TO THE TRAILHEAD: From Bryson City, NC, you will take Lakeview Drive roughly 8 miles until it ends. This will take you close to the end of the road to nowhere. But it is where the road itself ends and the trail begins. You will begin on the Benton McKaye Trail that is also known as Lakeshore Trail and if you wanted to, it would take you nearly 40 scenic miles to Fontana. But we will not discuss that part of the hike today.
THE HIKE: This is a loop hike, and you can do a loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. I want to get right to the good stuff, so we are going counterclockwise. Basically, you just go straight when the road ends and the trail begins. Your journey starts very cool, with the 1200 foot long tunnel that was supposed to be a part of the finished road that never happened. It is a neat feeling walking through this structure out here in the middle of nowhere. You get all these Robert Frost and Thoreau poetic thoughts as you get to the tunnel. Unfortunately, part of that is taken away by the large amount of graffiti that has been put here over the years. In some places in the tunnel the graffiti looks like a bridge or overpass in a major city. I truly hate people that do that. Anyway, getting back to the tunnel. It is long. 1200 feet sounds like a lot, but you don’t really appreciate how big it is until you get there. In fact, if you are there early in the morning, late in the evening, or during storms when the sky is very gray, the middle of that tunnel can be pretty dark. If you are easily creeped out or claustrophobic, it might be a good idea to bring a headlamp or flashlight. I will say though, if the weather turns poor, it is a great place to ride it out. Me and about 8 others sat in there through a lightning storm a few years back, eating and playing cards until it passed and dry as a bone. Several people have tried to camp overnight here in the past. Don’t do it. First, the rangers will check there and you will be fined and tossed out. Secondly, remember one of the golden rules of camping. Don’t camp within a mile of a road. The tunnel is literally steps away from the road. The bad people are not in the mountains. The bad people are the ones outside, and that is way to close for me. Just my two cents.
If you are really claustrophobic or just can’t do tunnels, there is a way to do this loop without it. There is an aptly named Tunnel Bypass Trail that starts on the left just before the Lakeview Drive ends. It will last 1.2 miles and rejoin the loop, so that is an option if you don’t want to do the tunnel. But assuming you do, once you get through the loop, you are finished with all parts of the trail to nowhere and begin hiking an easy and well graded trail. After you finish the half-mile mark, you will see a trail junction to the left taking the Tunnel bypass Trail. Keep going straight. Only another three tenths of a mile takes you to your first turn on the loop when you come to the junction with Goldmine Loop Trail. As you go, you will likely see flattened pieces of land and remnants of old home sites that were here before the government bought the land for the lake. Over the years there has been less and less to see here of remaining structures, but you can still see the occasional chimney, fence, window, and porch structure if you slow down to look around.
Since you are so close to Fontana Lake, you can often hear water water around you as you are so close. If you do want to overnight on this hike, campsite 67 is right on your way about a mile and a half in. It is just far enough from the road to make it an okay place to camp and it is on the opposite side of the road, so you don’t have to worry about any road noise, so that can be a good place to stay the evening. From the campsite, the trail is a little steep in places, but it will only last for about the next mile. You will continue on until the trail literally dead ends right into the Tunnel Bypass Trail with just .4 mile to go. It is easy going the rest of the way until it spits you back on to Lakeview Drive just a few hundred feet from your car.
This is a fun and easy hike with some great history thrown in. Being around Bryson City, it tends not to be overcrowded as some other areas are in peak times. But people do like the tunnel and controversy on this hike, so it gets more use than similar out of the way hikes. Give this one a look on your next trip to the Smokies.