After spending the night in Cleveland, TN, I set off on US-64 for the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, and ultimately, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With hundreds of miles of roads crisscrossing these forests in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, I planned to spend the entire day wandering through the woods. Just before sunrise, my first stop along the way found me at Ocoee Dam #1, part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) system. This dam, the first of three, impounds Parksville Reservoir and is one of the oldest hydroelectric dams in the TVA system. US-64, portions of which are marked as the Ocoee Scenic Byway, follows the northern perimeter of the reservoir, affording many views of the Parkville Reservoir and the river that feeds it. The Ocoee River, home to some spectacular rapids, was the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics’ canoeing, kayaking, and slalom events and is now home to the Ocoee River Whitewater Center. As I continued along the Ocoee Scenic Byway, I encountered numerous scenic overlooks and an assortment of recreation areas that provide access to the river and its famed rapids. Stopping for pictures along the route can be treacherous in some places, however, as an overlook may be no wider than a car, placing one very close to traffic along this two-lane byway. After exiting the Cherokee National Forest just shy of the Tennessee-North Carolina border, I headed north on TN-68 out of Ducktown.
While the drive along TN-68 provided many noteworthy views of the Cherokee National Forest, this road is not intended for sightseeing as it lacks any suitable places to stop for pictures. In Tellico Plains, I departed TN-68 for more tourist-friendly roadways and again headed east, this time on TN-165. This route, known as the Cherohala Skyway, with its many steep ascents and descents, switchbacks, and generally-winding path, featured numerous vantages from which I could take in huge swaths of the Cherokee National Forest. Though the skies were overcast, the scenery was such that I did not care particularly, instead focusing on the natural beauty that stretched out in all directions. When I reached the North Carolina border, though the route number changed, the natural splendor that surrounded me did not, nor did its designation as the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway. Reaching heights between 4,400 and 5,200 feet, NC-143 provided access to the heart of the Nantahala National Forest before delivering me back to civilization in Bryson City by way of NC-28 and US-19. From here, I was able to make my way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this day’s ultimate destination.
In Cherokee, NC, US-441 heads north from US-19 into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a brief stop at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center to procure a map, I continued north on US-441, known within the park as Newfound Gap Road. At the visitors center, an elevation of approximately 2,500 feet, the sky was overcast and a light mist was falling. As I ascended into the Great Smokies, the weather seemed to change with every twist and turn US-441 made. Crossing 4,000 feet, a thick fog set in, reducing visibility to no more than a few feet and slowing traffic on the park road to a crawl. At the North Carolina-Tennessee border, approximately 1,000 feet higher, rain accompanied the now-thinning fog and I suspect that it was not actually fog, but the interior of the cloud, that obscured all views. As proof of my presence, I did get a picture of the sign marking the two states’ borders, which stands at 5,046 feet. Much to my relief, as I began my descent on the Tennessee side of the park, the weather began to clear. It seems that even the storm that obscured much of the North Carolina side of the drive could not overcome the elevation of Mount Kephart and the ridge that stretches from either side of its summit.
Continuing north through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I passed numerous trailheads that truly made me wish I’d brought hiking boots on this adventure. Just north of the trail leading to Chimney Tops, I finally caught a glimpse of the mountains that had eluded me for much of my drive along Newfound Gap Road. A few miles later, I found myself at the Carlos Campbell Overlook, gazing up at what portion of the 6,593-foot Mount LeConte that was not obscured by clouds. From this overlook, one can also see seven different varieties of trees, one of the features that makes the Great Smokies unique. No where else in North America or Northern Europe can one find such a variety, the park literature declares. It is incredible to think that just shy of 100 years ago, commercial logging threatened to destroy the very feature this park is now prized for. After taking in the beauty that defines the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I made my way out of the park and headed towards Gatlinburg, TN.
In Gatlinburg, I headed east on US-321 before once again wandering into the Cherokee National Forest. Intending to drive through Asheville, I followed TN-32 as a shortcut to connect me to I-40, returning southbound to North Carolina before exiting the national forest. Outside of Asheville, I connected with I-26 and headed north once again, avoiding the city as rush-hour traffic began to build. I stopped once more for pictures in North Carolina before entering the Pisgah National Forest and, at the Tennessee border, the Cherokee National Forest. The second day of my homeward journey culminated with one last stop in Tennessee before continuing to West Virginia to spend the evening.
The complete gallery for this portion of my trip is available at http://picasaweb.google.com/ehitter/GeorgiaRoadTripRound2.