, and notes, enliven (or mar) each end and probably the middle too.
Past the dark gauntlet, Lakeshore Trail is a wildly meandering and variable path paralleling (in the roughest sense) the impounded waters of Little Tennessee River for 34.7 miles to Fontana Dam. It is nearly half the distance of the Appalachian Trail but attracts only a tiny fraction of the foot traffic. There are more remote and difficult areas of the park but few offering more solitude.
At this end of Lakeshore, there are two small loop trails — Tunnel Bypass and Goldmine Loop. As its name suggests, Tunnel Bypass serves hikers or horses intimidated or spooked by the black tunnel. The trailhead is opposite the parking lot, and the 1.6-mile trail rises very gently for the first quarter mile but levels thereafter. It has recently been renovated. The upslope side has been cut back and the path itself smoothed into a flat dirt surface with virtually no impediments. This could be the easiest trail in the park. Taking the bypass adds a mile overall since Lakeshore Trail intersects with Tunnel Bypass at 0.6 mile.
Tunnel Ridge’s name may be a coincidence, but such is not the case for Goldmine Loop Trail. Gold was found in the general area, reinforcing the belief that this precious metal may be cached somewhere nearby, though there is no evidence of an actual mine. The two-mile loop trail drops down 500 feet to a lake embayment and back up again, one junction on Tunnel Bypass, the other on Lakeshore. Rough, rocky, wet, and steep in sections, Goldmine Loop is what you expect in a mountain trail.
The area covered by Lakeshore Trail was heavily settled before the park’s establishment. Old roadbeds, some barely discernible in an understory clogged with vegetation and blowdowns, chimneys, and rusting artifacts are silent testaments to a once vital community. It would have been difficult to farm in this vicinity, though. Goldmine Campsite #67, our destination for the night, occupies one of the few relatively level spots, and it requires a short climb off trail to access. A small stream, Hyatt Branch, flows to the right of the campsite. Across the stream is one of those overgrown roadbeds, a boxy hunk of rusting metal (a stove maybe), and a rock chimney. Remnants of old washtubs are in the stream. There are Black Walnut trees and an Umbrella Magnolia in the site.
Several small streams flow off Tunnel Ridge and unite at the embayment on Fontana Lake. Goldmine Branch, Hyatt Branch, and Tunnel Branch trickle into this skinny tendril of lake water. Goldmine Trail passes within yards of the embayment providing easy access to admire shoreline plants or take a cooling swim. Ken enjoys the latter while my camera and I scour the lakeside plant community.
Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) lines the shore, full of fruit, many turning a deep shade of blue on contrasting red stems to attract hungry birds eager to fatten and fuel for winter migration. Tag or Common Alder (Alnus serrulata) shrubs sport clusters of female cones. A bright, magenta-pink flower screams for attention. It is Virginia Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica), with its cute, vase-shaped seed capsules.
Tiny fish swim in the shallows, aquatic insects ski on top of the water. Expanding ripples dimple the surface when an insect disappears into the mouth of a fish. Periodically, short bursts of bubbles rise from the lake bed. Ken tries to dig down and extract a perpetrator but only dislodges a handful of mud. Turtles? Mussels?
Today is the first day it does not rain on me in the mountains. I am most grateful. It will be so much easier to pack a dry tent in the morning!