“A short and unique hike through a shaded hollow and a long tunnel.”
— Ken Wise
Fall Colors · River/Creek
Following a scenic drive to the trailhead, this unique loop takes hikers through a steep, shaded hollow, explores some homestead remains, and makes an unexpected exit through a 1,200-foot tunnel. This is a great route for those seeking an adventure without investing the whole day.
Need to Know
- The tunnel at the exit is long and unlit. On sunny days, the passage is manageable. But lights are recommended on cloudy days or for comfort. If your party wishes to avoid the tunnel altogether take the Tunnel Bypass Trail off of the Lakeshore Trail on the return.
- Portions of this trail are steep and mud isn't uncommon.
Start this short loop across from the parking area with the Tunnel Bypass Trail
. The path heads around the low southern tip of Tunnel Ridge to an intersection with the Goldmine Loop Trail
. Take the left and follow a gentle grade that soon steepens into a winding drop into a narrow hollow drained by Tunnel Branch.
When the trail reaches the floor of the hollow, it switchbacks sharply right to pursue a more moderate course downstream along Tunnel Branch. Close by ridgelines and overhanging rhododendron block out the direct sunlight, casting the hollow in a perpetual shadow. A quarter-mile ahead the surroundings open up to reveal the Goldmine Branch embayment of Fontana Lake.
Here it leaves Tunnel Branch, circles the end of the embayment, and turns right on an uphill course along Goldmine Branch. The course here is occasionally wet and muddy, and always shaded by leggy stands of rhododendron. A quarter-mile above the embayment, the trail crosses Hyatt Branch to intersect an access path exiting right 330 yards to Backcountry Camp 67, Goldmine Branch. Above the access path, the Goldmine Loop Trail
continues its easy grade, often through muddy seepages. On the left, 200 yards above the camp access is a set of steps and a rock-lined cellar.
Conditions remain essentially unchanged until the trail coalesces into an old farm road. Almost a half-mile above the access path, the trail skirts a large grassy field that harbors the gaunt remains of an old home. During the growing season the field is too heavily infested with weeds to make exploration a satisfactory exercise, but in the cooler seasons considerable refuse from former inhabitation can be seen scattered about the old farmyard.
A brisk climb from the field leads quickly through to a notch in the ridgeline where the trail turns sharply left and into a steep 200-yard climb to connect with the Lakeshore Trail. Follow the roadbed to the right and continue past the Tunnel Bypass Trail
that soon winds in from the right (alternatively, take this trail if you wish to avoid the tunnel altogether). The Lakeshore Trail soon enters the 1,200-foot, unlit tunnel before promptly returning to the parking area.
This content was contributed by author Ken Wise. For a comprehensive hiking guide to the Great Smoky Mountains and to see more by Ken, click here
Flora & Fauna
Hikers will encounter a mix of sugar maple, pignut hickory, Fraser magnolia, American holly, and a variety of oaks at the start of this trail.
During the last portion of the Goldmine Loop Trail
, the route climbs through a mix of laurel, ferns, galax, rhododendron, and dog-hobble shaded by eastern hemlocks and chestnut oaks. Before exiting through American holly and Fraser magnolia.
History & Background
When the Fontana Dam became active in 1944, it submerged much of NC288 - the only improved road on the north side of the Little Tennessee River. Without the road, inhabitants in the area were cut off from the outside world and virtually forced to leave their homes.
As a token of compensation for their economic losses, the federal government agreed to replace NC288 with a new road above the watermark. The promised road was planned to extend from Bryson City, North Carolina, to Fontana Dam.
Construction on the proposed road began in 1960. Starting from Bryson City, work proceeded five miles into the park to Tunnel Ridge where a 365 yard tunnel was bored through the mountain. At this point construction stopped and disagreements between various factions for and against the project put everything indefinitely on hold. The project was eventually abandoned in 2009. A general feeling of betrayal and frustration from the displaced parties gave rise to the name “the Road to Nowhere."