Editor’s note: In the economically challenging times in which we live, vacations have often become “staycations” or minivacations where one doesn’t spend the night away from home. Also known as “day trips” this area features many interesting places to visit for the price of a picnic lunch and a little gas in the tank. Contributing Writer Harry Taylor heads north for this week’s adventure.
Do you ever want to get away from home for a day of fun and adventure and still be sleeping in your own bed when the sun sets? Franklin, N.C., just happens to be in the center of literally hundreds of such day trip excursions. Pick a direction, jump in the car and head out. The trip may not even get you outside Macon County. It could start out in Franklin, ending up in one of the adjacent North Carolina counties, north Georgia, Tennessee, or South Carolina. Exploring nearby destinations can be a rewarding experience, discovering little known but intriguing attractions.
A good place to start is Highway 28 north. Since Franklin is the “Gem Capital of the World,” stopping at one of the gem mines would be a fitting way to begin the day. Sheffield, Rose Creek, and Mason Mountain mines are all out this direction. Working through the buckets of dirt in search of the monster ruby or sapphire can be addictive, so be aware. You never know if that next bucket will be the one that holds the “big one.” Yet, the experience is not necessarily in the discovery but in the search and the anticipation. Either way, everyone can leave with a bucketful of memories.
Getting back on the road again, continue northward toward Bryson City, the county seat of Swain County which hosts an annual kayak competition, and the Swain County Heritage Festival. Whitewater rafting and fly fishing are popular attractions in the area. It is also home to Inspiration Park and the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad.
The railroad offers train excursions through the scenic mountain landscapes. Special event and seasonal train rides are available.
Just a few minutes west of Bryson City, Highway 129 North leads to Robbinsville. Robbinsville is the home of country music legend, Ronnie Milsap. This area contains the Joyce Kilmer Forest, Santeetlah Lake, Junaluska Museum, and Fontana Dam. Fontana Dam is particularly notable as the tallest dam in the eastern United States at 480 feet, with a span more than 2,000 feet. It is the only man-made segment of the Appalachian Trail.
Robbinsville is the jumping-off spot for two of the best know scenic by-ways in the United States. The first is the incomparable “Tail of the Dragon.” This stretch of Highway 129 is one of the most unique in America and the number one by-way for motorcycles and sports cars. This 11-mile stretch of road is a convoluting, twisting, switchback-filled experience that is worth every minute of time it takes to drive through the “Tail of the Dragon.”
The Cherohala Skyway, second only to the “Tail of the Dragon” is a mile-high scenic road linking Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tenn. It is a 43 -mile stretch of road quickly climbing to 5,400 feet continuing along the mountaintops for several miles before descending down into Tennessee. This road opened in the mid-1990’s after about 30 years of planning and construction. The mountain views rival the Blue Ridge Parkway in their magnificent scenery. At this altitude, the weather is moody and unpredictable and can be especially dangerous during the winter months.
The Cherohala Skyway trek will have to wait for another day because today is about the “Tail of the Dragon.” Even in a regular automobile, at slower speeds than the motorcycles and sports cars, the trip is anything but leisurely. The road, with its 318 curves and switchbacks in 11 miles demands every driver’s complete attention. (A side note to those passengers who get car sick on mountain roads – Take along some ginger to chew on and try to sit in the front seat if at all possible.)
This is a driver’s road for the driving experience and it has only a couple of scenic overlooks. Next to the driving experience, the whitewater raging through the gorge is comprised of rapid after rapid that appear to be class 3 and 4 (maybe higher?) The kayaks on the river are streaks of bright colors being snatched from one set of rapids right into another. Yet, trees growing profusely in the middle of the river test the skills of the people to a much higher level than just running the rapids. Only the well experienced should attempt any of the kayaking in this area.
After coming down the mountain, Highway 129 leads into Maryville, Tenn., bypassing the main part of town and intersecting Highway 321, which leads to one of the quieter sides of the Smokies in Townsend, Tenn.
It’s time for a late lunch at the Apple Valley Restaurant.
Townsend offers a slower pace consisting of tubing rides, the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum, Tuckalechee Caverns, and Cades Cove. Cades Cove is an 11-mile drive back through time, with stops at farms and churches dating back to the early part of the 20th century. These buildings were actually working farms and homes to the people who lived there during this era.
The next leg of the journey is traveling south on Highway 441 across the Great Smoky Mountains toward Cherokee, N.C. Driving this road is always a fresh experience. Stopping at Newfound Gap (elevation 5,035 ft.) and watching the blue haze hanging over the mountains is breathtaking in its majesty. Going even higher to Clingman’s Dome adds a new dimension to the trip. The hike to the observation tower is a rigorous half-mile climb, but looking down on the tops of the other mountains in the Smokies is truly awesome.
Mingus Mill and the Oconaluftee Visitors Center wait at the foot of the North Carolina side of the mountain. Mingus Mill is a historic gristmill about a half-mile before reaching the visitor’s center. Power that runs the gristmill’s machinery comes from a water turbine rather than from a water wheel. The actual process of grinding corn is demonstrated during the mills operating hours.
The Oconaluftee Visitors Center has a new building that exhibits some of the latest “green” technology and the historic Mountain Farm Museum, which exhibits centuries old methods of life and farming. Elk grazing in the pastures around the visitor’s center quickly take center stage during the late afternoon hours. Normally, about 18-20 can be seen most evenings just before dark. Only a decade ago, seeing one or two was a rarity.
Between Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Cherokee, a left turn leads to the southern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway – definitely not a day trip. This point is the beginning of a 469-mile ridge top adventure to the northern point of the Blue Ridge at Rock Fish Gap, Va.
Virtually everyone in this neck of the woods knows about Cherokee, N.C. Cherokee is the place most anyone can find something to do – tubing, picnicking, shopping, shows, kids’ rides, exhibits, the casino, and the attractions that portray the Cherokee culture to the people who travel here. The Cherokee Museum, the outdoor performance of “Unto These Hills,” and the Oconaluftee Indian Village are the three attractions that should be at the top of everyone’s list.
The sun is setting on the Great Smoky Mountains for the final leg of the trip back into Franklin. This outing was actually done in one day, but obviously not all the places to see and things to do can be accomplished in one day. At least, a dozen different day trips would be necessary to take in everything.
The main objective of the trip on this day was to ride through the “Tail of the Dragon.” Many of the other attractions along this loop were day trips taken over the last few years. Many wonderful days have been spent exploring the nooks and crannies, the “hollers” and coves of this part of the world, our home.