Goldmine Loop & The Road to Nowhere (2-7-16)
The Goldmine Loop is a 4-mile trail located in a rather overlooked and remote corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That said, it is also located in one of the most controversial portions of the park. Since the parks creation this area has been the subject of promises, broken promises, and ongoing legal battles between local residents of Swain County and the Federal Government itself. Its a tale that certainly has my feelings conflicted, let me explain...
With the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the Department of the Interior began a long process of land acquisition which would eventually lead to the boundaries of the park we know today. One of the most troublesome areas to 'acquire' were the lands intended to be carved out of Swain County in North Carolina. The proposed boundaries of the park would swallow up well over half of the counties available land. To a population at the time who relied on subsistence farming, logging, and hunting this was perceived as being a catastrophic blow to the local economy...not to mention the hundreds of people who would be forced off their lands once the National Park Service took over. To compound problems even further the increased need for electricity during the years of World War Two resulted in the construction of the Fontana Dam. The resultant Fontana Lake flooded numerous homesteads and, more importantly, inundated then-North Carolina Highway 288 which was an important transportation artery at the time connecting Bryson City with points west.
To appease local frustrations with these huge perceived land-grabs the Federal Government made a pledge to replace the former highway with a brand new road, dubbed Lake View Drive, which would run along the north shore of the new lake, providing a more direct artery westward and access to former homesteads for those local families who wished to visit their old properties and family cemeteries. Swain County residents agreed to this plan and, in 1943, construction began on the new artery. Construction moved forward at a snails pace, with only six of its planned 30-mile length completed by 1969. This did, however, include a just-completed 1,200-foot tunnel in the vicinity of Goldmine Branch. Environmental issues had arisen by this point and construction of the road was halted while these concerns could be ironed out. Eventually these issues were settled but, as any visitor to the tunnel today can testify, construction was never resumed. For well over 50-years now the residents of Swain County have waited on a promised road that will never exist. Understandably, they feel cheated and deceived. Eventually, in 2010, the Federal Government agreed to pay Swain County $52 million in compensation for the incomplete road but local animosity remains and likely will remain far into the future.
Like I stated earlier, I'm conflicted in regards to what happened in this corner of the Smokies. While selfishly perhaps I draw a great deal of enjoyment from the wild landscape this all resulted in...I can certainly sympathize with people who had, for generations, called these mountains and valleys home and had given them up based on promises that were never kept. Needless to say, this makes this part of the park all the more interesting to me and on this day I decided to better explore what has now been dubbed, more than a little mockingly, as "The Road to Nowhere".
My hike would begin from the aborted western terminus of the infamous Road to Nowhere and make a 4-ish mile loop down to the shores of Fontana Lake and back. I'd follow the Tunnel Bypass Trail for the first six-tenths of a mile, a path constructed for those horses (and people) who simply don't feel comfortable walking through the 1,200-foot long tunnel. I'd than turn left to make the remaining, occasionally steep, descent to the shores of the lake. After exploring the lakeshore a bit I would ascend via the west half of the Goldmine Loop Trail passing backcountry campsites and remains of old homesteads as I went. Once back atop the ridge I would return to the car with a short walk along the gated far end of the Road to Nowhere and make the chilly stroll through the tunnel itself. This was a very unique hike, quite unlike any other I have ever taken in the Smokies. While stunning scenery was in short supply, the tale of all that had gone before which accompanied me on this hike made for a very thought-provoking afternoon on the trail...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.458992, -83.537807
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: MODERATE
Mileage Hiked: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 1:45
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 1,700' Max. Elevation: 2,300'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,000' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 250'
Trails Used (blaze color): Goldmine Loop (unblazed), Lakeshore (unblazed), Tunnel Bypass (unblazed)