A Smokey Mountain Road Trip

by Ann Brixey


By Ann Brixey
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” John Muir

On Thursday, we left Cary just after 1pm to drive to Cherokee for a weekend in the mountains. It was nice to leave the cloudy, storm threatened city behind, and drive along with clear skies instead. Traffic was fairly heavy till we had reached Winston-Salem, from there on there was much less to bother us. Although we were on the highway, it was good to see the mountains in the distance.

Our hotel, located just outside the village of Cherokee was surrounded by mountains. We were delighted to have a room with a river view. Our patio became the place to sit and unwind in the evening.  From it, we could see the river flowing along its rocky bed, and watch the sun set. On the first evening, in the cool mountain air and with a glass of wine, we made our plans for the weekend,  Soon one of the many mallard ducks that lived close by paid us a visit. For a few moments, the peace and tranquility was disturbed as this little lady quacked and pecked around. As the sun dropped behind the mountain, our new found friend flew off to her home and family.

I had reserved seats on the Great Smoky Mountain Railway for Friday morning. Every thing had been prearranged, all we needed to do was to be there on time. We were eagerly anticipating the train ride. On the short drive to Bryson City, the route took us along the Tuckasegee river. Already several fishermen were standing in the sun dappled water, casting their lines. As the sun rose higher in a crystal clear sky, I could not help think fishing was a perfect way to enjoy this glorious morning. We wondered what fish could be found in the river. Later, during the train ride found out that the rivers and the lake in the area were full of trout.

Since we were extremely early, the booking office was still closed. Peter was happy to be able to photograph the engines and carriages with few people around. Once we had collected our tickets, we were able to visit the model train museum adjacent to the station. Glass cases full of model trains of all ages lined the walls. In the center of each room, were operating layouts. The largest was one of the best I have ever seen. It took up almost the entire room, and was worth lingering at.

At 10 o clock, we boarded the train. Our seats quickly found, we settled down for a four and a half hour adventure. Before leaving the station, we were treated to short explanation about the area, the original railroad, and the now restored railroad. At 10:30, with a lurch, the train eased its way out of the depot. We were on our way. As our server filled souvenir mugs with refreshments, the live entertainment began. We were regaled with toe tapping, well known country music. A talented duo, one playing the banjo, the other a ukelele, sang and played as we traveled through the densely forested area towards the Nantahala Gorge.

The train crossed one of several trestles on the route, then ran alongside Lake Fontana. Passengers learned that the unusually green water was caused by the high copper content in the area. However, this did not deter the fish in the area, as in the rivers, trout lived happily in the peaceful lake.

Along the railway embankments, many of the trees and bushes were covered with a lush vine. It was Kudzu, an extremely invasive plant native to Japan and China. We learned that it was introduced to the US in the mid 1870’s. This large leafed plant, with its sweet smelling blossoms, soon became a favorite with gardeners. During the Great Depression, it was promoted for erosion control. From there it did not take long for this fast growing plant, which can grow as much as a foot a day in the summer, to take over. It covers banks, trees, telephone poles, anything that gets in its way. Once it has taken a hold it is difficult to get rid of, taking as much as eight years for it to be entirely eradicated.

Part of our journey included a one hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Some passengers had taken a package trip for an exhilarating experience of white water rafting. Many just watched the adventurous souls who were already enjoying themselves in the fast running, river. Others simply took time to explore the river and part of the walking trails.

All too soon we were back on the train to return to Bryson City. As we neared the end of our journey, we were once again entertained by the singing duo. As the engineer brought the large engine and carriages slowly to a stop at the Train Station, we gathered our belongings and said goodbyes to new found friends.

We enjoyed our trip so much that Peter resolved to take another ride on the train at a later date. However, next time we will ride in one of the open cars. This will give us an opportunity to take better photographs of the beautiful views along the way.

On Saturday morning, I was up with the sun, and took my coffee outside to enjoy this special, tranquil time of day. I could hear the leaves rustling in the breeze and the sound of the river as it rushed along its rocky bed, just steps away. Two robins flew down onto the dew laden grass, while a mocking bird called from a nearby tree. Soon a pair of cardinals flew into the nearby rhododendron bush. I tried not to move, hoping they would stay awhile. When a morning dove landed on the railings surrounding our patio, the pair quickly flew away. Soon other birds, who’s songs were unknown to me joined the chorus. This was the golden hour at its best. The landscape was bathed in the sun’s golden glow, even the mist on the mountains seemed to have flecks of gold floating in it. Everything was right with the world.

I was visited again by my friend of a few evenings ago. This time she brought along her little family. They seemed as interested in me as I was of them. They came as close as they dared, then continued to peck at the moss covered river stones that made up the little garden on their side of the railings. When I told the one I took to be the patriarch that I had nothing for them, he gave me such a look of scorn. In a moment, he turned around and waddled off. In due course, the rest of his group followed.

We had decided to visit the Fontana Dam that day, After a hurried breakfast we set off. It was a particularly scenic drive. The many stopping places along the way lured us out of the car to take pictures and walk a while. The distant Smokies were barely visible beneath their blue haze, but the lake shimmered in the bright sunshine. It was easy to see why they are called the Smokies, with the soft blue haze that constantly shroud their slopes. Dotted along the shoreline were houseboats of all sizes. Small craft whose occupants were fishing started to bob precariously as the occasional high powered boat roared by.

We were continuously climbing, as we drove this twisting, winding road. As always, I was glad it was Peter doing the driving, he always remains calm and in control in such stressful driving conditions.

Following a road sign, we ventured off the beaten track. The narrow road was thickly lined by trees taking many twists and turns before it opened into a stony car park. A short distance along a narrow path was a quiet bay. Several fishermen stood in the water patiently waiting for the fish to bite. When several kayak and canoe laden cars and trucks pulled up, the fishermen began packing up and started to leave.

Passengers disgorged from the cars and prepared for time on the water. Excited cries filled the air as the children ran towards the waters edge. Brightly colored canoes were hauled down to the lake. Folding chairs, and coolers were unloaded, and toted down to the waters edge. We watched all of the boats being launched before taking our leave and traveling on towards the dam.

We took one last stop on the approach road to the dam. As Peter was photographing the surrounding area, I was delighted to see a red spotted purple butterfly flying around the parked  car. I tried patiently to get a picture, but it never seemed to stay long enough. Eventually, when I had all but given up, it landed on the ground, quite close to my feet. I felt so lucky when it stayed there with its wings spread. For me, it was a picture of a lifetime.

At the dam, we went first to the Visitors Information center. There a guide gave us a brief overview of the area, and the building of the dam. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) began construction in 1942 to accommodate the high demand for power. Completed in 1945, much of that power went to the Alcoa plant for the production of aluminum, used to build more aircraft for the war effort.

We spent a some time viewing the exhibits inside, before climbing to the observation deck to take pictures. Then it was time to walk across the dam itself. At first we walked along the lake side. This peaceful expanse of water plays host to marine craft, fish and wildlife. Even though, it was a holiday weekend, few people were taking advantage of this quiet stretch of wilderness. Across the road, steep walls that formed dam itself were dry. No water flowed down to the river below. Peter found the dam itself interesting. As the tallest dam in the Eastern US, it could not be denied that its construction was an incredible feat of engineering.

The drive back to the hotel took us through the forest. This road ran alongside the winding Nantahala River. Although less steep than the road to the dam, I was still thankful Peter was behind the wheel.

White water rafting seemed to be the sport of choice in this area. Various craft traversed the fast flowing, raging water. There were commercial rafts, filled with passengers out to enjoy a thrilling ride. We could hear the screams of excitement, or fear, as rapids were approached. The rafts were skillfully maneuvered by the expert guides before careening onto the next obstacle. There were many smaller canoes carrying one or two people. These were the expert rafters. Their craft raced and spun precariously from one hazard to the next. It was fun to watch; however, it certainly was not something I would enjoy doing.

The river had rocky stretches where the water was too shallow even for rafting. We saw several people fishing from huge boulders that jutted up. Others were simply enjoying the peace of the river bank.

We passed a trio of horse back riders, sedately walking along one of the quieter sections of the river. The horses barely flinched as traffic slowed and passed them. Even motor cycles roaring by seemed not to bother to them. I could not help thinking it was a lovely way to experience all that this area had to offer.

On the third day, we chose to drive through the National Park. We would take the road from Oconaluftee to Gatlinburg. Entering the park, I was thrilled to see a male elk grazing quite unconcerned with the passing traffic, or the spectators along the edge of the road. I was able to get several pictures before this magnificent animal moved off into the edge of the forest.

At the visitors center, we took a brochure and map of the park. We talked at length to a park ranger, who advised us to visit the Mountain Museum Farm. This first stopping point was within walking distance of the center.

A path took us along the river bank. “Here’s a photo op. for you,” Peter said, as we reached a shady spot where the river was fast running. From trees that lined the bank, thickly leafed branches reached over the water. The sun shining the thick overgrowth dappled the water, it was mesmerizing.

As I snapped away, I heard someone say. “I am sure you can’t climb that tree. Since I have been sitting here, several have tried and failed.” An older lady indicated a large tree a little way from us.

Peter and I looked at the tree, it would have been a perfect perch from which to photograph the river. It was right at the edge of the bank with a notch some eight feet up. There was no question as too why no one could climb it. The thick trunk had no foothold; nevertheless I had to try. My attempt to reach the notch failed, so I gave in.

Our next stopping place was Mingus Grist Mill, where I expected to see the usual large water wheel. Surprisingly it was a 200 foot flume that brought the water to drive the turbine. The mill is one of the largest in the Smokies. We were lucky to see it still running and grinding corn.

We were soon back on the road, which for a while followed the Oconaluftee river as it wound its way through the park. As on the previous day, Peter remained calm. In complete control of the vehicle on the steep hills and numerous hairpin bends. Although I was not driving, I have to confess to to many white knuckle moments. We could identify the drivers who were not used to such roads. As they approached a bend, we could feel their terror. The driver slowed down to almost a stop to negotiate the bend. I was sure that they were experiencing the same white knuckle experience as I was.

The scenery was spectacular, and we stopped frequently taking many photos. We had started the thirty five mile journey just after 10 am. We reached the Gatlinburg entrance just after 3.30pm. The drive back did not take nearly as long, although we did stop a few times. Back at the Cherokee side of the park we spotted a herd of Elk grazing. They were in roughly the same spot as the male we had seen that morning. I thought that this group were all females because one or two youngsters could be seen in the long grass.

There are approximately 140 Elk in the park, but that number is expected to increase once all of the females give birth. We talked to a ranger who told us that several years ago 50 animals had been reintroduced to this area. These animals are now protected within the park. Any persons caught hunting them will be prosecuted and jailed.

Something thing that did bother us was the number of motorbikes on the roads. Actually it was the noise they made that was annoying. We would be enjoying the solitude, with only the sound of the birds for company. Suddenly out of nowhere, twenty or thirty bikes would thunder by. All too often with music blaring from radios.  It took some time for the sounds to fade completely and the peace restored.

I was outside drinking my coffee early on Monday morning, watching a flock of Canada geese and their goslings enjoying themselves in the river. I had been sitting there for some time, when a little rabbit appeared out of the bushes. It did not seem at all bothered by my presence and stayed nibbling on the lush grass. The geese started up the steep slope bringing them closer to where bunny and I were. The goslings, in groups of two or three, reached the top first. Parents following at a more leisurely pace, all the while keeping an eye on their offspring. When the little rabbit was joined by a gosling, I expected him to hop quickly away. For several long seconds, two checked each other out. Once they were satisfied that neither posed a threat. They continued to graze unconcernedly.

When the older geese reached the top of the bank, the youngsters were called, the entire flock moved off to a different location. The little rabbit, stayed, until the sound of a door closing scared him and he quickly disappeared into the safety of the bushes.

On Monday, before our return to Raleigh, we visited the Oconaluftee Museum and Village. There, we experienced the life of an 18th century Cherokee community and learned about their culture and lifestyle. Walking through the village with our Cherokee guide, we saw many examples of native crafts. Demonstrations of basket weaving, wood carving, pottery, were part of the tour. We saw how arrow and spearheads were made, and how the famed Indian dugout was made, by burning out the log. In the village square, we enjoyed watching a series of traditional dances. Later, in the dark interior of the seven sided Council House visitors learned about the Seven Clans, and the hierarchy of the Cherokee tribe.

Later, as we drove back to Raleigh, we agreed that this trip had been such an enjoyable one. We made plans to visit and explore more of this lovely part of the country again very soon.

forested island in a large river Photo by Ann Brixey