Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Big Circuit

Today's drivings took me on a 281 mile circuit from Knoxville, TN around the edge of Great Smokies National Park all the way back to Knoxville. My plan had me going to Fontana Dam and to Lakeview Drive (the road to nowhere) via US 129. My plans changed.

Ordinarily, I would never get on the Dragon ( on a weekend, but since it is the only route to Fontana Dam and Bryson City from my current neck of the woods, I had to chance it. The "Dragon" is the name that has been given to US 129, a VERY popular road among motorcycling circles due to the insane number of turns. Along with the Cherohala Skyway, NC 28, and a few other locals roads, the Dragon is one of the best rides in America. Being buzzed by hundreds of motorcycles is enough to drive any car driver a little crazy, along with the tight turns, but I made a mjor mistake that made my ride on the Dragon a ton longer and more wild than I had ever bargained for. I forgot to check the events calender, and went on a bicycle race day. Poop.

The Ford Taurus is not known for its manueverability, or its mountain endurance, and as such my ride on the Dragon was both terrifying and nauseating. Dodging bicycles is hard enough on a road where you cannot see ten feet in front of you due to the turns. It gets nearly impossible when you add motorcycles dodging in and out of traffic. I was doing constant 0->30->0 accelerations, driving with my head under the rear-view mirror to see the bicyclists in the corners, and riding with my loud hazards on.

The Dragon is, however, worth all the trouble. Huge dropoffs often showcase interesting structures built by the TVA and other power entities, like pumped storage hydro plants, green limstone lakes, and plenty of dams. One such dropoff shows a arched dam (Calderwood Dam: from hundreds of feet in the air, from the back, so you see a huge drop, with an arch holding back another huge drop. The whole road looks more like the Pacific Northwest than the Southeast. Powerlines run in and out of gorges, and some massive lines sit on plyons in the middle of lakes. I tried to get pictures, but the traffic made that impossible.

Needless to say, once we finally got to Fontana Dam, the Taurus needed a little break. The engine temperature was fine, but my transmission fluid had to be getting near the scorch point, and I was loosing my rear brakes from heat. After a nice twenty minute break parked on the far side of the dam, the car was fine again, but I scared the crap out of myself and some other visitors by laying accidentally on my horn when I went to put my camera away.

Fontana dam is the highest dam east of the Rockies, according to the TVA. It is looking a little beat up, and the road that runs on the top (which carries the Appalacian Trail) is all cracked and beat up. Since it doesn't really go anywhere right now, it isn't a huge deal. The weather was really stinking it up today, it was cloudy and trying to rain all day. It was hot and humid enough for some decent thunderstorms, but none came. Just enough clouds to ruin my pictures (hence why no big versions) but not enough to bring any more much needed rain. Every reservoir I passed was 10-20 feet below normal waterline. Looks really weird in a place with so much exposed limstone. Very surreal.
From the dam, I set out down NC 28 towards Bryson City to find the other planned location for today, Lakeview Drive, the other big road to nowhere in the Smokies. Well, it is so unused that I couldn't find it without a map, and I didn't have a map. Decided to loop around and go to Cataloochee instead, that way this trip would cut down on the number of runs I need to make this weekened to the park.

I decided to avoid Bryson City and Cherokee, and head around the outside of the mountains on the highway instead. It would have been faster, if I had remembered that I needed to take US 276 and not US 19 to Cataloochee. Eventually I got to the road to Cataloochee, and headed up another winding road.
Cataloochee Valley is situated on the far eastern side of the park, 7-10 miles in from I-40, and 30 miles from the nearest town in Tennessee. Both approaches require a dirt/gravel road ride, but the NC side is substantially shorter, and my abused car needed the break. After several switchbacks on the washboard road, I hit the actual road to Cataloochee. This road looks like another road to nowhere, and a two-lane yellow lined road terminates into a long dirt road in either direction, and a grassy gated right-of-way where the road to the Interstate was probably intended to be.

The valley was a lot less interesting than I was expecting. Smaller, and less open than Cades Cove. The big plus to Cataloochee is that is is totally empty most of the year. Oh, and they released the Elk there a few years back.

I didn't follow the two dirt roads that branched off of the main valley road because I needed to head back. I had an appointment to check in at 4PM or my emergency contact was going to call the rangers out for me to track me down. Since my cell phone works absolutely nowhere now, not even in downtown Knoxville, I needed to get back to the temporary apartment and the landline that it happens to have.

The forest around Cataloochee was classic new growth hardwood, with the nice ferns and low plants that make it look magical, and like a prime bear habitat. Despite my constant looking, I went 281 miles and didn't see any wildlife larger than a Turkey Vulture.
Here's a map that will help show where I went.
Total Mileage: 281
Hours Driving: 7
Bathroom Breaks: 1
National Parks Visited: 1 (GSMNP)
National Forests Visited: 3 (Pisgah, Nantahala, Cherokee)
States Visited: 2
Locations Successfully Visited: 2/3
Keeper Photographs: 0


Nat said...

That one of the tree by the side of the road... because of the sunlight on the foreground and the rain clouds in the sky, it seems really unreal. Cool "right place at the right time" effect.

JPS said...


It was trying hard to decide whether to rain or not all day long. It never really managed to rain much, but it sure did try.

The weird thing was that everytime I got directly under the clouds, they would break.