Friday, June 28, 2013

Great Smoky Mountains NP: Goldmine Loop (Blog Hike #401)

Trails: Lakeshore, Goldmine, and Tunnel Bypass trails
Hike Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Bryson CityNC
Length: 3.1 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2012
Overview: A secluded hike through an old road tunnel offering Fontana Lake views.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Bryson City, go west on Everett Street, which becomes Fontana Road after it leaves town.  Take Fontana Rd. 8.6 miles to the parking area at its end.  This parking area serves as the trailhead for this hike.

The hike: For my introduction to fall hiking in the Smokies, see the Flat Creek hike.  Known locally as the “Road to Nowhere,” Fontana Road heading southwest out of Bryson City does in fact lead somewhere: this trailhead!  Nevertheless, this trailhead is one of the few places this road leads.  The road was originally intended as a park road that would give park visitors easy access to Fontana Lake, but its abrupt end came in the 1960’s when environmental concerns prevented the road’s completion.  Specifically, the type of rock underground just south of here contaminates groundwater when it is blasted, and much blasting would have been needed to complete the road.
            One of the last segments of road to be built was the Lakeview Tunnel, a 1000 foot auto tunnel now located just past the road’s end.  Cars cannot use the tunnel today, but the Lakeshore Trail used on this hike does pass through the tunnel.  This hike also gives a view of Fontana Lake at a secluded inlet, and the trailhead’s location on a deadend road ensures that these trails are some of the least-used trails in the park.  With the old auto tunnel, man-made lake, and light trail traffic, this hike feels more like a national forest hike than a national park hike.
            Start the hike by walking along the paved road past the metal posts that serve as a vehicle barricade.  In only 0.1 miles, you reach the impressive stone-sided entrance to Lakeview Tunnel.  There are no lights in the nearly 0.2 mile long tunnel, but its straightness allows you to see constant light from the other side.  Smooth asphalt from the abandoned road lies underfoot, so you do not need to worry about stumbling over potholes or uneven areas.  For these reasons, it is safe to walk through the tunnel without a flashlight, but bringing one along might be a good idea if you are scared of the dark.
Approaching Lakeview Tunnel
            After exiting the west end of the tunnel, the asphalt from the old road quickly runs out, and the trail assumes a more traditional wide single-track dirt surface.  The large concentration of mature broadleaf trees throughout this hike makes it a great fall leaf peeping hike.  At 0.6 miles, the Tunnel Bypass Trail exits at a sharp angle to the left.  The Tunnel Bypass Trail offers a short-cut to the other end of the Goldmine Trail.  To experience the full Goldmine Trail, continue straight on the Lakeshore Trail.
            0.7 miles into the hike, the Goldmine Trail itself exits to the left.  Turn left here to begin the Goldmine Trail.  Quickly the trail begins a very steep descent down the gradient of the hillside.  Just when you think you might be at the bottom, the trail curves right and descends steeply some more.  Some switchbacks would be very helpful here.  When you finally step across a tiny stream, the worst of the descent is over.
Steep descent on Goldmine Trail
            At 1.1 miles, the trail passes the site of an old homestead; only the stone chimney remains today.  At this point, the trail joins an old road and begins paralleling a rhododendron choked stream to the right.  The old road contains a few wet areas that must be negotiated, but for the most part the going is flat and easy.
Old homestead site
            Near 1.6 miles, the spur trail to backcountry campsite #67 exits to the left.  All 100+ backcountry campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are numbered to facilitate identification and operation.  Backcountry campsite reservations can be made at the Oconoluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee.
            At 1.9 miles, you arrive at the inlet of Fontana Lake.  During my fall visit, water levels were low, exposing a large amount of shoreline.  The lakeside area would seem like a good place for wildlife viewing, but I could detect no activity on my visit.  Some rocks make for nice places to sit and observe the lake before tackling the uphill portion of this hike.
Fontana Lake inlet
            The lake is the lowest elevation on this hike, and over the next 0.8 miles the trail gains roughly 500 feet in elevation.  The climb begins on a gradual to moderate grade on what appears to be an old road.  Another rhododendron choked ravine lies downhill to the right.
At 2.2 miles, the trail makes a sweeping left turn to leave the old road as the grade intensifies.  The forest thins and the trees become younger as the climb continues.  Several times you think you might be near the top, but the real top is reached at 2.7 miles when the Goldmine Trail ends at a junction with the Tunnel Bypass Trail.  Turn right at this intersection to begin the final leg back to the trailhead.
Trail junction-Goldmine and Tunnel Bypass trails

Over the final 0.4 miles the Tunnel Bypass Trail loses 200 feet of the elevation you just gained, so a few steep areas will need to be descended.  As I got near the bottom of the last steep area, a gust of wind blew through the forest, causing me to be showered in yellow leaves.  Near 3 miles into the hike, the Tunnel Bypass Trail comes out at Fontana Road just a few yards from the parking area.  A short walk across the road is all that remains to complete the hike.

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