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A creek runs along the 10-mile, grave Parson Branch Road.
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Boaters on Fontana Lake.
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Fontana Lake II
The Tennessee Valley Authority dammed Fontana Lake in the early 1940s.
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A creek runs along the 10-mile, grave Parson Branch Road.
It’s one of those typical days in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My husband and are stuck behind a line of slow-moving cars taking the popular and almost always overcrowded Cades Cove loop tour. But our destination is a little different on this day, and as soon as we’re able to skirt the Cades Cove Visitor Center halfway around the loop, we take off for a day’s diversion down some of the less traveled roads of the park and its southwestern border.
These are the kinds of Smoky Mountain road trips I love, long on time and short on people. Coming out of its 75th anniversary, the park continues to be the most visited in the nation with nearly 10 million tourists filing in and out each year. But I’ve been exploring these mountains for more than a decade, and I know just where to escape the throngs of people.
A Leisurely Drive on Parson Branch Road
To reach the depths of the southwestern portion of the park by car, we turn right onto Parson Branch Road just past the Cades Cove Visitor Center parking area. A 10-mile one-way gravel back road, it provides the perfect opportunity for rolling down the windows and taking in the scents and sounds of the Smokies. The road is full of potholes, and it’s a little bit like hiking with a car, as the road fords more than 15 small streams.
Shortly after turning onto the Parson Branch Road (which allows two-way traffic for the first couple miles), we find the Henry Whitehead Place on our left. This small and trim home with its split wood shingles was built by Henry Whitehead, a widower with three daughters. He built the home when he married a second time to Matilda Shields Gregory, who had been abandoned by her husband and left alone with a small child. Her neighbors came together in the emergency to build her a tiny log cabin, which still stands, connected by a roof overhang to the residence her second husband built her.
Much of the rest of our journey follows a small stream which we cross and re-cross many times. We notice as we drive gradually uphill the enormous hemlock die-off in the surrounding forest, more evidence of which can be found throughout the park. These trees have all been the victim of the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid. The road is also loaded with towering rhododendron thickets. Though not in bloom this early in the season, the waxy leaves and twisting branches of this most recognizable of Smokies flora establish a wall of green along either side of the road.
The Highest Concrete Dam in the East
About halfway to Highway 129, where Parson Branch Road ends on the park’s southwestern border, we reach the crest of our climb, crossing the trailheads for Hannah Mountain and Gregory Bald, and then descending gradually through woods loaded with scenic cascades along Parson Branch. There are many deep and quiet pools for fishing along this route. The Highest Concrete Dam in the East
Once we reach 129, we turn left, heading through Deals Gap and alongside the narrow, mist-covered waters of Lake Cheoah to visit the highest concrete dam east of the Rockies. Fontana Dam rises 480 feet and restrains the waters of the Little Tennessee River, forming the twisting, expansive outlines of Fontana Lake, which runs much of the length of the park’s southern border.
Construction on the dam began in 1942 and took only 36 months. It was built to supply electricity to the ALCOA plant in nearby Maryville, Tenn., for the manufacture of aluminum. The electricity produced by Fontana Dam ultimately went to supply power to atomic bomb research operations at Oak Ridge.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) bought over 1,000 individual tracts of land for Fontana Dam and Lake, resulting in the relocation of some 600 families. Those families’ homes, farms, schools, and churches are now all covered by the lake, which flooded five communities. Fontana, like many TVA dams, was thus a mixed blessing. While it resulted in dislocation, it also brought electricity (and jobs) to rural residents in the wake of World War II. The dam provides much needed flood control to a region that receives more than 50 inches of rainfall a year. The Little Tennessee River drains 2,650 square miles, most of it mountainous.
Even seven decades after its construction, the Fontana Dam is still awe-inspiring, and my husband, naturally fearful of heights, is reluctant to peer over the edge of the observation deck at the Fontana Dam Visitor Center to see the structure in the full glory of its height. It took more than 2.8 million cubic yards of concrete to build the dam, which began producing power in January 1945.
Fontana Dam is located on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Appalachian Trail crosses right over it. You can also drive over the dam on a road that deadends in the national park. A small picnic area on the north side of the damn provides a lovely place to stop and enjoy the view of Fontana Lake.
A couple of miles from the dam is Fontana Village, now an isolated and rustic mountain resort. The village was established in 1941, as a town for the workers who built the dam, and, at its height, supported a population of 6,000 people. Many of the cabins available for rent here are the same structures that once served the workers on the dam. The village has lodging, camp sites, a couple of restaurants, general store and outfitters office.
Twisting Through the Tail of the Dragon
As the afternoon wears on, we backtrack along Highway 28, returning to Deals Gap, where we find ourselves on Route 129 again. This section of roadway curling along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s southwestern border is known by motorcyclists as the Trail of the Dragon. The stretch features 318 curves in only 11 miles. It’s not just the sheer number of curves that is so amazing about this route but the incredible tightness of many of them. We find many sections of road where it’s not safe to go faster than 15 mph. Being in a car, we feel especially outnumbered by the two-wheeled variety of transportation on this route, but we enjoy the ride anyway and particularly our stop at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, where shiny bikes are lined up in long rows, and we spy the notorious Tree of Shame, a monument to missing bike parts and the many accidents experienced along this famous ride.
To return to the park’s main western entrance at Townsend, we take the Foothills Parkway from Chilhowee Lake to Highway 321. The parkway, though not within national park boundaries, is maintained by the park and offers high elevation vistas without the crowds one typically finds along the popular Newfound Gap Road. There are numerous overlooks along this 17-mile stretch of parkway, offering views of the western slopes of the Smokies as well as views of the Tennessee Foothills to the west. If you stop at Look Rock, you can take a half-mile hike to an observation tower from which you’ll enjoy 360-degree views and, if you time your road trip right, a lovely sunset over the lakes and rolling hills of east Tennessee.
Shady Streams and Serenity in Greenbrier Cove
Another less traveled avenue into the Smokies can be found at Greenbrier Cove, which is accessible about six miles east of Gatlinburg off Highway 321. The Greenbrier Cove Road is graveled and runs alongside the boulder-laden Little Pigeon River. Lined with old growth virgin red oak, hemlock and maples, as well as thick leafy rhododendron stands, the road leads to a host of peaceful hiking trails, including the tough eight-mile roundtrip trek to Ramsay Cascades and back.
Originally settled by the Whaley family in the early 1800s, the cove was one of the smaller communities in the park. At the height of its population, about two dozen families lived here, almost all of them Whaleys or Ownbys. Most families here engaged in subsistence agriculture, occupying small farms of 50 to 100 acres. Dolly Parton’s great-great-grandfather Benjamin C. Parton and his wife Margaret moved to the cove in the 1850s, and members of the Parton family lived here until the national park was established in the 1930s.
If you’d like to see some remnants of the cove’s early settlers, take a hike along the Porter Creek Trail. A nice little leg-stretcher for the first mile, the trail passes through thick displays of wildflowers in spring and past old Appalachian home sites, cemeteries and an Appalachian cantilevered barn, testament to the people who once made these mountains their home.
At about .7 miles, you’ll see a set of block steps leading up to the old Ownby Cemetery, which dates to the 1900s. Descendants of Greenbrier Cove residents still maintain the cemetery and sometimes replace headstones.
At approximately one mile you will come to Porter’s Flat, site of the first Whaley family settlements of Greenbrier Cove. The old road that the trail has followed ends here. If you opt to continue another .8 miles, the Porter Creek Trail leads to a waterfall, the soft and bridal veil-like Fern Falls.
You can also enjoy the cove on horseback with the help of Smoky Mountain Stables (865-436-5634, smokymountainridingstables.com), which offers one- and two-hour trail rides in the area around Greenbrier Cove.