A Guide to the Road to Nowhere, Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an interesting enough region based on its views alone. But how does the idea of a scenic drive and a unique hike through a long tunnel in the mountains sound?

Commonly referred to as the “Road to Nowhere,” here lies a scenic route with a touch of history attached to it, and it runs through the national park.

It is also a popular hiking destination ensconced within the mountains, serving as something just a little different to the usual adventures.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the ominously named “Road to Nowhere” and what you can expect driving or hiking along it.

Road to Nowhere–All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

brief history of the road to nowhere
Image: Smoky Dan

A Brief History of the Road

The history behind how the road came to be is long and somewhat complex, so we’ll try to offer a condensed version here. It’s worth including the fact that the original road running through the area was Highway 288, the road that ended up badly flooded after Fontana Lake burst its banks in the 1940s.

The flooding became such an issue that the National Park Service made the decision to provide an alternate route for the highway through the national park. But this didn’t happen until around 20 years later.

One of the main issues related to the flooding had been that thousands of people had literally been cut off from access to family cemeteries. This became a more urgent issue as time went on, but even after a decade or so had passed just the six miles of road that exists today had been completed.

Environmental factors were attributed to the eventual demise of the construction effort. On top of that, there was a major debate about any possible way forward with the project. This eventually resulted in the laying to rest of the project and the compensation of those most affected by the events leading up to it.

As it stands, Fontana Village Marina provides pontoon shuttle transportation on various days of the year for families wishing to visit the otherwise inaccessible cemeteries.

Things to See and Do along the Road

The winding 6-mile road is a scenic enough attraction by itself as it curves through the amazing terrain of the national park. It also features various scenic mountainside stop-offs along the way, particularly in the vicinity of Fontana Lake.

Fontana Lake

fontana lake
Image: Smoky Dan

The simply stunning Fontana Lake comes with a 480-foot accompanying dam. The picturesque lake is the largest there is on the western wing of North Carolina, and the Fontana Dam is the highest east of the Rockies.

Visitors can park in a picnic area with a pavilion and some serious views. Or they can drive or walk across the dam to the visitor center to get more information and history related to the formation of the dam in the 1940s.

The famous Appalachian Trail actually runs across the dam. On top of that, the majority of the lake’s 238-mile shoreline is within the boundaries of the Nantahala National Forest along with the Smoky Mountain National Park.

You’ll notice from the Lakeview Drive Entrance the Fontana Lake Overlook is the first left-hand pull-off, and this is one of a few overlooks along the way.

The lake and dam are obvious hotspots for recreation. Fishing, boating, and swimming are all popular activities here on top of what are probably the main ones—hiking and camping.

The Hiking Trails

hiking trails at road to nowhere
Image: woodleywonderworks

The next stop-off after the lake on the same side will be the Noland Creek Trails parking lot. The trails lead north and south and both feature some fairly amazing views of the Creekside.

There’s also plenty of peace and quiet around here for solitude seekers.

The Noland Creek South Trail stretches just a 2-mile round trip heading back in the direction of the lake. The North Trail by comparison runs more than eight miles along the creek and through the forest.

A little further along the line, a loop trail option spanning just over 3 miles is worth another stop.  This is where the run of the scenic road finally ends up—at the last of the completed tunnels along the route. The mile-long tunnel was even paved, and it serves as a gateway for the loop and various trails.

The complete loop consists of three trails by way of the Goldmine Loop, the Lakeshore Trail, and the Tunnel Bypass. A smaller lead-off trail provides access to a campsite in the backcountry (No. 67).

You can find it near an old, historic-looking homestead, of which there are a few dotted around. Hikers can also experience a variety of features along this trail such as a creek, a few views of the lake, and even some wild boar traps.

The traps were apparently laid after some of the boar escaped from the land of a local farmer who had purchased them. The bottom line is that animals are generally not good for any natural environment due to their heedless behavior.

Walking through the Tunnel

walking through the tunnel
Image: woodleywonderworks

From the Lakeview Drive parking lot, it is possible to walk the tunnel’s paved road. Depending on the time of day and year that you visit, you may find that a torch may well come in handy as there aren’t any lights in the tunnel.

Once hikers find themselves on the other side of the tunnel they will be able to pick up the Lakeshore Trail, although probably not complete the whole 30-plus miles of it. Most will continue with the 3.2-mile loop trail already mentioned from here.

Road to Nowhere FAQs

What is the Road to Nowhere?

It is an area of North Carolina’s Bryson City that is somewhat unique. The ‘road’ came about after the planned construction of a local highway was abandoned due to various factors.

What is the Best Way to Find the Road?

The road is an area known as Lakeview Drive which is within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, these two are one and the same as the drive is a stretch of the actual unfinished highway project.

To access the road you should head north from downtown Bryson City. This will take you along Everett Street initially before continuing on Fontana Road. After 2.5 miles or so you will come to the Lakeview Drive entrance to the national park.

How long is the Road?

This is the start of a 6-mile scenic drive that leads all the way to the parking lot in the vicinity of the famous “Road to Nowhere Tunnel”—in fact marking the furthest point and sum total of the completed road.

The Bottom Line

In all, the Road to Nowhere in the Smoky Mountains National Park is a unique, interesting, and highly-scenic way to experience various aspects of the region.

Can you imagine walking through a mile-long tunnel in the mountains, then being confronted by hiking trails galore and the kind of scenery you’ve only ever dreamed of before?

It’s certainly worth considering the inclusion of this interesting region and its slowly unfolding story in any planned or potential trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It could well add another unforgettable touch to the whole adventure, whether on foot or on wheels.

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