Date Explored: July 30, 2013
Written by: Shawn Dunnaway
Elevation: Around 2000' at Cataloochee to 3888' (Mt. Sterling Gap)
Weather: Sunny, 75°
Cataloochee Creek Bridge GPS: 35.666937, -83.072716
When looking over a map of the Smokies during a recent trip, I noticed a road that traveled near the northeastern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It headed out of the Cosby, Tennessee community and went all the way down to Cataloochee, which is near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Intrigued, I decided that we should go check it out.
My wife and I began the trip out of Gatlinburg. We headed east on US 321 to Cosby. Once at Cosby, we began our adventure by taking Tennessee 32. It was a narrowly paved two-lane road that became very curvy. It reminded me of the Tail of the Dragon but much tighter.
There were a few homes along this portion of the road as it wound its way in and out of the boundary of the national park. Eleven miles and a half hour later we saw the pavement end. TN 32 was no more, for we had entered North Carolina. Apparently the Tar Heel state didn't consider this road worth paving. It did have a name though - Mt. Sterling Road.
We ventured on another mile or so until we reached civilization again. I think it was a tiny village called "Waterville" but I'm not entirely sure. There was a crossroad there where one could go north to Interstate 40. South would take you to Big Creek Campground. And continuing straight would eventually get you to Cataloochee, which is where we ultimately wanted to go.
The road returned to pavement for a very short while at Waterville. But as we headed toward Cataloochee, we entered back into the national park and the road was gravel again.
To be honest, this portion of the road got old pretty fast. There was not much to see. No lookouts, very few (if any) creeks and no wildlife to speak of. Usually not affected by the constant barrage of curves, I began to feel slight symptoms of car sickness. After driving 10 miles, we finally reached a point of interest that I had spotted on the maps. The Cataloochee Creek Bridge was a welcoming sight to me and my fatigued body.
We stopped there and stayed about a half-hour, mostly just to get out of the car, stretch our legs and recover. From this point, we had driven 41 miles from Gatlinburg, half of which was on ridiculously curvy roads. On a side note, I should mention that the road picked up another moniker near this juncture: Old Cataloochee Turnpike, at least according to Google maps.
This stop was at a one-lane bridge that featured a water monitoring station. Not a soul was around; we hadn't seen any cars during the last hour.
At the edge of the creek, we noticed several dozen black and blue butterflies on a small sandbar. I wasn't sure what they were doing, but they were not afraid of us. They allowed us to take some really good close-up photos of them.
But little did I know the butterflies were not the only creature I would soon be photographing.
While I was off taking photos of the butterflies and the bridge, my wife was vocally startled (ok - she squealed) followed by "you have to come see this" and then followed by some gasps and OMG's.
I figured she had seen a snake. But when I got there I wish it had been a snake. She told me about how she was sitting on this concrete box with her legs dangling over the side, just above the shallow water. With her legs dangling, she looked down and saw the absolute biggest spider she had ever seen just inches from her leg. I went down to take a closer look and confirmed it was an enormous spider. I got my camera and tried to get the best photo I could, which you can see at right.
Later on I discovered this thing was a common wolf spider, which I'm very familiar with, but it was bigger than some tarantulas. I'm not kidding. If you look at the photo, he was posing next to a stream gauge that gives you an idea of how big this dude was. In this photo you can see his back legs are clearly 2.5 inches long, which means this spider is pushing six inches big. The angle of the photo doesn't do the size of the spider justice.
I took a stick and touched him. As soon as I did, he literally disappeared - vanished before my eyes. I have no idea where that thing went, which obviously made me even more uneasy. Perhaps it was a ghost spider? Nah, it was just one giant lightning-fast wolf spider. Freaked out, we decided it was time to leave.
Just a short drive down the road past the Cataloochee Creek Bridge there was a little treat on the side of the road for us. This unnamed waterfall (photo at right) came down about 10 feet from some rocks on the side of the road. It was a great sight, considering most of this drive had been taxing and mundane.
Just a mile later, we began to see signs of civilization again as we neared Cataloochee. It was good to be back on pavement! We explored the Cataloochee area for an hour or so.
Our Explorations of the Smokies is to give you a first-hand account of what we experience in and around the national park. To be honest, you are not missing out on anything with Tennessee 32 and Mount Sterling Road. However, the bridge crossing the Cataloochee Creek (home of the giant wolf spider) was interesting as was the waterfall. I believe this part of the road is called Old Cataloochee Turnpike.
If you want to check this out, you would be much better off to head from the south from the Maggie Valley area so you don't have to endure 20 miles of curvy road. But if you decide to do the whole road, you might want to take some car sickness medication especially if you are prone to that type of illness. I can tell you the next morning I was zonked. It was like delayed car sickness, if there is such a thing.
Do I regret this trip? No way! Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to share our experiences with you.