Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tail of the Dragon

On our return trip from Sweetwater TN we elected to take the more direct route back to Upstate SC, one that would add a couple of hours to our travel time but take us straight through the mountains. With Nantahala National Forest on one side and Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the other, our course would hug the Little Tennessee River and the shores of the lakes created by multiple dams for the duration. The river flows through six impoundments in total: Fontana Dam, Cheoah Dam, Calderwood Dam, Chilhowee Dam, Tellico Dam and Porters Bend Dam. Tellico Dam is actually further west from our start point (see my post on Fort Loudoun), and Porters Bend is closer to the headwaters of the Little Tennessee, but Chilhowee Lake is at the intersection of US 129 and the Foothills Parkway, and from there we passed the rest of the dams on our way east towards Fontana.


This section of road heading to the TN/NC border & Deals Gap twists and snakes its way up in elevation, the curves popular with motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts who flock to the region for the 318 curves encompassed in a mere 11 miles. Named “The Dragon” or "Tail of the Dragon" (for its supposed resemblance to a dragon’s tail), the curves have names like Copperhead Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Wheelie Hell, Gravity Cavity, Beginner's End, and Brake or Bust Bend.


My first visit to the Tail of the Dragon was on a UIUC ecology trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don’t remember if I was behind the wheel of the 8-person passenger van, but I do remember the emergency stop we made when someone (not me!) became carsick… If you can believe it, the speed limit on the Dragon used to be 55 mph; in 2005 it was lowered to 30 mph due to the increased amount of emergency calls stemming from frequent motorcycle accidents. 


0.7 miles south of the gap (and the state line) is the community of Deals Gap, located at the intersection of US 129 and NC 28. From here we followed NC 28 along Cheoah Lake to continue east, while 129 cuts south to Robbinsville*. Despite the fact that we had been driving the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park almost the whole way from the Foothills Parkway, the only Park Service facilities on this end of the Park are the 20 Mile Ranger Station and Twentymile Trail Trailhead, about halfway between Deals Gap and Fontana. However, don’t expect too much in the way of facilities; it’s really only a jumping-off point to the trails on this end of the park. One popular destination is Twentymile Cascade, a 1.25 mile roundtrip, although the Twentymile loop trail will take you on an eight mile hike from the trailhead.

stretching our legs at Twentymile

Just a little further is the Lewellyn Branch lake access point on Cheoah Lake. A result of a partnership between NC Wildlife Resources Commission and Alcoa Power, the boat ramp and pier are open to the public. Not only a great spot for fishing and boating, Cheoah Lake is also a spot to do some sightseeing; Cheoah Dam was the location of the scene in the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” where Kimble jumps from the dam to escape his pursuers…


About 23 miles from our starting point on the Foothills Parkway we finally reached our next destination. There, just before NC 28 crosses over the Little Tennessee, a road splits off to the left, leading to the bottom of the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains – the TVA Fontana Dam. We skipped the view from the bottom this time in favor of more time on top, but that's a story for next time...


*Another route from Sweetwater back to SC would have been to take the Cherohala Skyway, the National Scenic Byway that crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests connecting Tellico Plains TN with Robbinsville NC. Over forty miles long, it runs roughly parallel to the route we took; however it can easily be accessed from Deals Gap by continuing on US 129 south instead of east on NC 28…

Monday, February 27, 2017

Look Rock and the Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway might be the least well-known of the ten National Parkways that include popular drives such as the Blue Ridge and the Colonial Parkway; probably because it’s the only one of the congressionally mandated parkways that remains unfinished! When completed, the 72-mile parkway will connect US Route 129 and the Little Tennessee River on the west end with I-40 and the Pigeon River in the east, winding through the northern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for its entirety.



Authorized in 1944, about 22.5 miles are complete and open to the public, crossing a series of high ridges with views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and the Tennessee Valley to the north. The longest section is the 16.5 mile segment on the west end that connects US 129 with the town of Walland. Another 6 mile section connects US 321 in Cosby to I-40 in Pigeon River valley, and on the east end the Gatlinburg Bypass links the north end of Gatlinburg with the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway.


On our return trip from Sweetwater TN we elected to take the more direct route back to Upstate SC, one that would add a couple of hours to our travel time but take us on a more direct path home, cutting between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. This course took us to the western terminus of the Foothills Parkway on the Little Tennessee River.

Look Rock tower

It is 11 miles from US 129 to Look Rock, the highest point on the Parkway that has 360-degree panoramic views of the mountains. Look Rock features a picnic area and a campground, but the highlight is the observation tower. From the south Look Rock parking lot (Southwest Parking #6) the ½ mile trail crosses the road and then gains altitude as it scales the ridge. Just before reaching the concrete tower hikers pass the air quality monitoring station which (I believe) is where the Look Rock webcam is located. Note that the enclosed portion of the tower is not open to the public


There is a natural ledge on the south end of the parking lot that does not require hiking, but it only offers views in one direction. Still, it will give you a good idea of visibility at the tower, which due to pollution (and on our visit, rain) can be rather severely impacted at this high altitude. On a clear day you can easily see Mt. LeConte and Clingmans Dome (29 and 26 miles away, respectively), and possibly Mt. Guyot (40 miles away). Cades Cove is only 8 miles away, although to reach it takes over an hour (and a 30+mile drive) around through Walland and Townsend.

View south from parking lot

An additional portion of the parkway is scheduled for completion this June; the Walland to Wear's Valley section that will add another 16.1 miles. Under construction since the 1960s, structural fill failures and environmental/erosion concerns have plagued the project since the very beginning. Construction was halted in the 1980s with just a 1.65 mile segment remaining unfinished; nine bridges were required to span the series of steep ravines in it, and the ‘missing link’ as it came to be called is finally nearing completion. As for the rest of the Parkway, Park officials say that the last three segments have not even entered the planning phase.


There are multiple other pull-offs that showcase the grandeur of the foothills along the west end of the parkway, every view seemingly better than the last. Similar to Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, each season brings something new to the view - in autumn this is a far less-crowded route to see spectacular fall foliage. On this particular trip the spring buds and blooms were not yet visible, but without leaves on the trees the views were less obstructed. Reluctantly we retraced our steps back to the Little Tennessee River and highway 129, with the curviest section of our journey still ahead; to reach North Carolina we would have to traverse The Dragon…


Friday, February 24, 2017

Lost Sea of Craighead Caverns

Spelunking, boating, waterfalls, campouts... all fun trips with the family. But what if I said one destination had all of these things!? In the middle of a mountain in east Tennessee is a lake so enormous as to merit the title of America’s largest underground lake in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 4.5 acre Lost Sea is part of an extensive cave system called Craighead Caverns, located near Sweetwater, TN in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (The largest underground, non-subglacial lake in the world is Dragon's Breath Cave in Namibia, 4.9 acres in size.)


The caverns are named for their former owner, Cherokee Chief Craighead. In the “Council Room,” almost a mile from the entrance, a wide range of Indian artifacts have been found, indicating the cave was long used by the Cherokee for habitation and as a meeting place.


Starting with the 1820s, the first white settlers in the Tennessee Valley used the cave for storing potatoes and other vegetables, since the underground temperature is a cool 58° year-round. In subsequent years the cave was utilized by Confederate soldiers, who mined the cave for the saltpeter needed to manufacture gunpowder.

the descent underground

The Lost Sea was discovered in 1905 by a thirteen-year-old boy named Ben Sands. The water level of the lake fluctuates depending on precipitation, and by the time Ben had convinced his father to return to explore his discovery further, the water level had risen and concealed the entrance; local explorers only rediscovered it several years later. Today the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, and although fishing is not allowed, visitors can take a ride on the lake on one of four boats powered by electric motors.


In 1939, off-duty cave guides found the bones of a Pleistocene jaguar. A portion of the remains are now on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while others (and plaster casts of the cat’s tracks) can be viewed at the visitor center. Around this time a mushroom farm was operating near the Historic Entrance in the “Big Room,” and it was in 1947 that the nightclub “Cavern Tavern” operated underground, complete with dance floor. It didn’t seem surprising to hear the cave had also long been used for moonshining and cockfights.

a few of the crawling tour options...

In the 1970s cave divers explored the Lost Sea and discovered several additional rooms that are completely filled with water, totaling more than 13 acres. The full extent of the underground sea has yet to be fully explored.

my spelunker!

In addition to historical relics, the caverns also contain stalactites, stalagmites and a waterfall. However, it’s the presence of cave flowers, rare crystalline structures called anthodites, which resulted in Craighead Caverns being added to the National Park Service list of National Natural Landmarks in 1974. According to the Lost Sea website, Craighead contains 50% of the world’s known formations of anthodites.

sleeping arrangements!

Want to explore the cave for yourself? Various tour packages are available (see website for details), ranging from an hour-long visit of the lake and main rooms, to an overnight “Wild Cave Tour” adventure that includes a cavern tour, various crawling tours in the undeveloped section of the cave, a boat ride on the Lost Sea and an overnight sleepover; this is the option that gets our vote! Roberts and Lauris emerged into the early morning fog absolutely covered in mud, tired from their adventure but with grins on their faces and quite a few stories to tell… It has already been decided that they won’t get to hog all the fun next time!

Thanks to Roberts for use of his photographs!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fort Loudoun

Of the wars that have taken place on American soil in the last 400 years, the one I know least about is the French and Indian War; a recent trip to a TN State Park helped fill in some of the gaps. From 1754 to 1763 the colonies of British America fought against those of New France, both sides supported by Native American allies and military units from Europe in what was the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War.


We were in Tennessee for the weekend and started our exploration in Fort Loudoun, a British colonial-era fort located in Venore, Tennessee. Built in 1756-57 to provide safe haven for Cherokee allies in exchange for their assistance against the French, the fort was one of the first British outposts west of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s named for the Earl of Loudoun, the commander of British forces in North America at the time.


“Relations between the garrison of Fort Loudoun and the local Cherokee inhabitants were initially cordial, but soured in 1758 due to hostilities between Cherokee fighters and European settlers in Virginia and SC. After the massacre of several Cherokee chiefs who were being held hostage at Fort Prince George, the Cherokee laid siege to Fort Loudoun in March 1760. The fort's garrison held out for several months, but diminishing supplies forced its surrender in August 1760. Hostile Cherokees attacked the fort's garrison as it marched back to South Carolina, killing more than two dozen and taking most of the survivors prisoner.” (source here)


Based on detailed descriptions of the design, the fort was excavated during the Great Depression, and the site raised by 17 feet so that the fort could be rebuilt above the water line of what was to be the Tellico Reservoir.  When the Tellico Dam was finally completed in 1979, the Little Tennessee flooded the locations of the Overhill Cherokee towns of Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Citico, Mialoquo and Tuskegee – but the reconstructed Fort Loudoun remains.


Today Fort Loudoun is managed by the Tennessee State Parks. Along with a visitor center and the reconstructed fort, there is also a picnic area, fishing pier, hiking trails and boat dock. When doing research on the fort I discovered that there were actually three colonial forts built by the British in what is now the US that share the same name: the TN Fort Loudoun, and two others in Virginia and Pennsylvania... Seems like a recipe for confusion for British logistics!


To round out your visit to the fort, head across the road to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, a tribally operated museum dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of the history of the Cherokee people. The Museum is also a location on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The ruins visible on the opposite shore of the Little Tennessee from Fort Loudoun are that of the Tellico Blockhouse, the US army fort built in 1794 with a similar purpose to Fort Loudoun's. The significance of the area to the Cherokee is further emphasized by the proximity to Icehouse Bottom, a prehistoric Native American site that is one of the oldest-known habitation areas in Tennessee. Icehouse Bottom was submerged with the creation of the Tellico Reservoir, the shoreline immediately above the site now part of the McGhee-Carson Unit of the Tellico Lake WMA, just one peninsula east of Fort Loudoun State Park.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Great Dismal Swamp

The name alone stimulates the imagination – Great Dismal Swamp. What turned out to be the last stop in our coastal Virginia exploration, the National Wildlife Refuge attracted my attention due to the proximity to Norfolk as well as the reputed abundance of wildlife within its confines.


Straddling the border between North Carolina and Virginia, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge contains over 112,000 acres of forested wetlands and the 31,000 acre Lake Drummond at its center. It is the largest intact remnant of the habitat that once covered more than a million acres in this region, and with 200 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies and one of the largest black bear populations on the east coast, the area has significant ecological importance.


Evidence of human presence in the Dismal Swamp dates to some 13,000 years ago. The name Great Dismal is thought to come from Colonel William Byrd II’s expeditions into the swamp in the early 1700s to draw the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. George Washington visited the swamp in 1763, and having organized the Dismal Swamp Company, he proceeded to drain, farm, and log large portions of the swamp. Then with the approach of the Civil War the swamp gained a new significance: as a stop on the Underground Railroad on the way to the port of Norfolk, and of home to ‘the maroons,’ those choosing to remain in the relative safety of the swamp. The Union Camp Corporation donated 49,100 acres of the swamp to The Nature Conservancy in 1973 (who passed it on to the Department of the Interior), and the following year the refuge was established and the site officially designated as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.


It would be hard to cover more than a portion of this immense area in a day (especially without a boat!), and with this knowledge in the forefront of our minds we chose to concentrate on the area around the Refuge Office. The office itself was closed on what was a federal holiday, but nearby are a few hiking trails and the only road leading to Lake Drummond that allows vehicle traffic. We started at the Washington Ditch parking area and set off on the ¾ mile boardwalk trail to get a feel for the swamp. The elevated wooden Dismal Town Boardwalk Trail meanders through a representative portion of swamp habitats before emerging out on the Washington Ditch to return to the parking area. This was the spot used by Washington and company as their Dismal Swamp headquarters.

setting off on the Dismal Town Boardwalk trail

The five-mile Washington Ditch leads from the western boundary of the refuge to the north end of Lake Drummond, and was dug by hand by slaves for the purpose of transportation. The hike from the parking area to the lake is 4.5 miles, the main reason why we elected to skip it in favor of the auto tour route a little further south; we wanted to see the lake, but with cloudy skies and tired boys a 9-mile hike wasn’t an option.

Washington Ditch

The auto tour route begins just south of the Refuge Office. For rules and regulations (as well as to print out a permit) please visit the FWS website, although that information is also available on site. The road heads east along Railroad Ditch, then south along the West Ditch and finally west along Interior Ditch until it reaches the southwest shore of Lake Drummond. Along the six mile route there are several trails that take visitors out into the marsh and to several other interesting points, including a bald cypress that may be up to 800 years old.


The enormous lake in the center of the swamp was only ‘discovered’ in 1665 by colonial NC governor William Drummond. The largest natural lake in Virginia was formed about 4,000 years ago after a wildfire burned away several feet of peat soil. The peat is also the reason behind the lake’s dark brown color; it is stained dark as tea as it seeps through the peat, and this extended filtering also renders it incredibly pure.

foam stained brown

Although there are no alligators in the lake, it is home to many species of fish. In the winter the lake provides a resting area for thousands of migratory birds including Tundra Swans and Snow Geese, and during the summer visitors will see Great Blue Herons and egrets. On our January visit we spotted at least one Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

Tundra swans?


I had certainly expected a damp, ‘dismal’ visit on this rainy winter day, however our tour was anything but… On a hot, muggy summer’s day the swamp will provide a completely different experience (bug spray!), but this winter morning was a perfect time to explore a small portion of this amazing ecosystem, even with a slight drizzle. As we navigated the ditch roads back to civilization at least one boy drifted off to sleep before we even hit the pavement; I imagine his dreams to have been about the bears and eagles getting back to the business of the swamp upon our departure…

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