Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a year-round destination for hikers. By choosing hikes that stay low in altitude, you can avoid dealing with serious ice on the trail.
One of my favorites that has now become part of a series dubbed "iconic hikes of the North Carolina Smokies" is a figure-eight hike starting at the Lake View Tunnel, outside of Bryson City, North Carolina. Most of us know it by the more colloquial name as "Road to Nowhere" Tunnel.
The tunnel is at the end of Lakeview Dr., the eastern end of a road that was going to be constructed to replace NC 288, flooded when TVA built Fontana Dam during World War II. In the early 1960s, 6.2 miles of road were built from the entrance to the park but the project was stopped because of environmental reasons. For a more complete story, see this Traveler story.
The hike (10 miles, 1,400-foot ascent) offers a cemetery, Forney Creek, and distant views of Fontana Lake. It is also a reminder that the history of this area is still in the news today.
As you drive on Lake View Drive, be on a lookout for a billboard on the left that says:
Welcome to the Road to Nowhere A Broken Promise! 1943 - ?
This billboard hangs just before the sign welcoming you to the park. It was put up by locals still upset that the Department of the Interior decided to financially compensate Swain County instead of building a road through the park. The $5 million payments are spread out for 10 ten years. Each year, Congress must approve the money. Each time Swain County receives a payment, there's a story about it in the local newspapers.
This hike is two circles with a connector, which on a map looks like a pair of glasses. The small circle starts by going through the tunnel on Lake Shore Trail and returns on the Tunnel Bypass Trail. The larger circle is the loop formed by Whiteoak Branch Trail, Forney Creek Trail, and back on Lake Shore Trail.
Park at the barrier and walk through the 365-foot tunnel, large enough for two lanes of traffic. In the middle, the tunnel gets dark; take a flashlight or you’ll have to depend on the light at the end of the tunnel. On the other side, Lake Shore Trail stays paved for a couple of hundred feet and then becomes a trail into the woods, hence the name "Road to Nowhere." The whole Lake Shore Trail is 33.5 miles long and approximates the route of the proposed North Shore Road.
Lake Shore Trail contours and slabs around the hill with good winter views. At two miles, turn right on Whiteoak Branch Trail, where the hike starts its large circle. Whiteoak Branch Trail goes up through a muddy, still creek to a gap and descends as it hugs the hill. Rock hop across a tributary of Gray Wolf Creek. On the left, a jumble of chimney rocks are all that remains of a home long gone. Cross Whiteoak Branch to reach the junction with Forney Creek Trail.
The junction of both creeks is a delightful spot to sit and listen to the rippling water. Turn left on Forney Creek Trail. The trail rises above Forney Creek and continues a gentle climb. This area was heavily logged and suffered several fires until all logging ceased in the 1930s. Forney Creek, which starts below Clingmans Dome, is now a wide river, paralleling the trail on the right. This is a beautiful, flat section of trail, with rivulets coming out of moss-covered rocks. Tree trunks, almost horizontal, hang on to huge boulders.
Pass the junction with the Bear Creek Trail and continue straight on Forney Creek Trail toward Lake Shore Trail. At the intersection with Lake Shore Trail, continue on Forney Creek Trail for a tenth of a mile to Campsite #74. Here, campers move in with coolers and large tents. They've come by canoe or kayak across a finger of Fontana Lake and didn't have to carry their supplies very far.
Go back and make a right on Lake Shore Trail. The trail climbs steeply and allows distant views of Fontana Lake. When the trail descends, look for a wide road and a "No Horses" sign on the left. This is not an official hiking trail but a trail to Woody Cemetery. Turn on this road and note the long picnic tables on the right. These tables are used at Decoration Day when descendants of the area come together once a year to eat, pray, and change the plastic flowers at the gravesites.
Continue climbing less than a quarter-mile to the cemetery. It's a large, well-tended cemetery with maybe 50 graves but, oddly enough in light of its name, only one Woody in it. As is the custom in the Southern Appalachians, the soil on the graves has been mounded. Some sites have simple grave stones while others are just stumps. The North Shore Road Cemetery Association raises money to identify and replace the stumps with grave stones.
Go back to Lake Shore Trail and stay on it when you pass the intersection with White Oak Branch Trail. You can continue through the tunnel and back to your car. For an extra mile, take the second intersection with the Goldmine Loop Trail, which will take you to the Tunnel Bypass Trail and out to Lake View Drive.
Getting to the Trailhead
From the center of Bryson City, North Carolina, travel 9 miles on Fontana Road, which turns into Lakeview Drive. Park in the last parking area before the barrier and tunnel.
Hiking the Carolina Mountains by Danny Bernstein. Milestone Press, 2007
Hiking Trails of the Smokies (4th edition), published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2010.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 229, Great Smoky Mountains National