Three friends and myself had reservations to stay at popular campsite #71 in the Lakeshore area of the Smokies this weekend. We were all looking forward to a fall backpack at a large and beautiful campsite. We got everything we expected, plus something we didn’t - SNOW!
We started our hike Saturday morning by carpooling from the Road to Nowhere tunnel up to Clingman’s Dome where we’d hike downhill for nearly 10 miles to campsite 71. David and I originally planned to take the AT and Jonas Creek Trail down to the site, but our later meeting time would have us pushing against daylight and we didn’t want to rush to camp. We all four hiked in together down Forney Creek Trail to camp instead.
As we drove up from Bryson City, we watched the temperature drop from 49 degrees at the tunnel to 30 degrees at Clingman’s Dome. Halfway up the 7-mile road to the trailhead, we noticed the trees all were looking very strange… we quickly discovered it was indeed snow! Our first snow of the year and it was barely fall! When we got out of the car at Clingman’s our bodies were not happy! We all quickly added layer upon layer of clothing and I put some extra socks on my hands as I hadn’t brought gloves. It was amusing, however, when we’d see tourists hop out of their cars in shorts, T shirts, and flip flops! They didn’t stay in the parking lot too long as you can imagine! We took some photos in the snow and headed off for the Forney Ridge Trailhead and headed down the hill.
On Forney Ridge Trail, we saw several maintenance workers installing stone stairs on the trail and greeted them. These were the only people we’d see for nearly 9 miles. We reached the junction of Forney Ridge and Forney Creek fairly quickly, in less than 45 minutes, and began a descent down Forney Creek Trail. You could tell that most people that travel Forney Ridge Trail were only going to Andrew’s (Anders) Bald, as Forney Creek was in a lot different shape than Forney Ridge to this point. Until now, the trail was well-graded, wide, and free of debris with stairs and raised portions of trail due to erosion and mud. Now, the trail was narrow, rocky, and steep with many slick spots. We continued downward, going around several switchbacks, and on our way down the hill. There was a lot of evidence of the heavy logging this area experienced in the pre-park days. There were remnants of rail and spikes everywhere, as well as some erosion into the rocks in the form of straight lines so you could actually see where the railroad was laid out up the hill.
We continued down to mile 2 on this trail to come to the upper portion of campsite 68, which was currently closed due to aggressive bear activity. This site was absolutely stunning and had some evidence of a logging camp in the forms of cables laying about. Also, this site is where you’ll find Rock Slab Falls, which looks like a giant waterslide made of rocks, which goes about 50 feet down the mountain and ends in a somewhat deep pool of water. Located approximately 0.4 miles down the trail from here is the lower part of campsite 68 which lies on Steeltrap Creek. From here, we went across the creek and down through a few gullies where there were some stone walls used to keep the trail in place along the hill. We went down several switchbacks and through some rhododendron thickets that were deeply gulched into the hillside before we came to a larger and more difficult creek crossing near mile 6 and just before campsite 69. This campsite had lots of metal remnants left behind, parts of what used to be a stove and railroad pieces. The site was very large and completely empty. Shortly after the site was another difficult crossing that required a little planning as we didn’t want wet feet in the near-freezing temperatures.
After two more difficult crossings, we came to the junction of Jonas Creek and Forney Creek trails and campsite 70. We were jealous that there was a great-looking foot log going up to Jonas Creek as we didn’t have that on our trail! Here we ran into not one, but two groups of hikers, totaling 6 people. They all decided to head up to campsite 69 and were very friendly. From here, we only had 1.2 miles to go to get to our campsite for the night. About 0.5 miles before the campsite, the trail climbed away from the creek (finally some uphill!) and we were very grateful for our bodies to get a break from the constant downhill. We came to campsite 71 pretty quickly and settled in for a pretty quiet night with an amazing campfire.
Campsite 71 is a large, beautiful site that used to be home to a post office (Bushnell, NC in the pre-park days), a CCC camp during the depression, and finally a ranger station before being turned into a back country site. The site boasts a 2-story chimney on the site of the old building, as well as some chestnut stumps and some hemlock trees. The trail here looks like a road, as it was driven on for many years before the days of the park.
Day 2 would be a short day of close to 6 miles back to the cars at Lakeview Drive (Fontana Road). We started by leaving camp at 9:15 a.m. and crossed a few branches and downhill to reach Forney Creek again. We followed the old roadbed out of Bushnell and up to Whiteoak Branch Trail. From here, we’d have a little bit more undulation in the trail and it was so nice get in some uphill walking for a change, considering Saturday most mostly downhill. We quickly traveled the 1.8 miles to Lakeshore Trail and had a bigger climb up to saddle ridge in the trail. We had hiked this part of the trail a few times and knew it was our last climb and that we’d be back to the cars in no time flat at that point. We passed an old homesite and the Goldmine Loop Trail (where there never was gold or a goldmine) and passed the Tunnel Bypass Trail and made it to the tunnel at the Road to Nowhere by 11:00 a.m.
For those who don’t know, the “Road to Nowhere” is called so by the locals of this area. Lakeshore Drive was begun as a way for families displaced by the park service and the war as a way for them to get back to the places of their birth, as well as to visit the cemeteries of their relatives. The road project was abandoned shortly after it was started in the 1960s due to the road causing so much environmental damage and the fact that there was a perfectly good road (NC 28 and US 129) on the other side of Fontana Lake. The park service does, however, take families back into these towns free of charge once a year by boat and then by jeeps to visit the land their families once owned. The tunnel at the end of Lakeview Drive still exists and is 365 yards long and wide enough for two lanes of traffic. It’s very strange to walk through and it is riddled with graffiti. It’s a good idea to take a headlamp if you’re going to walk through, however. I’ve stepped in a few piles of horse poo on trips through in the past!