National Park survival

Avoiding Disaster: The Scenic Road to Gatlinburg, North Carolina

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Road to Gatlinburg


When we finally had to decide on a new place to go after Asheville, we realized we weren’t really done with the Smoky Mountains just yet. We had been in Asheville a month and spent most of our time inside while it rained or froze outside. The last week we were there it got up to nearly 80, then a huge storm came and it actually snowed that next morning. It was a great, heavy, storm that blew the trailer around like a shake weight in a bad infomercial and the electricity was off for almost the entire night. We have gas heat, full batteries and 12 volt ceiling lights, so it didn’t bother us to go without electricity a while, and thanks to the sun-dome in the bathroom, I got to watch the lightning light up the sky from the shower.

Since that storm, the weather has been up and down. One serious storm was expected the day we left and ended up flooding the region north of us (and brought tornadoes). Somehow we dodged it completely, which made the drive ahead that much safer.  While looking at the map to Gatlinburg on my phone, I found one that cuts right across the Smoky Mountain National Park. On the map it appeared to be “Highway” 32. It began just over the border into Tennessee , then curved back a little ways into North Carolina – and again back into Tennessee and all the way to the Smokey Bear Campground where we planned to stay the next month.
When we made that exit off the freeway, everything looked good. The road was narrow but nothing we hadn’t shared before. I was looking at the map while Ross drove and when we finally reached our turn onto “highway 32” it was even more narrow, and to our dismay, turned into a dirt road going straight up a mountain.
As you can imagine, turning around in a 50+ foot rig on a narrow dirt road with steep hills on both sides could prove to be difficult, so our only option was to keep going up the mountain. We tried to rationalize why a highway would be dirt, and hoped that it would either get better or we would find a place to turn around. We drove for a while, going about 5-10 miles an hour, taking jack knife turns that required some extreme skill on Ross’s part and nerves of steel for both of us. Luckily the road was in really good shape, no potholes or loose edges on the turns. The only thing I could do to help was to stay calm and look out my window at the trailer as Ross aimed the truck as far to the left of the road as possible without going in the ditch, and don’t even ask us what we expected to do if a car came around the bend at the wrong time. The trailer is so long, even at the truck’s farthest use of the curve, it was still often a foot or two from going down a ravine.

Had I been less nervous, I may have taken some pictures, but getting stuck on a dirt road, on a mountain, in the middle of a fairly remote National Forest, was far too serious a matter at the time. We aren’t veterans here. We had no phone service of course, and even if we did find a tow truck, they wouldn’t have much more luck than us getting the trailer out without it hanging off a cliff at some point.
After what seemed like miles of crawling along, we started to see more people. First a car, then a group of hikers at a sign that said “Appalachia Trail” and then – paved road!  Our guess, North Carolina didn’t feel the need to pave their end of the road though we never did see an official “Welcome to Tennessee” sign, and I think a dirt road in the middle of nowhere would have been the perfect place for a greeting like that.
Although things seemed much more stable and predictable at that point, the actual shape of the road didn’t change at all. Before we got off the freeway, Ross had told me that the woman at the Smokey Bear Campground mentioned a “scenic route” –  I took a guess that the 32 must be it because everything else was freeway. I had said, “you know maps, they always make roads look more curvy than they are” – but I was wrong. They are as crazy as they look and we had 20 more miles to go.

32 to Gatlinburg, deathtrap roe

After about the first 10 death defying turns, we started to get the hang of it. You think we would be looking forward to some railings here and there but the few railings there were actually made the turns even tighter and we had to go about 5 miles an hour while I kept a close eye on the back of the trailer to make sure it didn’t scrape the rail. Somehow, it was like the whole road was built for people in just our situation. We spent most the time in the middle or left side of the road, trying to make the turns wide enough and have plenty of space for our extra width. Surprisingly, the only places we ran into other vehicles was in the longer stretches of road (by longer I mean maybe 100 yards). Every turns was a breath held for whether the trailer would make it or not, and another for whether or not someone would come around the corner at 30 miles an hour while we were in their lane.

I sort of wish I had taken more photos of the turns but we were a little focused at the time so it was sort of an afterthought.

The Tennessee Jack Knifer

The Tennessee Jack Knifer

One of the nicer curves

One of the nicer curves

Our line of Sight

Our line of Sight, after being far into the left lane from a wide turn.

By the end of the worst parts, Ross was officially a pro. We started seeing houses and even mobile homes (that had to have been towed there) so we knew the road ahead was getting better. Susa and Chena were sleeping in the back the whole time without even knowing the situation of course and it only took an hour from where we started to arrive at the campsite.

After an unnecessarily tedious “help” into our campsite by the owner, (hard to do with two exhausted people) and the overheated transmission that didn’t want to go into reverse, and the speech about getting the tranny checked out (we have) – we happily setup and somehow musted up the energy to go check out Gatlinburg before it got dark. Oh my what a surprise – for another blog.

For now, just be forewarned about roads that look like that on a google maps. It is not a shortcut for a 50 foot truck and trailer. That being said. I would totally do it again and knowing we didn’t get stuck or die on that road and knowing that Ross is basically a bad ass truck and trailer driver, I don’t feel the slightest bit stupid for taking us into the gates of purgatory. They were beautiful and thrilling gates and I hope to visit them again soon.

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  • What a great story! I am sure glad you made it out in one piece. I would have loved to see Ross the mad mountain trailer driver in action. My only trailer story in the North Carolina mountains was when we were vacationing there when i was a kid and my father was towing a small travel trailer. The trailer brakes overheated and all we had were the brakes on the car, going down one of those seemingly endless descents. I remember it was scary as hell.

    The mountains of North Carolina are one of my favorite places on earth. When I lived in the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) all during my 20’s I would make regular pilgrimages to go backpacking and exploring the amazing rocks, streams and waterfalls. It’s too bad it was so cold for you in Asheville, because it is a lovely place.

    Take care you guys.

    I love hearing your stories.

  • BillSchoonmaker

    We just had this happen to us this past Sunday, google directed us to go this way and avoid a backup on I-40. We were going from TN into NC. We were towing a 20 ft Travel Trailer. Crazy road and scary when it turned to gravel but we made it out ok. Thanks for the story.

  • Glad you made it through! It’s really hard to tell without looking at the whole route or satellite view. Totally caught us off guard, and at 53 feet long, I have no idea how we made it haha