Located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just outside of Bryson City, NC is a road, that literally goes to nowhere. No, we’re not kidding, you follow the road for about 8 miles from Bryson City into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The road continues until you get to a tunnel, and then, it just abruptly ends.
The road is called the Road to Nowhere by local residents, and not only does it have an incredibly interesting, if not sad history, but it makes for a really unique modern day hiking trail. Recently, we decided to visit the Road to Nowhere, more formally known as Lakeshore Drive, and we explored the road and some of the nearby hiking trails.
You can read all about the history of the Road to Nowhere, formally called Lakeshore Drive in the history section below. Long story short, when lake Fontana was created by flooding, old Highway 288 was flooded with it. The National Park Service promised to build another road, through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For many reasons, it was never completed.
What remains today is the construction that was completed, including a fairly long tunnel (1,200 feet) that you can walk through near the beginning portion of Lakeshore Trail. Don’t worry, if tunnels aren’t your thing, there is a bypass trail you can take.
If you’re there to see the road, you can basically just drive to the parking lot, and walk through the tunnel and back. But if you’re visiting to hike, there are a number of options.
We would recommend the short 3.2 mile loop hike.
The loop hike will take you onto three different trails: Lakeshore Trail, Goldmine Loop Trail, and finally Tunnel Bypass trail. You’ll begin at the parking lot and trailhead, and head towards the tunnel on Lakeshore Trail.
The tunnel is generally pretty clean, but use your flashlight to watch where you are walking. There is sometimes debris, leaves, and even manure or dog feces. Decorating the inside of the tunnel is lots of graffiti. On cloudy days, it can be a bit dark too, so the flashlights come in handy.
Just past the tunnel, the paved road ends … congratulations, you just arrived at nowhere :-). The real Lakeshore Trail begins here. This trail continues for nearly 35 miles and ends at Fontana Dam. Don’t worry, for the loop trail, you won’t be going that far.
Follow Lakeshore trail for about 1/2 a mile. You’ll see trail signs indicating Goldmine Loop Trail to the left. The first trail you’ll pass is tunnel bypass trail. Continue on past this one, and just shortly after you’ll see Goldmine Loop trail, also on the left – This is the one you want to take.
Goldmine Loop trail will follow alongside Goldmine Branch and through the forest. In about 1/2 a mile, you’ll see a trail to the left, that will take you to campsite 67, also the site for an old homestead – We didn’t venture up this trail on this particular visit, but will in the future.
In about a quarter of a mile, you’ll get a view of one of the many coves in Fontana Lake. Note the unique green colored water. The color is said to be due to to the large number of copper mines once located in this area.
At this point the trail begins a pretty aggressive climb up for a good mile, where you’ll intersect with the Tunnel Bypass trail. Take this trail to the right for about .5 miles, and you’ll arrive back at the parking lot and Lakeshore Trail trailhead.
The history of the Road to Nowhere is quite the story, and full of emotion.
See, during the 1930s and 1940s, the areas around Bryson City (Swain County) where given up to create both portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Fontana Lake. Nearly 1,300 people were forced to leave their homes as a result. Most of these people didn’t receive any relocation assistance because they refused to accept the buyout and move. In the end, many of them didn’t receive a dime for their property either.
Highway 288, then used by the locals as their main route in and out of the community was also gone, as it went underwater as the area to become Fontana Lake was flooded.
The National Park service promised to replace Highway 288 with Lakeshore Drive, which would run around the north side of Lake Fontana. Additionally, Lakeshore Drive would provide access to family cemeteries for the people in the impacted communities.
But, unfortunately, that promise never materialized. During it’s construction, Lakeshore Drive fell victim to environmental concerns, and construction was stopped, and the road ended at the tunnel. The environmental issue was eventually resolved, but construction to complete Lakeshore Drive never resumed, and the road was never finished.
Thus, Lakeshore Drive earned a new name from local residents, The Road to Nowhere.
The legal issue of the road never being built was finally resolved in 2010, when the US Department of Interior paid a settlement of 52 million to Swain County due to the road never being completed.
To this day, the Park Service still ferries local community residents over to the cemeteries on weekends, and for family reunions.
Here’s a great video, taken in the Fall of 2010 that not only shows you the road, but the tunnel, and some beautiful Fall color as well.
Our gallery of photos from our visit.