Not to be misconstrued with one of our more involved trips, this particular excursion was what might be referred to as a little “getaway”. Actually, when Airstream acquaintances Teresa and Randy Cook informed us that their summer itinerary would have them passing near to our home base in Indiana, we arranged a rendezvous of sorts. Once learning that they had yet to see a nearby national park, we suggested that Mammoth Cave would be a good place to meet up and to enjoy their company for a few days. Reservations were made months in advance, with them headed on to Michigan and eventually the West Coast. Adding a few extra stops of our own, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky would be our first destination, but not our last. Inveterate travelers as we are, why not tack on a few more places? Early summer in the Appalachians really can’t be beat. We’d retrace a trip we made in reverse just a couple years ago . . . albeit in the last days of a spectacular autumn. Seen in reverse and dressed in a totally different look, it should be as if a first-time event. We hit the road with high expectations.
Our acquaintance with Teresa and Randy was a recent one, coming together at last May’s annual Airstream Rally, the Alumnapalooza, in Ohio. As fate would have it, we were assigned adjacent sites, and remarkably we both pulled up in Limited Edition Pendleton Airstreams! And that was just the start of all we had in common. After several fun-filled and informative days, we parted company. Our travels would take us in different directions, but we were determined to reconnect. As thus we came to Cave Country RV Park in late May of 2017.
Two cave tours later and many enjoyable evening hours around the “campfire”, our visit once again came to an end. The Airstream connection might have been the catalyst, but an active lifestyle and a yearning to keep traveling was the bond that has us determined to reconnect our full lives. Mammoth Cave was just the beginning. We’ll stay in close touch and look forward to our next rendezvous—undoubtedly somewhere our Airstreams take us!
From the rolling hills of central Kentucky, we took the highway south. Once in Tennessee, those hills took on a decidedly more rugged character. The highway got curvier too. Near the end of our nearly 200-mile drive we were making a serious climb up the flanks of the Cumberland Plateau.
Located in central Tennessee midway between Nashville and Knoxville and just a short drive south of I-40, Fall Creek Falls is one of the state’s most popular state parks. And with good reason. Centered in an area known for its unique geological formations, this 26,000-acre park is found in the upper Cane Creek Gorge, where just to get there is an adventure in driving, not to mention when you’re towing. Part of the Cumberland Plateau—that huge dissected upland that lies just west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Cane Creek Gorge is a large gash cutting into the western edge of the plateau. With its headwaters in the eastern highlands of the Plateau, Cane Creek slowly gains strength as it absorbs several smaller streams. Entering the gorge, it drops several hundred feet in less than a mile, first creating cascades and then separating to create two waterfalls dropping into the same plunge pool. Over the next half-mile, Cane Creek absorbs Fall Creek and Piney Creek, both of which enter from smaller gorges, having each created their own impressive falls.
In 1937, the U.S. Government began purchasing the badly eroded land around Fall Creek Falls. The following year, the WPA and the CCC began the work of restoring the forest and constructing park facilities. In 1944, the NPS transferred ownership of this park to the State of Tennessee. Today, Fall Creek Falls is the state’s largest and most visited state park.
There is a 145-room lodge and 30 cabins. The campground has 222 sites with water and electricity (70 of which have sewer hookups!). Very popular on the weekends, the campground is laid out in several loops. With paved roads and campsite pads, it’s pretty darn decent for any state park! Make reservations ahead of time if coming in the summer and fall months. There are more than 34 miles of trails as well as two long-distance overnight trails.
Three days later had us pulling away from a satisfying visit, but looking ahead to even higher elevations with great expectations. Another cross-country drive along rural state highways . . . a stop for provisions in the college town of Athens, and then deeper into the backcountry highlands of far eastern Tennessee.
Ever heard of the Cherohala Skyway? If not, you’re in good company with lots of people—even those that live a lot closer to where it’s located. I learned about it years ago, written up in a travel magazine article. Piquing my interest, I filed the article away under my Scenic American Roads travel folder, waiting for the right opportunity to come along. And here we were—in a convenient location at a perfect time. It was an easy half-day drive from Fall Creek Falls.
Winding up and over 5,400-foot mountains for 23 miles in the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee and descending another 18 miles in North Carolina, the Skyway gains over 4,000 feet in elevation. Crossing through both the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, its name is thus derived—“Chero…hala”. Well known in motorcycling and sports car circles, it has gained a reputation for long, sweeping turns, scenic views and cool summer breezes. Once passing through the verdant gateway, there is little evidence of civilization from views that rival any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
During the 1950s the people living in the foothills and mountains of eastern Tennessee felt isolated from virtually the rest of our country. They had roads running west, miles of rough driving to reach a town of any consequence. What they were needing was a route to the east, to the progressive towns of western North Carolina. A passage in the book Wagon Train: Thirty Years Across the Far Blue Mountains written by Jim Thompson summed it up succinctly.
“A highway that would enable their youngsters to search for the reality inside the dreams of their parents. A highway that would allow bright young men and women to expand their horizons beyond the noble mountains of their birth. They would travel to places beyond the horizon, then bring the lessons they learned home to the mountains. Rural villages would grow in knowledge and education, while retaining the values of the past.”
The history of the road is a long winding story that began in 1958. In the spring of that year the Tellico Plains, Tennessee Kiwanis Club members were talking about the need for a road connecting the people of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Charles Hall was one of the men at that Kiwanis Club meeting and remained a driving force behind the push for the road, until the dedication of the Cherohala Skyway in 1996.
During a Kiwanis meeting in April 1958, Sam Williams suggested they organize a wagon train to draw attention to the need for a road, “Since our roads are only fit for covered wagons.” “We laughed at Sam a little while, then got serious,” said Hall. On July 4, 1958, 67 covered wagons and 325 horseback riders made the 42-mile trek to Murphy, N.C. Surprisingly, this event caught on, becoming an annual event. During its 30-year history, this wagon train was chronicled by local and national media, eventually attracting the attention the men and media that it intended to.
It was on the 1960 wagon train, that then Robbinsville Mayor Smith Howell made the first announcement that the road connecting the two states would run from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC. Coincidentally, the 1960 wagon train remained the largest ever with 105 wagons and 776 horseback riders.
In 1962 Hall and several other men went before Congress to ask for money for the project. They had discovered the road could be built entirely on federal land, with it traveling through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Later that year the Federal Highway Administration made the first appropriation for the road, but it was still a long way from becoming a reality. “After we got the first appropriation, it fell back to us to keep the wagon train going and the money coming in,” Hall said. By 1967, the 10th anniversary of the Wagon Train, the road was finally under construction. As the Wagon Train ventured out on its annual journey in 1982, more contracts were being let for construction of the road and the Cherohala Commission had been appointed to promote and plan the new highway. Hall said construction was delayed for about 13 years while they worked with 21 environmental groups which had concerns about the road. But finally on Oct. 12, 1996, the road was dedicated and is now designated a National Scenic Byway. Hall’s wife, Billie Nell, said her husband was like the “little engine that could” in his efforts to draw attention to the need for the road and seeing it through to completion. Hall said what is important to him is “the satisfaction of knowing it is done and is going to be enjoyed by so many people.”
And we would be one of them. Starting in Tellico Plains, TN., we entered the Cherokee National Forest, the state’s only national forest. Once devastated by logging, but protected since 1911, the woodland is pristine—no signs of civilization. Surrounded by every conceivable nuance of green, we passed into an entirely natural and seemingly untouched world. My kind of place.
Only one campground is located along the drive—but it’s a real doozie. Taking the turnoff on Forest Road 345, only 14 miles from the Tennessee terminus of the drive, you’ll find an hidden beauty of a campground canopied by large, looming hardwoods and pine forests. Indian Boundary Recreation Area is easily the crown jewel of the south zone of the Cherokee National Forest. It didn’t take long for us to set up camp . . . ahhhhh—now THIS was OUR KIND OF CAMPING!
Situated deep in a forested setting at a modest elevation of about 1,600 feet, the sites are decently spaced, extremely deep, neatly delineated and nicely leveled. While the road is paved, the sites are graded with fine gravel, and each site has electrical hookups. Water faucets abound, making filling tanks very convenient. Modern bathhouses are spotless and provide showers as well. All this from a national forest campground??? National park campgrounds can’t hold a candle to this ideal campground! You’ll find 87 reserveable sites in this popular place—make reservations well ahead!
Just 2 miles from the Cherohala Skyway, this is the perfect place to use as a base camp. But don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to leave this pastoral setting . . . you might find everything here you’ll need for a satisfying getaway. The 96-acre lake completes the picture—having a swim beach, small boat launch and accessible fishing pier. The finishing touch is provided by a nicely graded 3.6-mile hike/bike trail that encircles the entire lake. You’ll find it easy to understand why it’s such a popular family destination. And a real beauty for nature lovers!
It was difficult to pull ourselves away from that idyllic place come the next morning. It would require a tantalizing lure to pull me away . . . and an exceptionally picturesque waterfall was just that kind of temptation
Turning off the Skyway, a narrow forest road skirts along the edge of the upper Tellico River through a steep-sided rocky gorge. Sheer canyon walls rise above the forest canopy; the whitewaters of the river cascade over boulders and rocks. A setting that’s truly a balm for city-worn spirits.
And then, a few short miles up the river gorge is the big payoff for this side trip. Bald River Falls is arguably the most beautiful and impressive waterfall in the entire state. No argument or contradiction from me.
The Cherohala isn’t just about driving through dense forest scenery where trees hem in the road, their branches creating an emerald tunnel. Soon enough the twisting road ascends to the highest ridges, gaining over 4,000 feet from the start of the drive, where it leads to arresting panoramas. It is from these high overlooks where little evidence of civilization can be seen and the views can rival—or surpass—any from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This 43-mile, twisting ribbon of asphalt corkscrewing through mountain ridges is North Carolina’s most expensive highway. Having a final price tag of $100,000,000, the cost averages out to about $3 million a mile. For a scenic drive that is little known and rarely publicized, we found the statistics quite astounding. You won’t find gas stations, restaurants, billboards or other facilities along its route, just the occasional restrooms and picnic tables at most pull-offs. But for those of us who have made the discovery, there’s more enjoyment to be found on this high mountain road so little traveled.
Take hiking trails, for instance. We tried out a couple and never passed another soul. We were on our own to climb the pathways, selecting those that led to unique Appalachian anomalies—the mountain balds.
Found in the Appalachian Mountains, balds are mountain summits or crests covered primarily by thick vegetation of native grasses, shrubs and dwarfed trees. With more than 80 of these balds found in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, their origins are speculative to both geologists and the native Indians. Unlike the alpine summits where the climate is too cold to support tree growth, the climate found on balds is warm enough for trees. Why a summit develops into a grassy bald is an ecological enigma, but there are some speculations. Forest fires once sweeping through is an explanation. Or cleared by early native tribes for ceremonial or hunting grounds could be the reason. It is known that early settlers herded livestock to the mountaintops, providing summer grazing ground. But those days are long gone. Once shrubs and grasses become established, their deep and tightly bound root systems tend to prevent other vegetation from taking root. Yet the mystery still is unanswered—why do forests exist on some of the summits, while others remain primarily grassy balds? In this informed age of ours, I like to think that nature can still have her secrets.
Among the listing of more prominent balds, you’d find the two we chose to hike that day on the Cherohala. Following the ridge of the Unicoi Mountain Crest, one of the most undeveloped areas in the eastern U.S., one can actually hike three successive mountain balds. Hooper Bald, the second of the three, was where we chose to start. Known for its wildflowers and plantings of wild and native azaleas by a local conservation group, it has an interesting history.
In 1908, George Moore started a 1500-acre hunting preserve on Hooper Bald where wealthy clients could come to shoot exotic and native game. (In those days, activities such as this seemed to be very popular among certain groups—fortunately, not so much in current times). In an effort to contain the wildlife, 25 tons of wire were hauled over rough roads for the 10-foot high fence to keep out the indigenous bear population. However, those bears soon learned to climb the fence and would repeatedly raid the lodge in search of food (much to the dismay of guests). Among the animals shipped to this preserve were 14 European wild boars, 4 bison, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 25 black bears and 9 Russian brown bears. (I find it interesting that George Moore thought more bears were needed). It took 3 days and 6 wagons to haul just the boars up 25 miles through the mountains. Those same boars, incidentally, easily rooted out of their enclosure once on Hooper Bald and escaped. Today it is a certainty that their progeny still roam these mountain ridges.
The end result makes all the huffing and puffing exertion worthwhile. Standing on that mountain bald opens up the far-off views. Standing in a sea of high grasses, you’ll have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains, coves and deep valleys.
It was just dumb luck that we saved the best for the last. With a unremarkable start to Huckleberry Knob, we followed an overgrown forest road up a gradual slope through a thicket of dwarfed trees, shrubs and grasses, giving no hint of the scenery that was to come. The call of songbirds was the highlight, with images of being alone here in bear country to give us a touch of apprehension.
Nearly a mile later the forest began opening up . . . soon enough we were breaking through to sunshine as the undergrowth fell away. Before us lay a breathtaking expanse.
This bald was crowned with a field of buttercups. Not just a smattering, mind you, but a solid carpet of those yellow flowers. Absolutely amazing as unexpected delights often are. Even Chris was standing in awe.
Once again, the benefits of an open summit pay out in dividends with the far-off views. Now here is a spot that you’d never tire of . . . and once again we were the only ones to be there!! You won’t find that kind of privacy on most mountaintops.
Soon enough we were turning to go as heavy dark clouds were rolling in. But I’m here to tell you—the trail back down was as spectacular as the start. Lingering for a few last shots, I was still on an adrenaline high.
Ending our stay here on such a high note couldn’t help but influence our interlude here. The flowers might have been one of the last memories, but we took away plenty of other good ones to add to it. The scenic drive, the great campsite, a fabulous waterfall, the picturesque lake and its well-worn perimeter trail. Somehow, we hope to return. Isn’t that the way a great stay should end?
Streaming on to the Blue Ridge Mountains,
Melinda & Chris