The Road to Nowhere is a great stopping point for visitors to the Bryson City area. It is an interesting reminder of the area’s history and a topic of local scandal. People of all ages will enjoy taking a short walk up this road and through the massive tunnel ending in the Great Smoky Mountain National Forrest.
This road would have never been started if the lake had not been created. However, on January 1, 1942 construction of the Fontana Dam began. When the dam was completed just 36 months later the resulting lake covered approximately 11,700 acres with around 240 miles of shoreline. Before Fontana Lake existed this land was not a wilderness of trees. Four towns, Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, and Judson were sunk and the 1,311 families that these towns represented had to relocate. The sites of homes, buildings, bridges, and many miles of road were now underwater. One of these sunken roads, Highway 288, previously led to the residents’ family cemeteries. The federal government agreed to build Lakeview Drive along the north shore of the lake to give families access to the 1,047 graves now cut off by the lake and national forest.
Here is where the scandal begins. Since the project began in 1943 less than 7 miles of the road and one tunnel were constructed. Work on the project was halted due to environmental and financial concerns; from the 1970’s to 2007 no work was done on the road. The promise to the relocated families that they’d have access to their ancestral land and family cemeteries was broken. Visitors find the blacktop abruptly ends and is followed by a wide gravel road that leads through a huge tunnel. Once on the other side even the gravel dissolves into nothing but forest and a few hiking trails. This strange dead end gave rise to the local nickname “The Road to Nowhere”. In 2007 an environmental study showed the road would cause no environmental damages. With those results the government agreed to pay out $58 million to Swain County, however, to date only $12 million has been paid. This second broken promise has resulted in the county filing a lawsuit for the remaining balance. Some locals’ opinions are best summed up by one resident’s now famous sign that reads, “Welcome to the Road to Nowhere, A Broken Promise, 1943 - ?”.
Although it leads nowhere, the road and tunnel are a great place for individuals of all ages to visit. Guests can drive up most of the road and will find a parking lot near its end. From there you can walk up a mild incline to the tunnel. Inside the huge tunnel it can be damp so wear shoes that can withstand the moist ground. I’ve never met anyone who has been able to resist the urge to yell, sing, or clap in the concrete passageway in order to hear the eerie echoes. The underground path is deceptively long. The light at the end of the tunnel seems much closer but as you walk it seems to stretch out further beyond you. In all, the subterranean path measure a quarter mile in length. If you are visiting on a cloudy day or in the evening bring a flashlight as it can be incredibly dark in there. After you explore this curios spot you can honestly say you’ve been to the end of the line, reached the end of the road, gone off the beaten path, seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and found yourself in the middle of nowhere. Happy Exploring!