Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sewanee Natural Bridge and Grundy Lakes State Park

Sherwood, TN and the Cumberland Plateau

A beautiful fall day is a great opportunity to explore the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. On this day we journeyed to the southern portion of the Plateau around the towns of Sewanee and Monteagle. The trees had yet to turn but the air was crisp and the skies were deep blue with nice fluffy clouds. Every direction you looked seemed like it would make for an awesome photograph.

Sewanee Natural Bridge

First stop was the Sewanee Natural Bridge which is located just south of Sewanee off State Route 56. There is a small parking area and a trail that descends down to the top of the bridge. The trail continues across the actual bridge and then descends further into a sinkhole. Note: While not particularly dangerous or strenuous, it is important to be careful as you cross the natural bridge and descend down in to the sinkhole.

The natural bridge is 25 feet high and spans almost 50 feet. A wet spring found here is believed to have slowly eroded away the sinkhole and formed the natural bridge. If you go under the bridge there is a short trail you can take to further observe nature's work with towering cliffs on one side and large boulders to scramble over or walk in between. Along the trail you can see limited views down in to Lost Cove which lies just below the natural bridge. Lost Cove is home to Buggytop Cave which has one of the most impressive cave entrances in the state. You can hike to Buggytop Cave by a trail that leaves the Carter State Natural Area just south of Sewanee Natural Bridge.

Found around the sinkhole are a number of carved signatures left by visitors long ago (some believed to have been left in the 1880s). According to an article on, a historian researched the names and did not find that they were locals, thus indicating the natural bridge probably served as a popular roadside attraction for a number of years. The natural bridge would have been a relatively short detour off of US 41A. The area does seem relatively free of modern vandalism.

Climbing out of the sinkhole

Sewanee Natural Bridge is part of a larger collection of parks called the South Cumberland Recreation Area. In this system you will find canyons, waterfalls, lakes and caves to explore. Savage Gulf is one part of this system and you can check out a post we made about it here. Grundy Lakes State Park is another part of this system which we also visited on this day.

Grundy Lakes State Park

Grundy Lakes State Park

Near Tracy City, TN, you will find Grundy Lakes State Park. The area was devastated by coal mining and in the late 1930s the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) transformed the land in to what you see today complete with lakes, trails and trees. Almost of all of the natural beauty present here is thanks to the efforts of the CCC.

There are a few hiking trails here including a nice loop around the lake. The park also offers access to the lake for swimming and fishing. The remains of coal mining past are still seen all over the park as well. The most visible reminders are the 100+ coke ovens found along a number of the trails in the park.

Coke Ovens

The coke ovens were used to convert coal in to industrial coke that could then be used as fuel for the smelting of iron ore. Note: The main trail tends to take you behind the coke ovens. The view from here is less impressive as the openings tend to be much smaller. In a few places it's possible to actually walk in front of the ovens to see them like in the picture above. Also, in many places you'll notice that the trail itself consists of coal. It makes for an interesting crunching sound as you walk over it.

Coal on the trail

The Cumberland Plateau, while utterly beautiful, has been mined and clear-cut so often over the years that it's amazing there's anything of beauty left. Places like Grundy Lakes State Park remind us that beauty can be reclaimed from manmade devastation.  In a future post we'll highlight a little bit more about some of the mining operations on the plateau.

Wonder Cave

Finally, we decided to drive US 41 north to head back to Nashville. Doing this means taking a windy descent off the plateau. The road is particularly steep indicating the road was built before the more modern, and less steep, standards of today. At the foot of the plateau you'll find the old sign for Wonder Cave, a once popular tourist attraction that suffered with the advent of the interstate system.

Wonder Cave Entrance Building

A few years ago Jessica wrote a little post about Wonder Cave and we decided to take a quick swing by the old building. The place is locked up so you can't explore the property nor see the cave, but it was good to finally see the grounds in person. For years I have heard of Wonder Cave and while I've always had a deep fascination with caves, Wonder Cave is the only modern Tennessee commercial cave that I never got to visit. It would be great to one day explore the cave if it ever were to open back up.

South Cumberland State Recreation Area map

For more information about the South Cumberland State Park, including Sewanee Natural Bridge and Grundy Lakes State Park, check out their page here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Nevada Ghost Towns

Matador Network / Photo: mtneer_man

Here at Southern Wanderings we'll sometimes cover places that are outside of the Southeastern United States. Ghost towns are one of those subjects and whenever we can find a link to a cool article or photos of such places we'll give it to you here.

Over at Matador Network they have a great photo trip through some Nevada ghost towns.  Nevada was a state that had thousands of mines and many of these mines had small towns that sprang up (almost overnight) to support the mines. Once these mines stopped operating, most of these towns became ghost towns literally overnight. The article starts off with a great fact (I'm assuming it's true since they used all capital letters for FACT):
FACT: There are more ghost towns in Nevada than towns occupied by the living. By that count, it would take you years, if not a lifetime, to explore all the ghost towns in the state.
Regardless of whether or not that's true there are a TON of ghost towns in Nevada and way too many to explore in a reasonable period of time. So Matador Network takes us through 6 of them with some cool photos and a little bit of text about each of these places.

Photo: TravelNevada

To check out this article, click this link.

About the first picture above - it's from Rhyolite, NV and it shows a creepy art exhibit created by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski in the 1980s. Seeing this would certainly make me think twice about exploring this ghost town.

Ghost Town Under the Lake

Credit: University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries

Finally, another ghost town in Nevada, St. Thomas, has spent most of the last 70+ years under the waters of Lake Mead. Over the years the lake has dropped just enough to reveal the town. With the current extreme drought hitting the Southwest, this has happened once again. You can now tour this once thriving Mormon community by a new access trail built by the NPS. For more information, you can check out the National Park Service's page here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Road to Nowhere

The Road to Nowhere

On the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near the town of Bryson, NC, lies Lakeview Drive. The road winds its way through a section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the northern shore of Fontana Lake. Eventually the road reaches a 1/4 of a mile long tunnel through a mountainside and then, just on the other side, the pavement stops. Lakeview Drive ultimately inherited the nickname "The Road to Nowhere" as a result.

The road was not intended to stop just beyond the tunnel. It wouldn't make sense to spend a great deal of money and manpower to build a road through the mountain only to have it stop on the other side, but that's exactly what ended up happening. So what happened here?

Lakeview Drive aka "The Road to Nowhere" ends at the Lakeshore Trail Trailhead

During World War II, the US Government and the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to dam up the Little Tennessee River for power generation. As the river descends out of the mountains, multiple little lakes were formed. Cool tip: one of these dams, Cheoah Dam near Deal's Gap, was used in the movie "The Fugitive". Harrison Ford takes a perilous leap off of this dam and magically survives.

"The Fugitive" - Little Tennessee River and the road to Deal's Gap seen in the background

Closer to Bryson City a more significant lake was formed called Fontana Lake. The valley the lake would flood was home to many residents of Swain County. The government bought some of this land, but it also took large swaths of private property forcing the residents to move out of the valley. The US government promised to replace the road that once ran through the valley with Lakeview Drive. This new road would serve one very important purpose for the local people of Swain County and that was to have access to cemeteries where their loved ones were buried.

Pavement is slowly deteriorating

Almost 6 miles of road were built, including a bridge and the tunnel, but the remaining distance (approximately 26 miles) were never built because of environmental issues that sprang up. In the end, a promise was broken and the Swain County residents would not have access to their ancestral cemeteries. The road became a huge sore spot to the people of Swain County and Bryson City. This sentiment is perfectly spelled out on a sign you'll see as you leave Bryson City - "Welcome to The Road To Nowhere, A Broken Promise!". It should be noted that the National Park Service does offer periodic ferry services across the lake to take families to these cemeteries. In 2000 there was a bill that funded the continuation of the road, but to do this date, no further construction has occurred.

Today, The Road to Nowhere serves as access in to the Smoky Mountains and a number of trails in the area can be found here. There are a few scenic overlooks that offers the usual views of hazy mountains, but with the added element of water down below in Fontana Lake. The tunnel itself is worth checking out and the drivable portion of Lakeshore Drive ends just before the tunnel. There's a large parking lot to accommodate the visitors to the tunnel. Throughout the tunnel you will find graffiti that visitors have left. This is another sore spot for Swain County and they are making attempts to work with the National Park Service to clean this up.

Looking out of the tunnel towards the terminus of Lakeview Drive

Bryson City is an interesting town worth visiting. There are some good restaurants to eat at (Everett St. Diner was very good) and it's also home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad that offers rail excursions down through the Nantahala Gorge. Bryson City also provides access to another section of the national park called Deep Creek. This area offers a few waterfalls and some nice hiking trails. You're also not all that far from the Nantahala Gorge which we highlighted in this post. Many visitors to the gorge stay in Bryson City since there are a limited number of options to stay in the gorge.

Tom Branch Falls found in Deep Creek

To Get There

You can access Lakeshore Drive from Bryson City, NC in Southwestern North Carolina. The road starts in town as Fontana Road. For more information about The Road To Nowhere and nearby Bryson City, check out this page.

Map of Southwestern North Carolina

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stunning Video of Fall in the Smokies

I've mentioned it before, but experiencing the Smokies in the fall is stunning. Photos barely do it justice. But this video does.  The use of time-lapse photography only adds to the amazing beauty presented here. 

The video comes from MTJP and they also have shot similar videos at many other national parks. They're all worth checking out.  To view this on Vimeo and to find links to their other national park videos, click here.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Abandoned Places - Part 2

An old vacation home in Elkmont, TN

There's something surreal about being on vacation and visiting the ruins of vacations past. Motels, cabins and homes that were once frequented by happy vacationers now sit crumbling and returning to the earth. You have to wonder if the hotel you'll be sleeping in that night will one day be ruins that someone else will happen upon on their vacation. Here are a few examples of abandoned remains of vacations past:


Deep in the Smoky Mountains you'll find Elkmont, a section of the national park that offers hiking trails, river access and a large campground. Elkmont is also home to a large number of deteriorating structures that can be seen along the Little River Trail. Elkmont was first a logging camp and the Little River Road that you take to access this section of the park was once a railroad. Around 1910 it became a popular vacation spot long before this land was owned by the national park system. Many of the people who frequently vacationed here were from nearby Knoxville and owned these homes. Those who didn't own a home stayed in the nearby Wonderland Park Hotel.  This area remained popular through the 1930s but things soon had to change.

Once the land became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Park Service did not force the owners of these homes out. They initially provided a lifetime lease allowing the owners to keep the properties until their deaths. But that was too good to be true, In 1952, the properties were converted in to 20-year leases and were renewed for another 20 years in 1972. However, in 1992, the National Park Service stopped renewing the leases and eventually the residents had to move out.

Since 1992, many of the homes and buildings here deteriorated rapidly. Because of this, the National Park Service planned to remove the properties entirely. Thankfully, in 1994, a number of the structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places and most recently the National Park Service began to even restore some of the homes preserving them for future visitors.

Elkmont can be found off the Little River Road in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more information, you can check out this page.

Motor Lodges

Teddy Bear Motel near Cherokee, NC

Motor lodges once lined many US highways across the country and were the primary places people stayed on family vacations. Once interstates were built, traffic on US highways in non-urban areas began to thin dramatically and there were fewer guests to stay in these motels. Over the years many of them have gone out business but some of these places still remain today.

Just outside Cherokee, NC, near the Great Smoky Mountains, you'll find a few reminders of motor lodges that are no longer open. Cherokee is still a popular tourist spot, benefiting from it's location as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains from the North Carolina side. But even with the steady tourism over the years, these mid-century motor lodges have closed up and have now begun to deteriorate.

One of the few remaining and operating Wigwam motels in Park City, KY

Today, most motels are chains strictly adhering to their parent companies' design principles. So there's a real sameness to modern motels. In contrast, motor lodges often had real character to them and many had very unique names. The signage of these places were great works of Americana art. It's sad to see so many of them go, so go check out the remaining ones while you can.

Hidden Lake

In West Nashville along the Harpeth River is Hidden Lakes State Park. Here, looping trails meander through fields of flowers and trees.

You'll eventually come to Hidden Lake, a quarry built in the late 1880s that is now flooded and gives the park its name.  At one time this was a popular swimming hole for a nearby resort, but I'm not sure how clean the water would be today. Take the trail that heads up and around the left side of this lake to continue on.

The real gem of this park is found above the lake along the ridge that surrounds the quarry. Here you'll find the remains of a family resort that was operated in the 1930s and 40s. The remains includes the lodge itself (which burned in the 1940s), various out-buildings and even a dance floor that sits right on the edge of the lake. There are a number of other signs of building scraps, a possible water tank and scattered bricks.

An old dance floor

The lodge was a fairly large building and it's interesting to stand in the middle of what was once a room and seeing fairly tall, mature trees growing up from what was once the floors of this place. There are spider webs and bushes in various corners. There is no longer a roof. All that remains are the walls that slowly crumble away. It's hard not to imagine what this place was like back in the 1930s. A far cry from what it is today:

Hidden Lake is located off of McCrory Creek Lane in western Davidson County, just a few miles off of I-40. For more information, you can check out this page. A complete set of photos taken from here can be seen here.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Fall Is Coming

The most wonderful time of the year is fall and it's about to be here. The temperatures start to drop and the leaves turn wonderful shades of orange, yellow and red. Football games appear on television. Halloween season approaches with haunted houses appearing in various abandoned K-Marts across the country. Fall festivals spring up with corn mazes, apple dunking, hay wagons and lots of other games that often involve corn. In the fall football is on television almost every single night. Turkey and ham season starts up in full. Football is happening at our local high schools. Football is happening at your Alma mater. Football is happening at your favorite pro team's stadium. Football! Wait, what was I talking about again?  Oh right, it's autumn and it's awesome. It's my favorite time of the year and many people will be hitting the road to seek out some fall foliage.

Corn (and farm-related toys and random zebras) must be part of any fall festival
Pumpkins for sale

Yahoo, that website that somehow still exists today and is visited WAY more than you can imagine, has put together a list of it's "10 Best Trips To Take This Fall" and it's worth checking out. There are some predictable choices on here like the Great Smoky Mountains and parks up in the Northeast that are famous for amazing fall colors. But there are also some interesting choices on here like a trip to the Four Corners in the desert southwest which is not a location you'd expect to see amazing fall colors. Here you get amazing colors year round with beautiful red and orange mountains and mesas everywhere you look. In some ways this article is simply a list of great places to go anytime of the year, but it's worth reading now just in case you need some ideas for a trip this fall. 

If you do plan to head for a location like the Smokies, please be advised that the roads will get VERY crowded. But get this - the fall colors do not stop at the national park border. They magically keep going! So just explore the valleys and mountains outside of the park to see amazing fall colors without the traffic. Think of taking a drive through the North Georgia mountains or hit US 64 and explore Southwestern North Carolina. Take drives through the Cumberland Plateau in North Alabama, Northern Georgia, Tennessee and up in to Kentucky. A great fall trip would be heading to Chattanooga for the weekend, then taking a drive up Lookout Mountain and exploring Lula Lake and Cloudland Canyon*. Plus, I'm sure you can come up with countless more places with lots of trees to admire as their leaves change.

Cloudland Canyon in Georgia

So here's to Fall and all the fun (and football) to come! You can check out Yahoo's list here.

*I'm am obligated to remind you that if you visit Lookout Mountain, and you have not been to Rock City, you must go there!  I mean, this is waiting for you:

Gnomes await you(r soul) in Rock City

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wayah Bald

Wayah Bald Observation Tower
Wayah Bald Observation Tower

Rising 5,385 feet above sea level, Wayah Bald offers a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern North Carolina. Perched on top of this grassy bald is the Wayah Bald Observation Tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1937, and it offers the best views of the surrounding mountains.

View from Wayah Bald
View from Wayah Bald

The Appalachian and Bertram Trails cross here, so expect to see many backpackers enjoying the views at the top. It's hard not to feel like lazy tourists strolling up to the tower with no packs on our backs, clearly having just gotten out of our car, but in all fairness we had hiked 12 mountainous miles the previous day.

Pretty flowers near the bald
Blooming mountain laurel at Wayah Bald

Wayah Bald is accessible from the appropriately named Wayah Road, a winding 2-lane mountain road that runs from Franklin, NC to the beautiful Nantahala Gorge. Once you reach Wayah Gap, turn on to the gravel access road that winds its way further up towards the bald. The gravel road is accessible by 2-wheel drive cars, but if it's raining traction could get a little slippery.

Wilson Lick Ranger Station

About half way up you'll pass the Wilson Lick Ranger Station. The ranger station was built back in 1916 and it's an impressive wood structure still standing today. You can actually walk the Appalachian Trail 3 miles uphill to the observation tower from here. Apparently this is how the rangers did it back in the day. How about that for your morning commute?

Nantahala River Gorge

Nantahala River Cascades
Upper Nantahala River Cascades

Back down on Wayah Road traveling west will take you to pretty Nantahala Lake. Here a pump station feeds the Nantahala River as it begins its descent down to the Nantahala Gorge (I'm paid by the Nantahala in this article). Along the way the river spills over numerous cascades and waterfalls. There are multiple places to stop and sit by the fast moving water (assuming the pump station is operating, which is mostly every day during daylight hours). Take a few moments to absorb some ions. This part of the river is known as the Upper Nantahala River and it's a Class IV+ river. You can occasionally see experienced kayakers tackling these cascades and rapids. Wayah Road ends at US 74. Take a right to continue down the gorge.

Rafters on the Nantahala River
Rafting party hits the Class II+ Rapid

The gorge is home to Class II whitewater rafting and the popular Nantahala Outdoor Center. You can rent inflatable duckies (a lot of fun) or take a guided tour on a traditional whitewater raft. As mentioned before, the river is controlled by the pump station and the river exits at the very bottom of the lake which makes the water VERY cold. It can be dead of summer and 100 degrees out and you'll still see people wearing cold water gear.

Making it over the "Lesser Wesser" Class II+ Rapid

A few years ago Jessica and I rented some duckies and loved the ride down the river. It was astormy day and there was thunder and lightning which heightened the experience. (Note: it's probably NOT advisable to raft down the river in a thunderstorm). Along the gorge there are other rafting outfitters, as well as several restaurants to eat at (several have riverside views). One of our favorites is actually at the NOC. It's called River's End. There is also a BBQ place just on the other side of the river still on the NOC grounds.

There are also several places to watch the rafters as they go down the river. In particular, check out the parking area just south of the NOC where you can watch rafters head over the Lesser Wesser Falls (the highest rated rapids on this part of the river). It is common to see people part company with their boats here.

Wayah Bald and the Nantahala River Gorge are located approximately 90 minutes from Gatlinburg, TN and Asheville, NC. It's definitely worth a side trip if you find yourself in the area. For more information about Wayah Bald, check out the USDA Forest Service's page here.