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Fontana Lake in Fall
A bird's-eye view of the lake.
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Great Smoky Mountain Railway
Great Smoky Mountain Railway, Bryson.
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Fontana Lake in Fall
A bird's-eye view of the lake.
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Great Smoky Railroad Conductor
The writer's daughter meets a Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train conductor.
Winding roads and mountain railways, wide waters and whitewater surround North Carolina’s Fontana Lake.
Like a pilgrim on a modern-day mission to see a quiet side of the Smokies, I board an early-morning passenger train at Bryson City and roll into the unknown wilds of North Carolina.
This is actually a father-daughter adventure on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and my five-year-old, Abby, stares at everything with wide-eyed wonder.
Our 44-mile roundtrip ride boasts its own kind of music. The train rumbles over rails with a rhythmic cadence. And, while cruising past rock cuts and rhododendron, the train whistle blows and echoes across the Carolina Smokies like the high lonesome wails of a great bluegrass song.
What we enjoy the most, however, is simply slipping over Fontana Lake on a 780-foot-long trestle – and smelling the air.
It’s fresh and rich and exhilarating, just like the gorgeous mountains enveloping Fontana Lake.
Here, the mountains kiss the sky, especially along the Cherohala Skyway, a scenic drive connecting Graham County to east Tennessee. Crowds are scarce, and hiking trails are abundant – not only in the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park but in remote spots like the Tsali Recreation Area on Fontana Lake’s wooded shores.
“You can rent a pontoon boat and anchor in a quiet cove and not see anybody for an entire day,” says Carolyn Allison, president of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. “As vast as Fontana is, you can find a little corner and have it all to yourself.”
Fontana stretches for 29 miles in western North Carolina’s Graham and Swain counties, reaching its arms into deep forests harboring huge hardwoods. Nearby are more great lakes, Cheoah and Santeetlah.
“The North Carolina Smokies are undiscovered,” Allison says. “People come to visit this area, and they’re horseback riding, tubing, fishing, boating on the lake, whitewater rafting. There is so much to do.”
There is also much to see. Over the intercom of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, train conductor Willie Wiegel tells passengers to “sit back and have a good ride.”
We do. Easily. We have the best seats, inside a climate-controlled car, and we get to know a friendly retired couple, Alvin and Lorene Wilson of Seneca, S.C.
Only, we can’t stay still. Abby and I keep trying to master a balancing act – a belly-dancing sway – whenever we slip from car to car. Finally, though, we find the perfect place to capture all with a camera: a car with open windows. It’s a bit chilly, but the wind feels refreshing.
At the turn-around, we share lunch during a short layover at Wesser. We overlook waterfalls on the Nantahala River. We try to skip some stones.
Then we make it back to the train – just in time. Had we not, Wiegel warns, it would have been a 16-mile hike back to Bryson City.
I like bryson city. And so does my daughter.
Once called Charleston, this town’s charm today lies in its old-fashioned architecture, much like two other Charlestons in the east. Here, Abby and I follow the Everett Street bridge over the Tuckasegee River. We salute the names on the war memorial. We stop in Libby’s Florist to smell the roses, and at the chamber of commerce for maps.
We also lose ourselves for an hour at Bryson City’s Smoky Mountain Trains, a model railroad museum where six tiny engines chug simultaneously. Kids of all ages come to see the tracks, says railroad operations manager Bill Randall.
“There was one particular, 15-year-old teenage girl. Now, she made my day,” Randall says. “She was like ‘Wow!’ every time she turned a corner.”
Touring the rural region, from Bryson City to Robbinsville, I am wowed by every store and story near the shoreline of Fontana Lake.
The back roads beckon with art galleries, craft shops and the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, selling handmade crafts, pottery and paintings.
In Swain County, I can golf at the Smoky Mountain Country Club and eat at The Oaks, a restaurant at Whittier serving sauteed local trout, with poached grapes, spicy pecans and a lemon butter pan sauce.
One can also catch supper in one of the area’s trout streams.
For a wilderness experience, the county of Graham is grand, with all of its noisy creeks, rushing whitewater and wild rolls of kudzu hiding guardrails at the edge of scenic byways.
Tales of Native Americans factor strongly into local history. Part of the famous Cherokee Indian Reservation lies in Swain County. Robbinsville, meanwhile, contains the grave of Chief Junaluska, a prominent Indian leader of the early 1800s.
Junaluska is credited with saving Andrew Jackson’s life at Battle of Horseshoe Bend. But Junaluska was still forced to leave North Carolina, along with other Native Americans, on the “Trail of Tears” in 1838. Later, though, Junaluska returned and was granted a large tract of land in Graham County.
Black-and-yellow road signs showing squiggly lines are common throughout Graham County. So are motorcycle riders. But, of course, this is where you’ll find both “The Dragon” and “The Hellbender” – two popular passages for folks making tracks on only two wheels.
Just before twilight, I brave “The Hellbender” – a snake-shaped sheet of asphalt, officially labeled N.C. 28 – and I find the Friendly Fields General Store.
“We just named this little area ‘Fields Gap,’” says storeowner Beth Fields. “That’s our last name. And, any bend in the road, they name.”
At Deals Gap, I find The Dragon General Store, where a sign boasts a 1,756-foot elevation and a population of 6. The store is a haven for motorcycle enthusiasts. It’s loaded with spare bike parts and sports a wall with pictures of riders braving “The Dragon” on U.S. 129, a road skirting across the Smokies with 318 curves in 11 miles.
Along “The Hellbender,” Fontana Village lies near the Yellow Creek Mountains. There, I browse the gift shop and stand tempted by many food choices – from a classy, full-service restaurant to an old-fashioned hamburger eatery and an ice cream shop.
Set among the Nantahala National Forest, Fontana Village boasts lodges, cabins, a campground, stables, houseboats and a putt-putt golf course. It’s also historic. The family-oriented resort occupies a camp used in the 1940s by the workers who built the nearby Fontana Dam.
Recently, the village has added a new pool, lazy river and walk-in beach.
I find Fontana Village on a night when convertibles fill the parking lot. I marvel at the beautiful sunset over the 403-acre resort and long for another day in this quiet, special place.