RealImaginarySmokies Day 6 – Exploring the Ghost Town of Elkmont & Cruising the Cherohala Skyway

We departed Elkmont and got stuck in traffic for 90 minutes heading up to cross the park on Newfound Gap Road. We then drove US-74 west to NC-28 and NC-143 to Robbinsville. Finally, we drove the spectacular Cherohala Skyway across to Indian Boundary Campground in Cherokee National Forest.

Do We Have a Mouse?

It’s always a good night for me when it’s warm enough that I don’t need to wear socks. Last night was one of those nights. At 4:45 I was awake, and amid the still darkness, I wondered if we had caught our mouse. We’d been trying to catch him for the last two days to no avail. He thwarted our first attempt and managed to make off with every bit of the bait.

After finding my socks inside my sleeping bag, I quietly exited the tent, trying not to disturb Becky. I walked up to the car, turned on my LED lantern, pulled on the car door handle AND—it was locked! Crap! Forgot about that…this was certainly less dramatic than I’d imagined!

Our second, somewhat more improvised mouse trap lying behind the driver seat (Photo by Becky)

I retrieved my keys from the tent, unlocked the car this time (that Toyota beep is awful loud in a dead-silent campground!), pulled on the handle AND—saw that the bottle and the sticky trap were still together, but totally jostled out of position from where I had wedged it on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The outside fringe of the sticky trap had been gnawed around, just like the day before, and then I saw the box rock! The mouse was still there, but was he inside?

I slowly picked up the trap and peered in through the front—and sure enough, a long tiny tail on a little tiny mouse about two or three inches long was stuck inside! YES!!! We finally got him!!! He was small enough that he probably would have been able to get inside the bottle and eat the bait with no problem had I not added the sticky trap as an extra hurdle. I set the trap down on the picnic table and went over to the tent to share my jubilation with Becky. “We got him! Do you want to see it?”

Now What?

When Becky said no, my mind moved on to letting him out of the trap. I hadn’t given much thought to this until now—and I felt profoundly sad and even guilty. This poor scared, tiny little creature was stuck in my trap and no longer in my car, but now I have no idea how to let him go. While he was obviously quite strong to be able to jostle a 12-ounce glass bottle around, he was too delicate for me to free from the sticky trap without some serious injury; furthermore, I’d probably get my fingers bitten up in the process. I could just leave him for a predator, but chances are that it too would get stuck in the trap, or worse yet the bait in the bottle could attract a black bear to investigate.

I was all out of ideas, I had no Internet service and therefore no Google, and it was still before 5am…so I asked Becky what I should do. She told me to just put him in the dumpster. 🙁 I felt terrible about it, but that’s what I did. I hoped he would break loose in there, but I didn’t think that was likely.

I concluded that I hate these sticky traps, and that I’m never going to use one again. I have no idea what I could have done better to deal with a mouse taking up residence in our car on a camping trip, but I knew the way I chose was too inhumane to use it again. (UPDATE: I Googled later and found out that you can release a mouse from a sticky trap, but it’s not very easy to pull off on the road. If I’d known, I’d have tried to get him out.)

Remember folks: keep your food safe in hard-sided lockable containers, and don’t leave your car open long enough for wildlife to move into your car for the winter. They can make a real mess, and it’s hard to get rid of them. Out West they have a saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear,” and that seems to be true for all wildlife. I know this experience has made us extra careful on the road and at home.

Shooting Elkmont

After crawling back into bed, I got up again when my alarm went off at 6:30. This was our last day here at Elkmont, and I wanted to take advantage of the still air and soft, even, early light to shoot some panoramas of our campsite and the abandoned buildings. Even the slightest breeze makes it difficult to get a clear 360° image, and the winds have been almost nonexistent first thing in the morning. I had my pano rig set up not long after first light, and thought that shooting our campsite from the top of our picnic table would offer a good vantage point. This is usually no big deal, but today I did something stupid and earned my injury for the week…

The Picnic Table Incident

I was standing on top of the picnic table next to my camera and decided to walk around and check the leveling on my panoramic head…I took my first step, and realized I had made a terrible mistake! As I set my foot down onto nothing, I thought, “Oh no, well I guess I better be ready to land on the bench!” And then I realized…I’d missed the bench! I was going all the way down! In this split second, I realized I’d better be ready so I don’t twist my body all up and really get myself hurt.

So I came down on the one foot, turning myself enough that my upper body continued to fall backwards, past the bench. This saved me from bumping my head, tearing my groin, or twisting a joint, but it meant breaking my fall with my legs on the bench and my hands on the rocky ground! Ach! And when I landed, I looked up just in time to see my camera and tripod coming down after me!

Thankfully, everything landed softly on top of me. No damage came to my equipment or me, save for one sore wrist and a gravel rash on my hands. After the adrenaline passed a bit, I of course set up again and got my shot on top of the picnic table. Then I moved on to the Elkmont Historic District…

360-degree panorama of Site N1 in Elkmont Campground. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

The Saga of Elkmont’s Appalachian Club and the Creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Elkmont’s oldest structure, the Levi Trentham cabin in Daisy Town, built in 1830

The Sneed cabin in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district

The Hidgon cabin in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district

A children’s playhouse in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district called “Adamless Eden”

I know that heading is a mouthful, but there’s a story here with all of these abandoned buildings and the old cemetery I found on Tuesday. You see, back in 1908, Colonel Wilson B. Townsend set up a logging camp where Elkmont Campground is today. Lumber was transferred to his sawmill by a railroad he built and extended to Knoxville. When most of the timber was gone, Townsend advertised Elkmont as a mountain getaway. In 1910 he sold land to an affluent group of Knoxville outdoor enthusiasts who formed the Appalachian Club. They built the Appalachian Clubhouse and several vacation cabins, creating the small neighborhoods of Daisy Town, Millionaires Row, and Society Hill.

In the 1920s, the young National Park Service sought to create a national park in the Eastern United States. The movement to create one in the Great Smoky Mountains was started by certain members of the Appalachian Club. Due to maneuvering by politically influential members who desired to create a national forest rather than a national park, cabin owners in Elkmont were allowed to obtain lifetime leases when the park was created in 1937. Meanwhile, residents in less affluent areas like Cades Cove were flat-out evicted through eminent domain.

The last lease in Elkmont expired in 2001, which would have allowed the park to proceed with demolition plans it had at inception. However, some leaseholders’ descendants succeeded at placing Elkmont on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. This caused a 15-year debate that finally resulted in the preservation of most of Daisy Town and two other structures further up the mountain. The rest of the buildings will be demolished early in 2017.

I unfortunately did not get to photograph inside any of the abandoned cabins, as all were posted with “NO TRESPASSING” signs, and several of them had collapsed floors and roofs. Things were still plenty creepy though! I did, however, shoot a panorama inside the Appalachian Clubhouse, which was restored in 2009. This was thanks to a ranger who was kind enough to let me in while he performed some maintenance.

360-degree panoramas of abandoned vacation cabins in Elkmont’s Society Hill district. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

360-degree panoramas of abandoned vacation cabins in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

360-degree panorama inside the Appalachian Clubhouse in Elkmont. It was originally built in 1910 and rebuilt after a fire in 1934. The National Park Service restored it to its 1930s appearance in 2009. It is now available for public day use. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Packing Up & Heading South

Our trip was perfectly-timed to enjoy the fall color in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

With my photographic goals achieved, I returned to camp and started a breakfast fire. We used up the very last of our wood to make some eggs and toast, and Becky grilled up some chicken to eat later. With the car all packed up, I was about to hold a “ceremony” before burning the two small pieces of wood I cut down to rearrange logs on the fire. Since our next campsite wasn’t far away, Becky suggested I save them…so I did.

After taking a few last pictures of the camp, we set out around 12:30 for Newfound Gap Road to cross the park over to North Carolina. The weather was still perfect, and the colors from leaves turning on all of the mountains were spectacular! We stopped at a few pullouts on Little River Road to get some last photos.

A spectacularly colorful mountain across from a pullout on Little River Road

Bearable Traffic?

We were pleasantly surprised to find the intersection at Sugarlands Visitor Center was completely free of traffic for a change! But our freedom was short-lived. About a mile south, traffic came to a halt on Newfound Gap Road. Only a very few cars were coming down in the opposite direction. Is there construction? Was there an accident? Is there a bear?

We crept along for several miles over the course of 90 minutes. This made me nervous since we were running low on gas. The creeping was especially frustrating too because I would rather sit for a few minutes with my engine off than creep along at half a mile an hour. Just before the Chimneys Picnic Area someone from the other direction told us we were almost out, and that traffic was from people stopping to see a bear and cubs. It’s always a bear…just like Yellowstone!

When we arrived at all the excitement, I found a spot to pull off the road so we could take in the spectacle ourselves. Through the trees I saw that a river runs along the road, and that most people were lined up with their cameras on the shoulder. My first thought was how exciting it will be to see the bears at a safe distance and in the open by the river!

When I caught up to the crowd, I didn’t see any bears near the river at all… That’s when I realized the bears were between the trees, just 10 feet from the road! Signs all over the park tell people not to interact with bears or elk, and to stay back at least 50 yards—and here were dozens of people taking selfies with bear cubs—and MOM only a few feet away!!! At this point we ourselves were merely 10-15 feet away, so I turned back.

We didn’t didn’t hang around or take any pictures…it was really impossible to do so without getting way too close. Maybe black bears are pretty docile, but they are still big wild animals that can unpredictably attack if they feel like it! We decried people for getting too close and called a ranger when we got a cellular signal at Newfound Gap. The ranger was extremely laid back about it though…he said the bears live there and that they had someone keeping people away up there earlier.

Newfound Gap to Robbinsville

Becky gets into a state at Newfound Gap…no wait…she’s in two states!

Anyway…by the time we got up to Newfound Gap, it was almost 3 o’clock. Since we were able to get Internet service, we lounged around a bit catching up on the 21st Century. I took some more photos and Becky whipped up some chicken sandwiches. By the time I got around to plugging our destination into Waze it was almost 3:30. I found out that we had almost three hours of driving to reach our campground, with not much longer than that before sundown.

Today there are some beautiful cloud formations looking southeast on the North Carolina side of Newfound Gap.

With a closer look, you can see Newfound Gap Road winding its way across the mountain far below!

So I rounded Becky up and we continued down Newfound Gap Road to Cherokee, North Carolina. We passed the western terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway just before we exited the park and entered the Cherokee Indian Reservation. In stark contrast to Gatlinburg, Cherokee has lots of interesting local shops and restaurants and is almost devoid of national chains. I stopped at the first gas station we saw and filled up. It turns out we were nowhere close to running completely empty, but it was still a relief to get that taken care of.

I’d considered a less direct scenic route, but since it was late we took the most expeditious route from Cherokee. We followed US-74 West, which is mostly freeway and marked as the Appalachian Highway. The speed limit is only 60 miles per hour though, and drops to 55 when the freeway ends. From here we followed NC-28 to NC-143 which took us into Robbinsville.

From what I’d seen on the map, Robbinsville is the last bit of civilization we pass through before heading into the hinterlands of Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. Since we were running so late, I decided that we better stop here to restock our ice and pick up some firewood. I wasn’t sure if there was a store at Indian Boundary Campground or whether we’d arrive before it closed.

Cherohala Skyway

Like most discoveries, you don’t expect them. The Cherohala Skyway was by far my favorite discovery of this trip! Conceived in 1958 but not completed until 1996, it’s a relatively new, 43-mile road that traverses the Unicoi Mountains, connecting Tellico Plains, Tennessee with Robbinsville, North Carolina. Its name is a mashup of the two national forests it crosses, Cherokee on the Tennessee side, and Nantahala on the North Carolina side.

The road rises over 3,000 feet from Robbinsville to over 5,400 feet at its summit, before dropping over 4,500 feet to Tellico Plains. It’s a very comfortable road to drive, and has 15 scenic overlooks. We stopped at five of them, since the sun was soon to set by the time we made our way through. I don’t think I can put into words how incredible this drive was—I’m just going to let my photos do the talking. This is quite possibly the best-kept secret in the Southern Appalachians, as the crowds on the Cherohala Skyway were nowhere near the level of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hooper Cove overlook

Becky also captured this wonderful image of me shooting at Hooper Cove overlook!

Obadiah Gap overlook

Looking across the mountains toward the setting sun at the Big Junction overlook

Brushy Ridge overlook

The view from Turkey Creek picnic area at sunset

Indian Boundary Campground

After that incredible finale to our drive, we arrived at Indian Boundary Campground at dusk. Again I was caught flat-footed in finding our campsite, as there is no camp office and absolutely no cellular reception whatsoever. Thankfully I had booked a site near the entrance, and we found our name scribbled onto a reservation tag.

Becky set up our tent while I started working on a fire. We had one of the handicapped-accessible campsites, so the parking area and tent pad were exceptionally wide and level. The campground seemed nice from what we could still see of it, but it was full of RVs since they have electrical hookups here.

Our new firewood was labeled as “kiln-dried”, but I find that claim specious as it smoldered much more than it burned. It took a great deal of time and effort to get the fire hot enough to cook up our last four hamburgers. Becky was excited that this campground had showers, so she took off to clean up after dinner, while I tried to wash the dishes.

This proved to be far more frustrating than I imagined. There were several water spigots located throughout the campground, but signs warned that there was a $100 fine for anyone dumping grey water anywhere but a dump station. While Becky was gone, I walked all over the campground looking for a dishwashing station and came up empty. I finally just filled up a container with water and did my best to scrub the grease off of our dishes.

I thought about getting a shower myself, but I decided not to bother when I saw how disgusting the men’s shower was on the A Loop. A sign said, “Do not shower with your pet—people are grossed out by the dog hair and it clogs the drains.” !!!

By the time Becky came back, I was frazzled. I just wanted to clean up, sit by the fire, relax, and be warm. But I wasn’t able to finish cleaning up, and our kiln-dried wood would not burn.

I was also concerned about the weather. There were more clouds in the sky, and I knew tonight would be warm, but I had no idea whether rain was due anytime soon or not. I felt woefully distant from the rest of the world and I couldn’t even figure out how I used to get a weather forecast before I had the Internet or cable TV. (The car has a radio! Duh!)

While today was a really great day, tonight was a rare night. This has been but a short road trip, and my mind was drifting to the comforts of home as we settled into our tent to go to sleep… I had only reserved this campsite for tonight, leaving us the option to spend another night on the road tomorrow or to head home. Usually I want to stay out until the very last moment, but tonight I wasn’t so sure.

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