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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Abandoned Places - Part 1

I love ghost towns and abandoned places. It's easy to find these places out west, where once thriving mining towns went bust. In the southeastern United States ghost towns are a little bit harder to find. What's easier to find here are a number of small towns with downtown business districts that have dried up over the years. This will be the first of a series of posts about some of those places.

Buffalo Valley, TN

Abandoned in Buffalo Valley

Ornate Door

An hour or so east of Nashville, TN on Interstate 40 you'll hit Exit 268 for Highway 96. This exit is best known as the way to go to Center Hill Lake. But here you'll also find Buffalo Valley, a small unincorporated community in Putnam County. There is very little information about this town on the internet. You'll actually find more about another community in Tennessee with the same name.

Old Store

When you take Highway 96 towards Center Hill Lake, turn left on to Buffalo Valley Road for a couple of abandoned buildings. This is the "heart" of Buffalo Valley. There is still a post office here today, but there are a couple of abandoned buildings sitting here empty, slowly falling apart as time goes on. Both appear to have been some sort of businesses in the past.

Center Hill Lake is some distance away, so Buffalo Valley doesn't thrive thanks to tourism. However, there are still some homes and even a church nearby, so Buffalo Valley continues on.

Adams, TN

Adams, TN

Adams is pretty famous for small towns in Tennessee. It was once home to the Bell Family who owned a farm in the area. A certain witch was known to haunt here and she terrorized the Bell Family. Andrew Jackson supposedly had an encounter with her as well (though many historians believe this story to be false, as you can imagine). On the property is a cave known today as The Bell Witch Cave which is open for tours. Adams is also located along the Red River and several outfitters rent canoes and kayaks.

Adams once had a traditional downtown with buildings lining a street, but today it's almost entirely abandoned. There is one intact section of standing buildings (as you can see in the picture above). Here you will also find the remains of sidewalks and some concrete foundations of buildings long since torn down. You will also find a lot filled with satellite dishes. I have no idea why they are there. There is also an interesting looking old church across the street.

Adams is a prime example of a fairly common site in the United States - a small town whose downtown has dried up.  The town continues on thanks in part to tourism from the Bell Witch Cave and Red River. There is also Port Royal State Park nearby.

In the next few weeks there'll be more posts about abandoned places.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Visit a National Park for Free!

Zion National Park, Utah

On August 25 you can visit any national park in the United States for free. The date happens to coincide with the 99th anniversary of the National Park Service and to celebrate the anniversary they're letting us in for free. The National Park Service has a website called Find Your Park that'll help you explore and discover new places to check out near you.  If you happen to live near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can visit that park for free every day since there isn't a park admission. But, this discount would be huge if you happen to be visiting Utah, home to some of the greatest national parks with each charging $20 or more per car to enter.

For more information about August 25th and which parks you can visit for free, check out the National Park Service's page.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Lost Sea Adventure!

In between Sweetwater and Madsonville in East Tennessee you'll find The Lost Sea, a cave that contains the world's 2nd largest lake. The cave system itself was known originally as Craighead Caverns, but the discovery of the lake in the early 1900s lead to what the world would know the cave as: The Lost Sea (or, at least according to the signage, The Lost Sea Adventure!). It existed for many years as the largest known underground lake in the world until it was unceremoniously beaten out by a cave called the Dragon's Breath Cave in Africa. I would like to think the Lost Sea wanted to put up a fight to defend their title, but who would want to mess with a cave with a name like that? So they've settled on the still awesome title of "World's 2nd Largest Underground Lake". It's also listed in the Guinness Book of World Record's as America's largest underground lake.

The tunnel descends to the cave below.

The 3/4s of a mile long tour starts off within an entrance building that contains a manmade tunnel that slopes down in to the natural cave below. The cave tour is a mixture of walking passage and the actual boat ride itself. The cave features large rooms and some formations, along with some Civil War era signatures on the walls and ceilings as well as artifacts from saltpeter mining. In the entrance building you can see the remains of a jaguar that was discovered in the 1830s. Here are a few photos from the walking tour:

Cave room brilliantly rendered by a smartphone camera.

Gypsum crystals on the ceiling

Some old signatures found on a wall.

The highlight of the tour is, as you can imagine, the boat ride on the lake. There's a slightly surreal aspect to the whole thing. There's a full blown boat dock here with 3-4 boats tied up to it and the lake room extends on for four and a half acres. The ceiling is relatively low over the lake, and periodic lights in the water provide the only illumination. The vast majority of the lake is not accessible by boat and can only be reached by divers who can access the remaining parts of the lake under the water. The story goes that no diver has been able to reach the end of the lake so far.

Boat dock and the lake

The Lost Sea! You must click on this to see this image in full-screen glory!

Stocked in the lake are, and I'm not making this up, rainbow trout. I have no idea why the owners thought it was necessary to stock the lake with fish other than it was an added draw to the tourist attraction. The rainbow trout are not naturally found in the cave, so it was done purposely. The boats do feature glass bottoms that were pretty murky to see through. I don't recall seeing a single fish pass under the boat but you can see plenty in the water around the boat. No fishing is allowed either.

The murky "glass bottom" of the boat

Rainbow Trout!

On our tour there were a number of guests who questioned why the trout were being kept in the lake. The tour guide was very supportive of the idea, stating that the lake was free from natural predators and thus they could live a much longer life than they could on the surface. Plus they have a consistent food supply they have dubbed "trout chow". Obviously, there are mixed feelings amongst guests as to the role of these fish outside their natural environment.

There are also wild cave tours available and there are some additional things to do on the property like gem mining, glass blower, a blacksmith shop, a wishing well, and a sweet shop that will give you a cavity just from a whiff of the treats inside. There is also a nature trail you can hike to burn off some of those calories.

This is my second time seeing the Lost Sea and I still enjoyed the tour. The main building that houses the tunnel entrance is in need of some repairs (the bathrooms were in pretty rough shape). I'm hoping this is not an overall sign of how business is going for them. The tours were full of people, though, and they run them continuously so at least on this day business was good. It's important to note that during times of extreme drought the water levels in the lake will drop low enough to cause them to suspend boat tours. I believe there's only been one drought in recent memory where they had to stop tours.

Google Terrain map showing the location of the cave.

If you find yourself traveling between Chattanooga and Knoxville, I would recommend getting off in Sweetwater and following the signs for The Lost Sea. It's definitely worth at least one trip to experience the large underground lake. For more information about The Lost Sea, you can check out their website here.