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A Long, Winding Road Through Great Smokies

November 12, 1989|ERIC SCHMITT | Schmitt is a reporter on the metropolitan staff of the New York Times.

WALHALLA, S.C. — At the top of Issaqueena Falls, a narrow path led to a misty nook behind the roaring cataract. We reached into the watery curtain with cupped hands, stealing a sip before the current cascaded over a dozen rocky ledges to a stream 200 feet below.

Outside the alcove, the trail veered toward stands of hickory and long-leafed pine, clinging to the mountainside before dropping abruptly to follow the falls.

I went first, picking my way carefully down the steep path that changed quickly from packed earth to slick, ochre-colored clay.

Suddenly I slipped. Sliding out of control, I lunged for a sapling and grabbed it a few feet before disappearing into a small ravine.

Scrambling to my feet, I skated the rest of the slippery descent. It was worth it.

The falls cut through the sun-dappled forest like a jagged scar of stone pummeled by crashing water. It was difficult to hear anything over the din.

Issaqueena Falls was a heart-stopping start to a weeklong journey that my wife and I took through the Great Smoky and southern Appalachian mountains.

Using back roads, we made a 170-mile loop through western South Carolina and North Carolina. The loop took us through a village on the Appalachian Trail, a hamlet renowned for its mountain crafts and several other places that were ideal jumping-off points for day-trips to secluded waterfalls, hiking trails brimming with wildflowers and rivers for white-water rafting.

Our route skirted the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, until the end when we plunged into the popular federal reserve for two days of hikes.

Atop an observation tower at Clingmans Dome, a 6,642-foot summit, we admired the famous haze that hangs over the ancient peaks.

At Walhalla, a hamlet of 4,000 in South Carolina's northwest corner, our guidebooks said the town is named after Valhalla, the legendary garden paradise of the gods in Norse mythology.

Walhalla's real beauty, a service station attendant in town told us, was five miles up the road at Issaqueena Falls, named for a mythical Indian maiden.

An unobtrusive wooden sign on the right side of South Carolina 28, "Issaqueena Falls--Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel," pointed us down a narrow, winding road to a picnic area and the top of the falls, where we started our precipitous hike.

Having survived the treacherous path (vowing never to be caught wearing tennis shoes on a clay trail again), we followed the gas station attendant's second suggestion and walked up the paved road to the tunnel, a piece of the folklore in South Carolina's Up Country.

The tunnel is a monument to a gallant but futile effort in the 1850s to burrow through a mile of granite. After six years of chipping and blasting, the Blue Ridge Railroad ran out of money for the project that was to link South Carolina to the Midwest. Despite revived attempts in 1876, 1900 and 1940, the tunnel remains unfinished but not abandoned.

The tunnel's constant climate, 50 degrees and 90% humidity, was perfect for aging blue cheese. So for 15 years, until the mid-1950s, Clemson University aged its commercial brand of blue cheese in it.

Inside the 1,600-foot tunnel, dripping water from the blasted-rock ceiling had carved out permanent puddles. The drops echoed in tinny pings off the cavernous walls.

As we walked farther inside, the inky blackness sopped up light leaking from the entrance. Without a flashlight, we quit after our path dissolved into darkness.

Back on the road, driving up miles of switchbacks, we understood why a tunnel through Stumphouse Mountain made sense. The scenery helped soothe our queasy stomaches as we passed dozens of flowering dogwoods, peach and apple orchards and an occasional pasture with horses basking in the sun.

Crossing into North Carolina we entered Cullasaja River Gorge. Along the canyon on U.S. 64 are five waterfalls. Our favorite was Dry Falls, which was anything but. From the parking lot an easily traversed path curls behind the base of the 120-foot falls.

A friend recommended that we stay overnight in Dillsboro, N.C., a hamlet of 182 people known for its artisans, about an hour west of Ashevile, N.C., and due north of Walhalla.

Activity in the village revolves around about 50 weavers, silversmiths, potters, antique dealers, inns, restaurants and other merchants. Official business in Dillsboro is sparse: city hall is open from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Walking down Dillsboro's main thoroughfare, Haywood Street, an old-fashioned, red Texaco gasoline pump propped up outside Jones Country Store caught my attention.

Inside the store we discovered a Depression-era time capsule. Antique toy race cars, surveying instruments, wooden tennis racquets in their presses, dishware, pots and pans and assorted knickknacks hung from hooks, bulged from shelves and beckoned from barrels and bins arranged on the worn hardwood floor.

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