For my Spring Break this year, the family and I opted for a short Smoky Mountain journey. As we were practically leaving the driveway, we were still deciding on where exactly we wanted to go. We knew the Blue Ridge Parkway would be closed and both Lodges we frequent had not reopened yet. At last our fingers fell on the Gatlinburg, TN area of the map and off we went. Knowing that I-40 was shut down across the mountains, we decided to head toward Cherokee, NC and use US 441 to cross over. Simple enough, right?
Approaching our via point, it snowed on us near Maggie Valley, marking the first time I had seen snow falling in the mountains despite my countless visits. Once in Cherokee, we continued to US 441 directly into Gatlinburg. About 7 miles later, we encountered local police blocking our way and noticed the road was being shut down. We knew then that this trip was going to be interesting. By this point, it was getting late and any possible alternate routes would take hours, so we opted to stay in Cherokee for the night.
Monday morning we were ready to try again. At the US 441 closure, maps with an alternate highway route were provided along with a telephone number for road condition information. With a call to that number our hopes were again dashed. Rather than follow the suggested alternate route, we noticed another, more convenient crossing via US 129. So, off we went toward this new chance. This second detour had its advantages though, as along NC 28 I was able to find a few spots to photograph.
Off of NC 28
One new bit of information that we discovered on this trip is that part of US 129 is known as the Tail of the Dragon with 318 curves in 11 miles. Finally on US 129, we arrived at the NC-TN border only to discover the road was closed ahead quite recently due to a rock slide. At that moment, the trip graduated from interesting to comedic. Now on our third reroute, my parents remembered a small, scenic road they discovered that crossed into Tennessee, and was very close. And that’s how we ended up on the Cherohala Skyway.
Though this route was open, it held other surprises for us. Climbing to around 5400 feet, we were once again in snow. The higher we rose, the deeper the drifts became and the more the temperature fell. The road was mostly clear, but the snow was no longer our problem. At these heights, we were now driving through clouds. Envision a winding two-lane road climbing and falling with the mountain, add in snow drifts along the side at least one foot deep, then toss in an occasional tree bent into your lane by the weight of snow and ice, and top it all off with thick, white “fog.” At the top, these clouds reduced visibility down to around twenty feet. If we weren’t so nervous, we would have been laughing beyond reason by now. Oh, did I mention that I had had the bright idea to be the driver for the entire trip? When I wasn’t watching for ice, snow, trees, other vehicles, and animals, I was able to take note of the beauty surrounding us in our limited view. Oh how I wish I could have taken a few pictures up in that cloud. The trees on the mountainside were absolutely solid white and perfect.
As the Skyway descended, the clouds cleared from view and the snow disappeared. After driving for over six hours since Cherokee, we finally arrived in Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg. As though to top off this winter “wonderland” we had just experienced, we ended up at a year-round Christmas-themed hotel. Aside from the rather impressive accommodations, this hotel provided me with a number of attractive photograph opportunities to make up for the day.
The Inn at Christmas Place -- Pigeon Forge, TN
Tuesday we spent a couple hours in Gatlinburg only to discover that our winter adventure was far from over. We had happened upon Gatlinburg at the same time as a convention of Santa Claus-es. I kid not. And so we left for home with a new hope after discovering US 441 was once again open to traffic. We quickly discovered why the road had been closed as we were once again met with snow and downed trees. We even reentered our nemesis from the day before: white clouds. Fortunately we did not climb as high with this route and road conditions were much more favorable. I was even able to catch some photographs of some snowy trees.
Off of US 441
And so ends this comedy. We did make it back home safely, despite all the curve snowballs, if you will, the Smoky Mountains managed to throw our way. Though we spent most of the three days in a vehicle, I must admit I enjoyed the drive and we were able to see some very nice scenery. And just to ensure the comedy of this story, I put together an accurate map detailing our attempts at gaining access to Tennessee. Enjoy!
Oh, wait, how about some numbers…
Cherokee to Pigeon Forge via US 441: ~44 miles
Cherokee to Pigeon Forge via the proverbial Timbuktu: ~255 miles (that’s 5.8 times the above distance!!!)