The Great Smoky Mountains – October 2019

After having a successful cataracts surgery, that restored my vision to a clear and brilliant one, I decided that I needed a few days of relaxation and so I packed an overnight bag and my camera, and taking my car headed for the mountains of NC. My actual destination was Bryson City at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

After an almost 4 hour trip, mostly on I-40, I arrived in Asheville. It was lunch time and I had some; at an Asian restaurant called The Noodle Shop, where I had a dish of Shrimp Pad-Thai (no much shrimp, but a lot of tasty noodles).

Afterwards, I took a walk around the downtown area, taking pictures and enjoying the atmosphere of this charming town. It was a hot afternoon, so I really didn’t walk a lot and returned to my car for another hour drive to Bryson City.

I checked at my hotel (Microtel Inn and Suites), unpacked, rested for a while and went for dinner at the Fryemont Inn Dinner Room. This is the dining room of a hotel, but they serve guests that don’t stay at the inn. The ambiance was pleasant, with wood paneling, wooden floors and wooden beans. My server was very helpful and agreeable. They serve a four course dinner: small bowl of soup, a salad, an entrée and dessert. I had a pecan crusted trout, which came with three small portion of veggies. And the price was right. A place to be recommended.

Next morning, I tried the “continental” breakfast at the hotel. It didn’t look very appealing, still I had to be at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad depot early, and so I had no choice than have a tasteless cup of coffee and a stale Danish. I arrived at the depot and ascended the steps to the carriage that would take me for a “scenic” ride through the valley that follows the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad leaving Bryson City

I was looking forward for another train adventure, but soon I became a bit disappointed, as the ride was mostly though a forest without much to see, besides tall trees and kutzu covering large areas of the forest. They were some wide vistas of Fontana Lake, but not of the Smokies itself. I had bought a ticket on the Open Air Coach that included lunch, which was served at 10 am. I would say a bit early for lunch. I would have done better waiting for our stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, around 11:30 am. As we stayed there for about an hour and there was not much to see, I could had lunch in one of the two restaurants that they have in the area. In summary, not the best scenic train ride I have taken.

In the afternoon, I took a short three mile ride to one of the entrances of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I had read that one of the attractions of the area was The Road to Nowhere. The name, of course, intrigued me, so I drove the scenic mountain highway which ends at the mouth of a tunnel, about six miles from the entrance. There is a parking area near the entrance of the tunnel, where I left my car with the intention of crossing the tunnel to the other side. It looked that it wasn’t too long, perhaps about a quartet of a mile. I could even see the light at the end. But that was the only light. My small flashlight didn’t illuminate squat, so after 50 yards or less, I chickened out and returned to my car.  Perhaps, 20 years ago I would have continued, but now I didn’t feel it was worth risking a fall in the dark.

Road of Nowhere
Road end of the Road to Nowhere. The tunnel in the back.

And, what about the name “Road to Nowhere”? It happens that back in the 1940s, Highway 288 was buried under the waters of Fontana Lake, created by the building of the Fontana Dam, and the National Park Service promised the county residents to reroute the highway along the north shore of the lake through the park. Construction of the first six miles were completed in the early 1970s, but environmental issues stopped construction and started years of debates and litigation. In 2010 the project was finally put to rest, the county received a 52 million dollar compensation from the federal government for not completing the road, and the six mile stretch of highway became to know as the “Road to Nowhere”.

On my way back, I had an encounter with a black bear crossing the highway. By the time I got to my camera he was hiding in the forest. However, I was able to take a shot of him among the trees.

Black bear
Black bear hiding between the trees

Back in Bryson City, I walked around the downtown area and visited the Swain County Heritage Museum. I enjoyed the visit as it covered the history of the area and had some interesting displays.

Swain County Heritage Museum exhibit

That evening I had again dinner at a hotel restaurant: The Bistro at the Everett Hotel in downtown Bryson City. The restaurant has a small dining area and as I hadn’t made a reservation, there was no room for me. Luckily, they have a patio with a nice view of the main square, and I was seated there. My server was very helpful and attentive. I ordered the Open Range Meatloaf made with beef, bison, lamb and pork, a winning combination. And, of course, a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was and enjoyable gastronomic experience.

I skipped breakfast at the hotel next morning. Instead I went to the Everett Street Dinner in downtown. The restaurant is frequented by local folk and, when I got there, it was packed full. However, the staff found me a table in a minute and aimed to please. I had a spinach omelet, which came with perfectly browned hash potatoes and a biscuit. Unluckily, the coffee wasn’t great, but it was drinkable.

After having my fill, I drove to the other southern entrance of the Great Smoky National Park and rode the highway to the North Carolina-Tennessee border. On my way I made several stops. The first at the Oconaluftee Center and the Mountain Farm Museum. An interesting visit to the open-air museum, that includes farm buildings, mostly dating from the early 1900s, which were moved from their original locations throughout the National Park. As I walked through the field and the buildings, I could sense how families may have lived 100 years ago in that area.

Mountain Farm
Mountain Farm Museum

I continued my visit to the Great Smoky National Park stopping taking pictures of magnificent vistas, a working mill, a rushing river (the Oconaluftee), the beginning (or end) of the famous Appalachian Trial, that ends (or beginnings) almost 2000 miles north in Maine, and of mountain flora. Unfortunately, it was too early to capture the golden colors of fall. Still, this was probably the most enjoyable part of my trip.

At the border of Tennessee, I turned back and stopped for lunch in the town of Cherokee, a crassly commercialized small touristy town, home of the Harrah Cherokee Casino. After having a good sandwich and a cider, at the Sassy Sunflowers Bakery Café, I toured the Ocunaluftee Indian Village. The tour consist of walking through some stations where guides explain crafts and activities that the Cherokees would do through their history. Interesting, although the young people that guided where mostly perfunctory in their acting and not very engaging. They also had a dance demonstration, with several traditional dances and chanting. In summary, probably not worth the $ 20 entrance fee.

I returned to Bryson City for dinner and I eat at Pasqualino’s. A typical Italian restaurant that serves pasta, pizza and Italian specialties. The open kitchen can be seen (and smelled) from the tables. My waiter was not very experienced, but I think he tried his best. The salad, although large, was insipid. I ordered the tortellini with spinach. Again, the portion was large, but the taste was not great. I believe there are no other Italian restaurants (there are a couple of pizza places) in Bryson City, so if you are in town and you crave Italian, Pasqualino’s is the only choice. If you don’t, I would recommend that you look for another restaurant.

When I returned to the hotel, the Sun was setting over the Smokies. Everything was tranquil and peaceful. It was my last evening in the mountains. The next day I would return to Carrboro, to my place, I lingered a while in the parking lot until it was almost dark and then I went back to my room. I had been an agreeable experience and perhaps, if life would permit it, I would go back, to explore more of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sunset over the Great Smoky Mountains