Sunday, March 31, 2019

Anniversary Weekend 2019 part 2: the Road to Nowhere - Tunnel Bypass Trail and Goldmine Loop Trail

New Miles Completed: 4.3
Total Miles Hiked: 5.3
31 March 2019

On the final day of our anniversary getaway weekend we opted to head out to the end of the Road to Nowhere and hike the trails around it. I've heard of this place forever: the promise to build a road to follow the northern shore of Fontana Lake after Fontana Dam was built, the delays, the lack of funds, the lawsuits... Ultimately the road was never completed. Fontana Road runs west from Bryson City in to the GSMNP where it becomes Lakeview Drive, it reaches a tunnel, and then stops.

View of Fontana Lake from Lakeview Drive

Parking lot / Trailhead for Lakeshore Trail at the end of Lakeview Drive

Super creepy / super cool tunnel that you have to walk through. Sadly, LOTS of graffiti on the walls.
Our goal for the day was to do a double loop that included both the Tunnel Bypass trail and the Goldmine Loop trail. From the trailhead, through the tunnel, and to the Tunnel Bypass trail junction is about 0.6 miles. At the Tunnel Bypass trail we turned left onto the Tunnel Bypass trail, and back toward where we had just parked.

Lakeshore Trail / Tunnel Bypass trail junction

Tunnel Bypass Trail

Views of surrounding ridges from the Tunnel Bypass Trail
The Tunnel Bypass Trail is a narrow, single-track ridge-side walk that skirts the edge of the ridge that the tunnel goes through. It dives south from the Lakeshore Trail, then back east toward the parking lot, then finally north back to the parking lot. Not a lot to say about this trail - it's on a dry, south-facing slope with a fairly steep aspect. Lots of mountain laurel and pine. Nice views of the surrounding ridges this time of year because the leaves are all off the trees.

At mile 1.2 of the Tunnel Bypass trail you arrive at its junction with the Goldmine Loop trail. To complete all of the trail sections we hiked the 0.4 miles from here down to the parking lot, then turned around and hiked the 0.4 miles back up to this junction to begin the Goldmine Loop trail.

Tunnel Bypass trail / Goldmine Loop trail junction

End of the Tunnel Bypass trail at the parking lot.
Goldmine Loop trail makes a big loop from the tunnel down to an inlet of Fontana Lake and then back up the other side. On the west side it follows Goldmine Branch, and on the east side it follows Tunnel Branch. The trail drops steeply from its junction with the Tunnel Bypass trail.

Goldmine Loop trail
As the trail drops through the upper parts of the ridge that are dry and mostly mountain laurel and pine, it hooks up with Tunnel Branch and begins to flatten out and form the long green tunnel of Rhododendron and Laurel. The trail follows the creek until the creek empties out into an inlet of Fontana Lake. This time of year the water has been drawn down, so the edges of the lake are considerably lower than they will be in summer, and a long muddy flat exists at the end of the inlet.

Fontana Lake inlet on Goldmine Loop trail
From here the trail follows Goldmine Branch, climbing slowly and easily along the creek. It passes backcountry campsite #67 that we declined to investigate (because it was up just one more hill...), and slogs through several mucky areas where small creeks and seeps are spilling in to Goldmine Creek. In several of these spots boards have been installed to facilitate travel above the muck.

Walking boards to avoid the muck
As the trail follows Goldmine Branch it's clear that the southern bank of the creek was settled. There are many flat-ish spots that would make great home sites, and you can still find rusty metal buckets, sections of fence, and piles of chimney stones. It's always fun to imagine what the lives of the folks who lived in this place were like.

Pile of chimney stones along the south side of Goldmine Branch
From here the trail begins to rise back up the ridge toward Lakeshore Trail. And it does so fairly steeply. This section isn't long - maybe 1/3 mile, but it is pretty steep going up.

The last push up Goldmine Loop trail back to the Lakeshore Trail
From here we re-traced our steps back along the Lakeshore Trail to, and through the tunnel to our car. It was a fun loop - the descent and ascent on Goldmine Loop were a bit challenging, but the chance to see the end of the Road to Nowhere and walk through the tunnel, the Fontana Lake inlet, and the old homesites along Goldmine Branch were all really cool. This pair of loops was more fun than I anticipated it would be! Always great to be out in the Smokies.

Back side of the tunnel.

Stopped to get our picture at the park entrance sign!
Hope everyone is enjoying spring and making big plans for hiking this summer!

Til next time, happy hiking.

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