Last Updated on April 13, 2021
Last Updated on April 13, 2021
The Road to Nowhere near Bryson City is a quarter-mile tunnel and its story starts with the creation of Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern United States, and its corresponding lake.
Fontana Dam and Lake’s construction led to the displacement of an entire community and this road was originally planned to allow people access to ancestral cemeteries and villages. However, due to unforeseen factors, the road was never finished and ends at said tunnel inside today’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Many years later, this Road to Nowhere is now a popular tourist destination with hiking trails. Of course, the history of this area and the people who lived here should not be forgotten as you walk through the tunnel.
Inside our guide, we’ll try to share as much as possible about them, but also how you can reach and enjoy this unique spot in North Carolina.
The Road to Nowhere near Bryson City
If you’re looking for something specific, here’s how we’ve organized our guide to the Road to Nowhere:
- The Story Behind The Road to Nowhere (History)
- Driving Directions
- Hiking Beyond The Road to Nowhere (2 Trails, Fontana Dam, and Wild Boars)
- More Things to Do in Bryson City (and Nearby)
The Story Behind The Road to Nowhere (History)
The story of The Road to Nowhere first begins with the creation of Fontana Lake, the tallest dam east of the Rockies at 480 feet. Fontana Lake was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in response to an urgent need for electric power during World War II.
The dam’s primary customer was the Aluminum Company of America, a Pennsylvania-based firm that was receiving US War Department aid for building aircraft, ships, and munitions that aided the war effort.
As a result, many local communities were displaced and forced to leave behind homes that had been in their families for generations. The once-booming lumber town of Proctor was submerged as residents left for a new start elsewhere.
Even the road that led to those communities went underwater with Fontana Lake’s creation.
The Federal Government promised to replace that road, giving the communities access to the family cemeteries where their ancestors lie. But during the construction of the replacement—known as Lakeview Drive—someone noticed that snowflakes melted quickly on the rock. They also discovered a strong sulfur smell in this spot.
It turns out that the rock surrounding the road could acidify water runoff and endanger nearby ecosystems. That environmental issue was found to be too expensive to remedy and completely halted construction.
And that’s how this tunnel earned the moniker “Road to Nowhere—A Broken Promise,” with credit for the name rightly going to Swain County residents.
While it doesn’t make up for the upheaval that these communities had to endure, the Park Service still ferries people across Fontana Lake to visit their family cemeteries during the summer months for Decoration Days.
In lieu of constructing a new road, the US Department of Interior eventually paid $52 million to Swain County in 2010. But after six years, only a portion of that had been paid and the county filed a lawsuit for the remaining sum.
In 2018, the last payment was paid and is being held by the state of North Carolina. Swain County currently receives interest on the settlement money.
While The Road to Nowhere isn’t an official landmark, it is pretty easy to find. Take Everett St north from Bryson City until you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Upon entering the park, this road turns into Lakeview Drive, and winds up the mountain six miles above Bryson City, ending at The Road to Nowhere.
This road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is terrific in the fall and is especially popular for cyclists. It’s a strenuous uphill, but there are rewarding views of Fontana Lake and a number of hiking trails.
There isn’t a lot of parking at the top, with 16 official spots available. The quarter-mile-long tunnel is a short walk from the parking area.
Hiking Beyond The Road to Nowhere (2 Trails, Fontana Dam, and Wild Boars)
Starting from The Road to Nowhere, there is a 35 mile path known as the Lakeshore Trail. It begins as soon as you reach the end of the tunnel and continues all the way to Fontana Dam.
Of course, there is a shorter 3.2-mile loop, known as the Goldmine Loop Trail. This one starts half a mile past the tunnel on your left.
You may even notice some wild boar traps along your journey. Legend says that a local farmer brought wild boars to his hunting ranch and several escaped into the mountains in the early 1900s.
Some boars still live in the mountains around The Road to Nowhere and Fontana Lake area.
Ready to Explore the Road to Nowhere?
The Road to Nowhere has a complicated and sad history, but it is still a place we’d recommend visiting and experiencing. For starters, it’s not every day that you can walk through a quarter-mile-long tunnel without worrying about cars coming!
We think you’ll also enjoy hearing the sounds and echoes inside the tunnel, especially the creepy darkness that takes over when you’re completely inside. You can turn on your flashlight as you walk through but just try to enjoy the pitch blackness around you for a minute or two.
Before leaving, take a moment and think about the journey of the tunnel’s construction, Fontana Dam and Lake, and those people who once lived around here. It really puts the Road to Nowhere in perspective, as a place forever linked to its troubling history.
Have you ever visited this interesting place? We’d love to know your thoughts on it and the story of its construction. If you haven’t made it out here yet, we’d love to know when you plan to visit!