Brochures for historic sites often invite you to "step back in time." At Cataloochee Valley, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you truly do journey back to a different place and time - rural North Carolina of the early 20th century. An Interstate highway is only 10 miles and 30 minutes away, but it might as well be 50 miles and 100 years.
Cataloochee Valley is about 150 miles from Charlotte, approximately a 3 1/4-hour drive, one way.
To see and do
With only a scattering of buildings remaining, it's hard to imagine that the Cataloochee Valley was once a flourishing community, home to some 1,200 people as recently as the early 1920s. While most made their living by farming, some capitalized on early tourism, boarding fishermen and other visitors vacationing in the mountains. Even today, Cataloochee Creek is a popular destination for anglers, with wild trout being the most common catch. Families began moving out of the valley after the national park was established in the late 1920s, and most were gone by the early 1940s.
A self-guiding auto tour booklet is available for $1 at a roadside box on the left side of the road near the entrance to the valley. In addition to giving background history, the booklet provides a map of buildings that can be visited, such as the two-room Beech Grove schoolhouse (built in 1907), the Caldwell house (1903), and the Caldwell barn. Other open buildings include the Palmer Chapel, a quintessential white-framed country church built in 1898, and the Palmer house, which started out as a log cabin built by George Lafayette Palmer in 1869. It was later enlarged by his son Jarvis, who also added weatherboarding. One room of the Palmer house now contains a few exhibits and has a video in which some of the valley's former inhabitants share their memories. A springhouse, smokehouse and barn are also found on the property.
Old buildings, though, aren't the only things to be found in the valley. Elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and herds can often been seen grazing in the fields, usually in the early morning and evening. Deer and turkey are also common.
Boogerman Trail, a 7-mile loop weaving through the forest, beckons hikers, as do several other trails, some of which lead to log cabins. Take advantage of the scenic overlook on the right side of the road as you head down into the valley. A primitive campground with 27 sites and a horse camp in the valley are closed now but will reopen in mid-March (sites must be reserved in advance).