We scheduled a week-long stop in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee on our journey from LA to South-west Minnesota. We were hoping to spend a little time in the Smokey Mountains National Park. It wasn’t to be. Not a single road into the park was open. Like so many other things the Covid-19 virus had caused a shutdown. But we found plenty to enjoy during our week there.
Forty-five years earlier we had spent our honeymoon in Gatlinburg. On our way into Gatlinburg we stopped in and visited a tourist attraction in Pigeon Forge. There was very little in Pigeon Forge in those days. I really don’t remember much about the place we stopped at back then but I do remember there was a seal show. I bet you didn’t know seals were indigenous to the Smokey Mountains. I remember nothing about the show. But I will never forget the part that certainly wasn’t meant to happen. Apparently, these seals were not content living in the Smokies. They escaped the stage area and made their way up into the stands. I am certain they were checking to see if any of us tourists had the scent of the ocean on us so we could take them home with us.
This trip we stayed at the Walden Creek RV Park in Pigeon Forge. We really enjoyed this park. We chose this place because it is a Passport America (PA) park. Our week of camping was half off. We saved more than enough in this single use of PA to pay for our five-year membership to PA. Walden Creek is a small RV Park but is very neat and clean and quite pretty. I highly recommend site number one if you visit here. This is where we parked and it is the absolute best site in the park. We had full hookups. The park is very conveniently located.
With the park closed we were looking for other ways to experience the mountains. Having examined a few maps, I thought we could take a route which would circle the entire national park and also enable us to take in Cherokee, North Carolina. While this didn’t turn out exactly as I planned, we still had quite the adventure that day. We started out on the Foothills Parkway in Townsend, Tennessee. This beautiful thirty-three-mile route is managed by the National Parks Service and travels around the northwestern portion of Smokey Mountain National Park. We took this route to its end at Chilhowee Lake, TN. This is a beautiful route with some pretty amazing engineering. At times the highway seems to be hanging off the side of the mountain. At Chilhowee we took U.S. 129 South toward North Carolina. This turned out to be the most challenging drive of my life.
The drive is only eleven miles. But in those eleven miles are 318 hairpin turns. It turns out that we were driving the Tail of the Dragon. This is one of the most popular drives for motor cyclists and sports car drivers in the country. It’s even more exciting in a Ram 3500 with a crew cab and full-length bed being driven by an old man. I had heard of the Tail of the Dragon but honestly didn’t know where it was. As we made the journey, I had the feeling that this must be some infamous route. About two thirds in we came to a pull off where there was a photographer snapping photos of the vehicles passing by. I wondered if he wasn’t trying to get one last photo of us before we departed this life on this deadly highway. There were no businesses, houses, turnoffs, intersections, nothing but wilderness and curves for the eleven miles. Finally, the gauntlet opened up into a straightaway in Deals Gap, North Carolina. It was there that we learned that we had just driven the Tail of the Dragon and lived to tell about it. There’s not much at Deals Gap but you really should stop at the Tail of the Dragon store and get a picture of the famous iron dragon and pick up one of the many items declaring that you “survived the Tail of the Dragon.”
We had intended to go on to Cherokee, NC but learned that it was mostly shut down due to the Covid-19 Virus. The clerk, who I suspect was the owner, at the Tail of the Dragon Store suggested we take the Cherohala Skyway, a sixty-mile drive through the mountain wilderness with numerous beautiful scenic overlooks. So, we headed out in that direction. Just out of Deals Gap we passed Cheoah Lake and the Cheoah Dam. This dam is featured in “The Fugitive” where Harrison Ford took the harrowing leap as he fled the capture of Tommy Lee Jones.
Coming to the end of the Skyway near Tellico Plains we came to the Bald River. We turned left because we had heard of a waterfall on this river. After a few miles the road will take you right to the falls. It is worth the drive. I love the name. It seems that Bald River and I have something in common.
Having completed the loop, we had driven 235 miles by the time we got back to Pigeon Forge. We were very happy we had taken this journey. Had the National Park been open we would almost certainly not taken this drive. I am so glad we did. It was day of beauty, adventure, and discovery. I highly recommend you take this route the next time you are in the area. But don’t attempt it while driving your Class A or pulling your Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel!
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As a preacher, you were always s a n awesome leader, so we followed suit. We sold it all and bought a camper. 4 months in, we traded it in for a bigger rock wood. Just got home from a weekend in Tennessee. Home, is in my parents driveway since my husband is still employed. I am getting used to freedom. Next month we are heading to Indiana to camp with my cousin. Life is an adventure and we don’t want to miss it!