Western North Carolina, Part 3 (Cherokee Loop)

On August 5, 2015 · 2 Comments

The second day-trip loop from Asheville plowed nearly due west onto the domain of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for another easy U.S. state highpoint capture. I guess it was actually more of an out-and-back although one could cut the corner just a bit on the return trip with a brief yet scenic jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Out-of-Place Scene

Cherokee North Carolina Casino
Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino
via Google Street View, April 2013

We rolled through pleasant countryside along serpentine roads, over hills and dipped into hollows as we followed U.S. Route 19 into the town of Cherokee. Something completely out of place loomed suddenly from the valley floor, not a mountain, rather a massive multi-story building with a huge parking garage. It was a resort hotel casino (map). I doubt there was a taller building anywhere closer than an hour away in Asheville. Here it stood probably fifteen stories high, an urban structure without a downtown.

I’m not a gambler so I never felt any temptation to answer its call. To me the most fascinating feature was the casino’s complete lack of context with all that surrounded it, like a giant middle finger to those who had mistreated the tribe since Europeans first landed on the continent and pushed into the mountains. North Carolina didn’t want casino gambling? Those laws didn’t apply here. I hope the Eastern Band makes a ton of money from their venture given how much they’ve been treated for the last couple of centuries… just not my money.

Oconaluftee Islands Park

Oconaluftee Islands Park

We’d been eating out a lot and visiting multiple brewpubs so we decided to do something a little bit different, a picnic lunch outdoors. I’d wondered if that might be possible as I examined Street View the previous day. The main strip seemed pretty touristy. Then I noticed a little green spot (map) while poking through online map sites and identified Oconaluftee Islands Park. That was just what we needed, a little oasis of nature and solitude surrounded on all sides by water, accessible only by footbridges. Children splashed and rode inflatable tubes down a lazy river, ducks and geese floated by, the wind rustled through a bamboo forest, and we enjoyed our respite at a shady picnic pavilion. The price was right too: FREE.

Cherokee Heritage

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The town of Cherokee served as the headquarters of the Eastern Band. Members of the nation were descendants of a small residual group of Cherokee that remained in North Carolina in the early 1800’s. They avoided the infamous Trail of Tears, however not without their own hardships. They were forced to renounce or hide their own culture for much of the Nineteenth Century, and spent the next hundred-plus years trying to revive it, a process that continues today. They also had to repurchase the land that rightfully belonged to them.

In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property… This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.

The entire history of the Cherokee people was explained in detail at the well-done Museum of the Cherokee Indian (map). It was a large facility and it took quite awhile to see everything in the level of detail it deserved. That took us longer than expected. Other sites nearby included the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I’d wanted to see both of those and we simply ran short on time. Most visitors would probably want to spend at least an entire day in Cherokee. We didn’t have that option because I had an important geo-oddity that required my attention.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome

We’d reached the summit of North Carolina’s elevation highpoint the previous day. Now it was time to do the same thing for Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, (map), with an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 metres). I know what readers are thinking — this is supposed to be an article about western North Carolina, not Tennessee. If it makes anyone feel better, the Tennessee highpoint fell directly upon the boundary between the two states. The Clingmans Dome summit also served as the highpoint for Swain County, North Carolina. That could be used as a justification to maintain the sanctity of the article title. We were only ever a few feet across the border into Tennessee and only momentarily.

I expected this to be another easy highpoint directly within my lazy mountaineering ethos. It was crowded! I knew we were in trouble when I saw cars parked along the access road more than a half-mile away from the official parking lot. Clingmans Dome (map) fell within the confines of Great Smokey Mountains National Park which had 10 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most popular properties in the entire National Parks system. It was summer. We arrive at the middle of the day. What else should we expect?

Proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, a parking space opened up directly in front of us, practically the best spot in the entire lot. Clearly a higher power wanted me to visit the highpoint, or more likely didn’t want to hear our kids whine because we were going to the spot even if we had to park all the way down the road and walk the extra distance by golly. I didn’t drive all the way out to a remote mountain and up to the top to turn around and head home. From there we trekked from parking lot to summit along with a few hundred of our new best friends, looped to the viewing platform and jostled through the crowds searching for the horizon. I much preferred the experience of North Carolina’s highpoint the previous day, shooing away swarms of insects instead of people. The Tennessee highpoint would be best appreciated during the off-season.

Western North Carolina articles:

Western North Carolina, Part 2 (Blue Ridge Parkway Loop)

On August 2, 2015 · 0 Comments

I’m going to take a little bit of a departure from the usual Twelve Mile Circle travelogue format and actually suggest a couple of simple one-day itineraries. They mirror actual trips starting from our home base for the week in Asheville, North Carolina. Readers should feel free to customize them at their discretion because they reflect my peculiar interests and geo-geek desires. I’d love to hear if anyone actually follows the path.

The first loop involved a lovely jaunt on and near a segment of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway northeast of Asheville. The parkway included numerous mountaintop pull-offs where one could enjoy magnificent views in addition to the sites I’ve highlighted. Those went without saying so take a scenic break whenever it seems right. This was a route to be savored slowly. We chose to drive in a counterclockwise or anticlockwise direction although it could be adapted easily to a clockwise route or even a pure out-and-back depending on time constraints and sightseeing preferences.

Linville Caverns

Linville Caverns

I love caves and my kids love them too, maybe even more that I love them. We’ve taken tours of several caves during our wanderings to places like Idaho, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Kentucky and even Ireland. Naturally, Linville Caverns — which bills itself as North Carolina’s "Only Show Cavern" (and I have no way to verify that so I’ll take it at face value) — would have to be on our itinerary seeing how it fell directly along our desired path (map).

There were several interesting formations worth viewing although frankly I’ve seen more spectacular caverns elsewhere. The guides also went through the obligatory "turn out the lights and show everyone how dark it was" demonstration so it seemed to follow the usual script. The cave was a nice enough diversion and the tour took only about a half-hour so it didn’t gobble up too much of the day either. The passageways were also a cool, refreshing 53° Fahrenheit (12° C) on a day when the outdoor temperature was above 90° (32° C) with matching humidity. That almost made it worth the price of admission right there. I’d go back if I were driving through the area again.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Commission recently discovered several bats in Linville Caverns with White-Nose Syndrome. That meant that anything I brought into the cave will never be allowed within another cave. That’s why I used my mobile phone camera instead of my nice one, and the lower-quality photos reflected that decision.

Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant

Famous Louise's Rock House Restaurant

The 12MC audience would be right to wonder why I visited a restaurant that wasn’t a brewpub given my past history of articles. Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant deserved an exception because I featured it on these very pages in 2009. At the time I explained, "This is now included on my extensive list of places I need to visit someday." Well, someday finally arrived and I did indeed visit. Famous Louise’s was famous because it sat atop a county tripoint. One could walk between Avery, Burke and McDowell Counties, or stand in all three at the same time if one desired, all within the walls of a single restaurant (map).

Famous Louise’s got mixed reviews on various restaurant and travel rating websites. We arrived for lunch on the early end, around 11:30, and it was mostly empty. The opposite was the case when we left so perhaps that made the difference and for that reason I’d recommend arriving a little early for mealtime. We had great service and even got a wonderful tip about the homemade baked apples. The food was decent and a solid value. Plus we had the whole county tripoint thing going on in there, with each county line labeled on individual signs hanging from the ceiling. I love it when I can visit places in person that I’ve mentioned on 12MC beforehand.

There was some debate about whether the tripoint actually fell within the restaurant or not. Maps I consulted insinuated that the true tripoint might be found just outside along a gravel road. I got as close as I could get to take a photo and cover my bases, while respecting the no trespassing sign that had been placed there. Perhaps I wasn’t the first geo-geek trying to find the true magic spot. Who am I kidding? Nobody else has ever done that.

Linville Falls

Linville Falls

Linville Caverns, Famous Louise’s and Linville Falls were all located near each other in one convenient cluster. The falls were one of those iconic features along this stretch of the Blue Ridge that really shouldn’t be missed (map). Access required a fifteen minute hike from the visitor center although nothing too strenuous. There were various other hiking options available depending on whether one wished to view the falls from above or below. We didn’t have time to do both so we selected the first option. It was hard to tell if the view would have been better from ground level. That provided an excuse to come back again someday.

Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell

I’m not a traditional state highpointer. I don’t have a desire to highpoint all 50 states because, well, I’m lazy. I don’t ever expect to get to the top of Denali in Alaska and I hate to leave an open list, so I decided long ago to cherry-pick the easy ones and ignore the rest. The only highpoint where I expended any significant effort was Mount Frissell in Connecticticut, and that was only because Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest shamed me into it. Otherwise I like the kind where I drive all the way up to the top and claim the honor simply by walking a few feet, like New Jersey. Better yet, how about the little bump-out by the side of the road in Delaware? Or the subway ride to the District of Columbia highpoint even though it’s not actually a state? Those are more my style.

The North Carolina highpoint fit perfectly within that same low-effort mountaineering philosophy. It differed, however, because it was a "real" mountain. Mount Mitchell wasn’t a poseur, rather it was the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet (2,037 metres) (map). The good people of North Carolina had the courtesy to pave a road almost all the way to the top of the summit, bless their hearts. From the final base camp to the top, oh it was maybe a ten minute walk. There was one single hardship, and readers can sense it in the form of little black specs on the photograph — the huge swarms of insects at the summit. Your screen doesn’t need to be cleaned. Each of those dots was a bug.

Loyal 12MC reader and Twitter follower @thegreatzo diagnosed this as a particularly large outbreak of the Yellow Poplar Weevil. They were harmless to humans although nobody really likes the feeling of hundreds of insects crawling on them. Lots of people on the mountain thought they were ticks so it was pretty amusing to watch them freak out.

I’ll talk about a second day-trip loop in the next article.

Western North Carolina articles:

Reader Mailbag 3

On July 12, 2015 · 6 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle finds itself with an overflowing mailbag once again with lots of intriguing readers suggestions. Each one of these could probably form an entire article although I’ll provide the short versions today to try to clear a backlog. Once again, I’ll say gladly that 12MC has the best readers. I really appreciate learning about news things that I can now share with a broader audience.

Delaware Highpoint
Ebright Azimuth (Delaware Highpoint) — my own photo

I heard from reader "Joe" that a brother and sister were looking to break the record for climbing the highest points in each of the lower 48 states in the shortest amount of time. They were surprised to learn that the current records was held by someone from Britain at 23 days 19 hours and 31 minutes. That simply could not be allowed to stand unchallenged. They were on track to beat the record today, and will probably be done by the time you read this.

Dall Island, Alaska

I wasn’t familiar with Dall Island, however it formed a miniscule part of the border between the United States and Canada, as mentioned by reader "A.J." and as noted by Wikipedia:

Cape Muzon, the southernmost point of the island, is the western terminus, known as Point A, of the A-B Line, which marks the marine boundary between the state of Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia as defined by the Alaska Boundary Treaty of 1903. This line is also the northern boundary of the waters known as the Dixon Entrance.

A.J. thought it interesting that Dall Island was listed as internationally divided with 100% of the landmass in the United States and 0% within Canada. The boundary just touched the tip of the island so the portion within Canada would be infinitesimally small, literally only at the so-called Point A (map). How could the United States own all of an island but not really all of an island? It brought a lot of questions to my mind, too: Was there a border monument? Did the border change with the tides? Would someone get in trouble for touching Point A without reporting to immigrations and customs?

A Capital City

Liberty Bell
Photo by Chris Brown, on Flickr (cc)

12MC received a bit of a riddle from reader "Brian" that amused me. Everyone educated in the United States should be able to get the answer although apparently it fools a lot people. I’ll go ahead and post the question and then leave a little space so it doesn’t spoil the answer. "Name the City: Of the 50 US capitol cities, this one has the largest population AND falls alphabetically between Olympia (Washington) and Pierre (South Dakota)."

Feel free to scroll down when you’re ready.

It’s Phoenix, Arizona.

I almost fell into the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania trap until I remembered that Harrisburg is the capital city of Pennsylvania. That may be just an instinctual thing showing nothing more than I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic my whole life. I’m sure people in Arizona wouldn’t have a problem with this one. It would be interesting to know if the incorrect "answer" varied by geography.

Yes, I realize it was horribly unfair of me to use an image of the Liberty Bell to further confuse the issue.


photo courtesy of reader Lyn; used with permission

Lyn, who’s frequent contributions has earned the exalted title "Loyal Reader Lyn" struck again with a trip to the Maldives (map). Lyn learned long ago that I love getting website hits from obscure locations and has a job that goes to interesting places such as Douala in Cameroon. I wish my job took me to equally fascinating places. Sadly, it does not. I’m more likely to travel to exotic spots like Atlanta or Boston — nice places for sure although nothing in comparison to the Maldives or Cameroon. Lyn should start a travel website. I’d subscribe!

Stewart Granger

Stewart Granger
photo courtesy of reader Bob; used with permission

Bob spotted an interesting intersection while wandering about Waterbury, Connecticut: Stewart Avenue & Granger Street (map). Stewart Granger was a British actor active primarily in the 1940’s through 1960’s (e.g., starring with John Wayne in North to Alaska).

It had been a long time since 12MC had done an article on street names and intersections, and this topic looked particularly promising. I thought off the top of my head that someone else from that era would be a good possibility, Errol Flynn. In more modern terms, maybe Taylor Swift? I’ll bet there’s a Taylor St. intersecting with a Swift St. somewhere. Unfortunately the latest version of Google Maps wouldn’t accommodate this type of searching as elegantly as its predecessor so I had to abandon the search.

Wade Hampton Sacked

Wade Hampton

The last one came from reader, well, me. This time I actually caught a county change as it happened for once instead of finding out about it a year or two later. A county equivalent unit in Alaska, the Wade Hampton Census Area is in the process of being renamed the Kusilvak Census Area. It was all over the Alaska media this week (Wade Hampton no more: Alaska census area honoring Confederate officer is renamed) and Wikipedia has already made the change.

This may be the largest geographic area affected by the recent renaming of things associated with the old Confederacy. I always thought it was a tad strange that an area of Alaska was named for a Confederate cavalry officer.

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