Date Explored: October 9, 2011
Weather: Mostly Sunny, 64°
GPS: 35.448714, -83.477157 (beginning of National Park portion of highway)
North Shore Drive heading north and west out of Bryson City, North Carolina, is best known as the "Road to Nowhere" because of its dead end in the Smoky Mountains National Park. This road was supposed to be a replacement for North Carolina Highway 288 when Fontana Lake was created in the early 1940s; however, it wasn't - and apparently never will be.
When Fontana Dam was built around 70 years ago on the Little Tennessee River, it displaced small communities, homes, cemeteries, churches, and roads. Most of these were relocated away from the site of the new Fontana Lake. Residents wanted Highway 288 to be replaced as well, north of Fontana Lake through the Smoky Mountains National Park, so they could get to their cemeteries and old homesteads that are now located in the park.
Highway 288 was the main route between Bryson City and Deals Gap at US 129. It was an important route for travelers going west from Bryson City. It also acted as a collector road for several small communities along the Little Tennessee River.
Fontana Lake largely obliterated NC 288, but officials promised they would reconstruct the highway north of the lake. This process began during the construction of the dam with a two-lane road being built north of Bryson City, which is now present-day Fontana Road. Construction of the road drug on for several years due to lack of funding and environmental concerns.
Construction came to a halt in 1972, with just 7.2 miles of the road finished. After nearly three more decades of stalemate, funding was secured in 2000 to finish the road. However, in an environmental impact study released in 2007 by the park service, it was concluded the finished road would cause "major, adverse, long-term impacts to topography, geology, and soils" in the area.
The project was permanently ditched in 2010 when Swain County agreed to accept $52 million from the federal government not to build the road.
Today, North Shore Drive is a scenic, two-lane road that dead-ends near a tunnel a few miles from Bryson City. At the tunnel, there is a small parking area and a trailhead leading to the tunnel and beyond.
Our experience on North Shore Drive was awesome. Not only does it provide a different view of the Smoky Mountains, it offers a breathtaking look at the Little Tennessee River and Fontana Lake in the valley below.
We also got to experience the tunnel firsthand. My best estimate on the length of the tunnel is about 500-600 feet. When we walked in, we could clearly see our surroundings and the other end of the tunnel. However, as we went deeper, the environment changed. It got colder, the ambient noise became creepy, and we could no longer see anything except both ends of the tunnel.
We couldn't see the ground below, the sides of the tunnel, or even our hands in front of our faces. It was a surreal experience, because as I was walking in the middle of the tunnel, I would at times focus on the end. But it didn't seem to get any closer, and the feeling you get from that is really strange.
I absolutely would not go in this tunnel at night, and I'm not even sure it is accessible, since there is a gate at the beginning of North Shore Drive. But it is an awesome experience, and I recommend folks looking for something unusual and "off the beaten path" to check out North Shore Drive and the tunnel.
As a side note, the road does continue briefly after the tunnel. A few hundred yards on down is a finger of Fontana Lake. We didn't go past the other end of the tunnel, so I'm not sure how much further we could have continued.