When you line them all up, all the hikes to all the waterfalls and you ask which one is my favorite hike, it is Road to Nowhere. The name comes from the end point of the hike, a World War II construction project. In the early 1940’s the State of North Carolina entered into an agreement with the federal government on a join effort road project. The state was to build a quarter mile long tunnel though a mountain on Lakeshore Drive in Bryson City and the feds would build the highway on the other end. The state built the tunnel and the feds did nothing. As a result this hike ends with a walk through a long highway tunnel that has never been opened to vehicle traffic. It is a Road to Nowhere.
The total Road to Nowhere hike is 18.53 miles, most of which is downhill with only the last 2.5 miles uphill. There is a mile of creek-walking (half a mile each way) to get to Steeltrap Creek Falls. It uses four different trails and includes three waterfalls. It has a little of everything. It is also an exercise in logistics. In order to complete this hike you need two things. A car at the tunnel and another to drive you more than an hour to the start of the hike at Klingman’s Dome.
Leave one car at the tunnel and hop into the second car for the drive to the start. Make sure you have the keys for the second car. To get to the starting point, drive to the GSMNP and take US441 past the visitor’s center to Klinmna’s Dome Road. Make a left and follow this for seven miles to the parking area. In the summer it will be full but doing Road to Nowhere you need to be here early if you intend to finish before dark. I did this hike twice in 2019/ It took 11:15 minutes on my first try and 11:23 on the second. I hike fast so bear this in mind. Even so in October we finished by headlight. In August we made the tunnel at dusk.
The hike: Gear up and verify one more time that someone has the keys for the second car or this is not going to have a happy ending. Begin by walking toward the paved path leading to the top of Kilngman’s Dome. On the left hand side of the path there is an information Kiosk and a lesser used trail heading down behind the kiosk. This isn’t to say this trail doesn’t get used. It does but compared to the flow of people going to Kilngman’s, it is lesser used. The trail will descend for just over 0.2 of a mile to a T intersection. The Forney Ridge Trail goes to the left and the Klingman’s Bypass Trail left. Make a right to stay on the Forney Ridge Trail.
The upper section of this trail is rocky and steep in places as it descends for 0.9 of a mile to another junction. The Forney Creek Trail comes in on the right at a signed junction. Make a right onto the Forney Creek Trail and begin into a pair of long switchbacks. This segment of the Forney Creek Trail is 1.9 miles and it includes one hard right switchback when you come to an unnamed creek. The trail will parallel this unnamed tributary for 0.4 of a ,mile until the trail breaks right, crosses Forney Creek above Rock Slab Falls and descends toward the base. At the point where the trail nears the creek and turns off a small trail enters the mostly open woods and arrives at the base of the upper section of Rock Slab Falls.
You can walk onto the exposed rock at the base of the falls to get a decent picture but if the water is low, which it can be at this elevation, don’t expect too much. You can take this link for some examples of the different conditions at Rock Slab Falls. There is also a lower section that can be viewed from a spur path that drops off near a campsite just a few paces downstream. I didn’t much care for this one in the August drought but I came away with a new-found respect for it in October.
From the lower potion of Rock Slab Falls, return to the Forney Creek Trail and resume the hike downstream. The next major creek you come to is going to be Steeltrap Creek. It is 0.5 a mile from Rock Slab Falls and it is now time to get your feet wet. There is no trail up to the falls other than the creek and a few places where you have to leave the creek to get around a cascade or slide. From the Forney Creek Trail to Steeltrap Creek Falls is half a mile and it is the most brutal half mile of this hike. I am a fast creek-walker and it took me about 2.5 hours round trip to cover the half mile each way.
When it comes to walking the creek I got nothing for you as far as tips other than almost every time I got of the creek I did so on river right. There are not a lot of open stretches where you can eat up distance walking on bedrock so be prepared for a workout. Both times i found a place close to the Forney Creek Trail to lighten my pack and switch to water shoes but that’s just me. The other thing about this creek walk is the creek below the falls does not seem like a creek where you would find a huge waterfall. Due to the way the creek bends, you won’t actually see the falls until you are almost all the way to it. I been twice and I had an “wow” moment both times. You can see what Steeltrap Creek Falls looks like here. It is worth the effort.
After the half mile slog back to the Forney Creek Trail, you have reached the point of no return. If you want to opt out and hike back to Klingman’s Dome, now is the time. It is only four miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain. This is the reason I opt for the long way to the other end. That 4000 foot up is horrible. I would say this is a good point to check the time. Both times I did this hike I started at 830 and finished at 800. Leaving Steeltrap Creek between 100-115. If we’re on to Road to Nowhere, lace ’em up and head down the Forney Creek Trail.
Hopefully you have a lot to talk about since the next stretch is going to feel endless. The next trail intersection is 4.6 miles to where the Jonas Ridge Trail comes in on the right. You will have made three crossings of Forney Creek thus far, most of them easy enough in lower flows. Only 1.2 miles past the Jonas Ridge Trail, the Springhouse Branch Trail comes in on the left. I mention the waypoints onto so you have something to mark your progress. Next up is the White Oak Branch Trail coming in on your left in another 1.3 miles. Are we there yet? NO!
You are getting close however. The Bear Creek Trail is going to be 1.1 miles further down the trail on the right. Cross the wooden bridge. The trail is going to start climbing toward a second bridge that crosses Bear Creek. Don’t cross the bridge but instead backtrack a few feet and pick up an overgrown road heading into the Bear Creek drainage. At the outset the woods are pretty open but they are going to close in quickly after 600-700 feet. At this point the easiest way to get to the falls is walking up the creek. You can stay on the Bear Creek Trail if you don’t want to walk the creek but it’s going to add a mile each way and it involves a steep scramble. I went this once and not again.
As you can see, Bear Creek Falls is one that does not get a lot of print but it is one of the nicest waterfalls in the area and if I didn’t get here so late, i would hang out for a while. Retrace the walk back to the Bear Creek Trail and follow it to the bridge. This is going to be the final stretch on the Forney Creek Trail. Make a right and resume downstream. It is only a short 0.3 of a mile to where the Lakeshore Trail comes in on the left. The name Lakeshore hints at a nice flat stroll around a lake. Not at all. The next 2.7 miles are going to be mostly uphill, steeply at times.
Several trails are going to intersect on the way up. Ignore them and stay on the Lakeshore Trail. The trail is signed pretty well and as you near the top of the climb you will come to the “Tunnel Bypass Trail” if you want to avoid walking the 0.25 mile lone tunnel. This is truly the homestretch as around 0.4 of a mile past the bypass trail you will crest the ridge and see the Road to Nowhere. The quarter mile long tunnel is decorated with graffiti from end to end and even in the daylight, the middle of the tunnel is pitch black. It is a great ending to the hike.
The only thing left now is the hour plus drive to the summit to fetch the other car.
Here are some random sights from the trail,