Sunday, February 8, 2015

Treasure Hunt Hiking--the Hiker's Tunnel and More!

Getting in new miles on our quest to hike all the trails in the Smokies is a bit of a challenge right now, what with short days, faraway trailheads, and one of the three of our group members with an injury, so we've resorted to hikes of a different sort.  Last week's trip to the Old Stone House was our first off trail adventure, but it certainly won't be our last. Today, Jennifer and I met to do a little more off-trail adventuring.

The primary goal for today's off trail hike was the old hiker's tunnel that kept hikers from having to cross Clingman's Dome Road. Some folks say this was once on the Appalachian Trail while others say it was Thomas Divide Trail that traversed through the tunnel. I'm still researching all of that. But, it was indeed special!  This tunnel is actually very easy to find and within easy walking distance of where you must park your car in the winter.  Since Clingman's Dome Road is closed to all vehicles in the winter, the gate is as far as you can drive.  We parked our car there and walked up the snow-covered road for about .2 miles. We have driven over this tunnel innumerable times without knowing of its existence but today we were better informed!  It looks like you're just driving over another bridge or stone-walled culvert, but when you walk down you find one of the most unique structures I've ever found in these mountains.

Once I returned from the hike, I contacted the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Regional Office to see if they could shed any light on the questions this tunnel raised in my mind. Their response was fast and fascinating! I received an email with lots of information and several attachments. The email attachments include a pdf (89 pages) with detailed information about the construction of Newfound Gap Road which I've found fascinating, including the fact that my father would have sold Caterpillar machinery to one of the construction companies who did work between 1962-1966 on the NC section of NFG Rd. However, back to the question of whether or not the tunnel was ever a part of the AT, I'll pass this information along which was provided in the body of the email (not the 89 page pdf). All that follows in quotations marks are pertinent excerpts from the email:
"The Thomas Divide Trail tunnel under the Clingman’s Dome Road is quite fascinating. While I have wondered about the possibilities of this being an early route of the Appalachian Trail, early reading and site investigations were not conclusive. Only in the last few years has more careful reading of the old guidebooks and the acquisition of other documents led me to believe that the tunnel has probably not been part of the Appalachian Trail. That is the short answer....
Newfound Gap Road as we know it today from the Appalachian Trail crossing in the gap down the North Carolina side to Kephart Prong was built between 1961 and 1964 (see pages 77 and 76). Newfound Gap Road was routed along 0.15 mile of the Clingman’s Dome Road before dropping off on the North Carolina side of the ridge below the Clingman’s Dome Road but above the Old Newfound Gap Road. It continued out Thomas Divide for nearly three miles before circling down toward Kephart Prong. This effectively destroyed the upper part of the Thomas Divide Trail, and left the south side of the tunnel at the top of a steep road cut....
There are a few things that are certain: 
1) The A. T. has always passed within sight of the north end of the tunnel; 2) the A. T. has not passed through the tunnel since 1939. Beyond that, there is simply some evidence in favor of the notion that the A. T. passed through the tunnel between 1934 and 1939 and some evidence against the notion."

So it appears that the tunnel was probably never part of the AT, but the upper part of the Thomas Divide Trail which was obliterated by the building of Newfound Gap Road as we know it.

We are developing an intense respect for the work of the Civilian Conservation Corp men who created so much of the infrastructure of the Great Smoky Mountains all created out of local stone. I located a photo of the workers cutting stone for their structures from the massive boulders and rock veins which make up these mountains: 

After exploring the tunnel to our hearts content, we resumed our search for other old parts of the Park. Comparing maps that dated back to 1931 and 1942 with today's topographical map, Jennifer and I went in search of several things. There was an old road that once left off of Newfound Gap Road and went over to the Stone House that we found last week. That was one thing we were looking for. We also spent time looking for Jim Carr's Mill which was denoted on one of our maps, but we went down the wrong creek. 

At one point when we became concerned about returning to our car at the appropriate point along the river, we stopped to build a cairn of our own on one of the large boulders along the side of the stream.  We did find old structures there, but they wouldn't have been the mill. We'll have to come back to that another day. 
An old Ball "Perfect Mason" jar found while
looking for the Jim Carr Mill.

These mountains, in winter, are like a whole new world, exposing structures you simply cannot access once the underbrush (and snakes) start to re-emerge.

I'd love to hear about your off trail adventures and what treasures you've found while exploring these vast mountains.  Please comment below with your own stories!


  1. My old (1960) "Guide to the Appalachian Trail in the Southern Appalachians" has this entry concerning hiking toward Clingmans Dome from Newfound Gap: "At 0.5 m. continue straight ahead, where Thomas Ridge Trail leads left thru tunnel under Skyway to Thomas Ridge" (p. 261). Note that the name of the trail was the "Thomas Ridge Trail" rather than the current "Thomas Divide Trail."

    1. Wes, you are correct about this being the old Thomas Ridge Trail. People want it to be the AT therefore there is much misinformation floating around.

  2. I preferred the original Newfound Gap Road from Newfound Gap into North Carolina. It was more winding--much like the Tennessee side of US 441. For a number of years after the newer road was finished, the old road, leaving the Newfound Gap parking lot and going down on the south side of the slate embankment was very obvious and could easily be hiked down to the first turn in the new road. Not so obvious, now... :-(