Unless you’re local to them, the “roads you must drive before you die” regularly featured in listicles don’t often actually merit the expense of a road trip. It’s just not practical to spend a day traveling to some remote road that takes 20 minutes to drive through when you can just pay a couple hundred bucks to run a track day an hour or two away, then sleep in your own bed that night. For those of us of modest means, there’s gotta be something else to do at the destination to make such a trip worthwhile. I found out quite by accident that the Tail of the Dragon is one such place, even if you have a minivan, a toddler, and a wife prone to carsickness.
I’ll start out with a caveat: You must be willing to unplug from the Internet and enjoy not having electricity or running water. We couldn’t even get cell service in the nearby town (Robbinsville, population: 750), though there are a few free WiFi spots. Fortunately for some, a tent is not required for this trip.
That’s not to say my wife and I are too soft for tent camping. We’ve done plenty, including back-country camping on an island accessible only by canoe. But vacationing with a 2-year-old, we wanted some peace of mind and the little bit of separation that a two-room cabin can offer. Bad weather makes miserable work of tent setup and takedown.
We had fallen in love with the Great Smoky Mountains after swinging through a short portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway several years ago, so we hunted for a cabin in lower Appalachia. Most cabins are privately owned and operated, and are simply expensive hotels where you get your own wooden building. They’re often a couple hundred bucks a night and are nowhere near a real outdoors experience.
I’m not Mr. Moneybags and I love the National Park Service, so I searched listings on Recreation.gov. I hit the jackpot with Cheoah Point Campground in the middle of Nantahala National Forest. There are campsites with and without facilities, and also two cabins with electric light, a power outlet outside, and that’s it. (We used the power outlets only to charge our phones before the trip home.) There are, mercifully, bathrooms at the campground with warm-water showers. The cabins overlook Lake Santeetlah, cost $35 a night, and book up way in advance, so start planning now.
These cabins have direct access to the lake, though we didn’t bring our canoe this time. People do take powerboats on the lake, so it may not be this serene and quiet in the morning if you’re going in high tourist season.
It wasn’t until after we booked our nights that I remembered: Isn’t Tail of the Dragon right around there? Sure enough, it’s a mere 20 minutes away, but that in itself turned out to be unnecessary. That’s because all the roads in the area are just so. Damn. Good.
Take, for example, Joyce Kilmer Road, which circles Lake Santeetlah to the north and leads you from the campground to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest—one of the last patches of virgin forest in the U.S., and home to some of the biggest trees you’ll see this side of the Mississippi.
Virgin forest means these trees were never cut down by human hands, so some of them are simply huge.
The Kilmer trail loops are easy enough, though you’ll want to keep an eye on little ones. There are steep dropoffs in some parts. If you’re by yourself or with more adventurous, older kids, there are connected trails with tons of beautiful scenery and challenging climbs. You could spend days. The Appalachian Trail also cuts through Nantahala National Forest.
After you’ve had your fill of that, take a left out of the Joyce Kilmer entrance and climb the road to the Maple Springs Overlook, where you can ghost the SCCA’s Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb. The hillclimb course runs for two of those five miles to the overlook point at the top. You’ll climb 1200 feet just between the start and finish lines, which are marked year-round. If you’re
adventurous incredibly stupid, you’ll have brought your stopwatch so you can set your best time crash and ruin your vacation.
If you’re smart, you’ll realize that you can have plenty of fun on these roads, often without violating the 45 or 35 mph speed limit. No, really. The curves continue seemingly forever and are often so tight that you’re exploring grip limits even if you cross the double yellow to take full advantage of the road.
It can be dead-silent at night, and light pollution is almost nil. Be aware, though, that this is not an unknown location. It’s popular for camping, hiking, and driving enthusiasts. On the weekend, the gas station in Robbinsville is full of Subarus, Evos, Miatas, ‘speed3s, S2000s, you name it.
But come in springtime for the mild-to-warm days and cool nights, stay during the week to avoid the crowds, and go visit as many points, gaps, dams and overlooks as you can. If you’ve got the time, take a day trip to the Smokies and visit Clingman’s Dome, hike down to Andrews Bald, cross the North Carolina-Tennessee line at Newfound gap, and pick up some native-made tourist kitsch in Cherokee.
You can visit the Tail of the Dragon anytime from your campsite and be back in just over an hour, but the sports car, motorcycle, pickup truck and family-hauler traffic through Deals Gap actually takes some of the fun out of it. Driving the Dragon is a necessity only if you must check that item off your list. There are plenty of roads in the area that you’ll find just as fun. The scenery is wonderful, the silence and solitude are energizing, and every road in between is a thrill. These roads are satisfying to drive, yes, even in a four-cylinder minivan on stock suspension.
Well, in the right minivan, anyway. A stickshift helps.
[Photos copyright 2016 Alan Cesar | Hooniverse]