4 Strange and Unusual Adventures in Western Carolina

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It's no secret that the wilderness of Western North Carolina is brimming with swimming holes, staggering mountain views, and thousands of miles of trails. But there is also a wealth of fascinating places that lie far off the beaten path—the sites of abandoned infrastructure, forgotten art, and the crumbling ruins of old towns—where human history and the natural world have become enmeshed. For those of us craving an unusual outdoor experience, here are four strange and obscure destinations to check out this summer in Asheville.

1. The Abandoned Runways of DuPont

Mountain bikers in DuPont State Forest are accustomed to the land's unusual offerings, from plunging torrents of water around every turn, to a bald ridge of rare eastern slickrock. But riders on the Airstrip Trail may be surprised to come across a bizarre and unexpected feature within the 10,000 acre tract of wilderness: an abandoned and overgrown runway.

Although the airstrip, a relic from the days when the land was owned by the DuPont Chemical Company, is slowly being reclaimed by grass and shrubs around the edges, the enormous slab of concrete, still brightly painted with directionals, certainly makes for a startling and somewhat eerie site.

To be gliding through a cool, shaded forest and suddenly find yourself bumping across a band of exposed pavement, empty and long abandoned, is a unique experience to say the least. Photographers will be delighted—not only with the unusual scene, but also the long-range views of the Blue Ridge and Pisgah National Forest afforded from the runway. As an added bonus, the trail continues with a rolling descent of hairpin turns and dead-ends at the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls.

2. The Back Alley Murals of the River Arts District

The River Arts District is the epicenter of Asheville's quirky and artistic culture. Pottery studios, art galleries, and outdoor breweries inhabit the shabby brick buildings and slick new facilities that border an active railroad track and the French Broad River. Between the Greenway, the shady paths of Carrier park, and the community initiatives of the  Asheville Running Company , its no wonder that this neighborhood is a popular place to explore on foot or by bike.

While there are plenty of colorful walls and art displays to be found on the main streets of the River Arts District, many people are surprised to learn that there is an entire block of murals and street art, painted on the sides of several old warehouses- secluded, mostly abandoned, and hidden away like a brilliantly colorful ghost town.

This lurid alleyway is located on Old Lyman Street, behind Riverview Station, a multi-use building of art studios and community spaces. You'll also find a hand-built skate park, created by local skateboard enthusiasts. Pay a visit to this bizarre and forgotten urban art space to spice up your after-work running route.

3. The Lost Society of Hazel Creek

Fly fishermen in Hazel Creek, great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Fly fishermen in Hazel Creek, great Smoky Mountain National Park. John Coley

Intrepid visitors to the  Great Smoky Mountain National Park can get a taste of the area's deep-seated and somewhat sordid social history by traveling to a virtually deserted section of the park, known as The Lost Society of Hazel Creek. The area is home to the fascinating ruins of what was once the bustling mill town of Proctor, and its few small neighboring townships.

The communities were settled on the banks of Hazel Creek, which flows down from Thunderhead Mountain and Silers Bald in the southernmost corner of the park. At the beginning of the 20th century, Proctor was a booming valley town, complete with a post office, train depot, cafe, barbershop, and even a movie theater. Its heyday ended abruptly in 1928, when the logging mill shut down after depleting the resources in surrounding mountains, and residents began to drain from the town in search of livelihood.

John Coley

What remains today is acres of creek-side wilderness, strewn with the crumbling remains of cabins and mill facilities. Only one structure still stands, the ghostly and condemned Calhoun House, built in the same year that the mill shut down. The ruins are accessible only by hiring a boat ride across Fontana Lake, or via a rugged, twelve mile trek. A number of local outfitters can help arrange transportation.

Every year, a handful of backpackers and fly fishermen are drawn to this remote section of America's most visited national park, either by the promise of seclusion, the historical ruins, or the trout that are found in abundance in Hazel Creek.

 4. The Road to Nowhere

Another history-steeped obscurity in the Smoky Mountain National Park is North Shore Drive and tunnel, best known as "The Road to Nowhere." This short but scenic route offers a view of the Smoky Mountains, Little Tennessee River, and Fontana Lake as it heads Northwest out of Bryson City, North Carolina. But the road dead ends inside the park boundaries, evidence of a federal promise to local residents that was never fulfilled.

The creation of Fontana Lake and the Fontana Dam in the 1940s displaced homes, farms, and entire townships, including one of the main roads at the time, North Carolina Highway 288. The former residents of these now deserted communities demanded that a new route be built on the north side of the new lake, connecting them with their old homesteads and cemeteries. Construction began on a two lane road, but because of environmental concerns and funding that quickly dissolved, it ground to a halt in 1972, after a mere 7.2 miles of road had been completed. After a few starts and stops in the years that followed, the project was permanently put to rest in 2010, and Swain County accepted 52 million dollars from the federal government as a settlement.

Today, a dark, looming, 600 foot tunnel marks the terminus of Long Shore Drive. Crumbling and colorful with graffiti, it makes for a fascinating 'off the beaten path' adventure. The road peters out just a few hundred meters after the tunnel, but it does offer access to one of Fontana's beautiful finger lakes, and a particularly secluded section of the park. Locals warn against passing through the tunnel at night, as it is haunted by the ghosts of those laid to rest in the old burial grounds within the park's boundaries, still searching for their displaced relatives.

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