Trans-America trail trip report: part 1 (North Carolina to western Tennessee)

March 27, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

It's the time of the year that drivers bound this summer for the Trans-America Trail (TAT) are doing preparations. Last year this time, I was laminating my maps, installing a roof rack, and getting organized for the long trip west.

TAT planningTAT planningGetting organized for my first Trans-America Trail trip, April 2017.  The USA is big. And diverse. There is nothing I suspect that could prepare one for the geographic and environmental diversity of the US that one sees while driving the TAT. It is a completely different experience than crossing America on Interstates or even the smaller rural highways such as Route 66.

Into the fogInto the fogAbout to drop down from the first pass on the Trans-America Trail back into Andrews, North Carolina. A storm was just on it's way in and it was really blowing hard this day and a few minutes later visibility on the curvy track dropped to about 30 ft, 18 November 2917,
I thought I'd do a series of blog posts on the TAT over the next week or so, show some of the sights, give some tips on logistics and camping options, and highlight some of the awesome photo opportunities along the way. I anticipate 5-6 blog posts, but we'll see how much I get writing. 

The Trans-America Trail starts (2019 update - past tense, should be 'started' now, as Sam has added extra distance up the Appalachians) in Andrews, North Carolina, a few hours north of Atlanta, where I was based for work for 2+ years. Over some 5000 miles the TAT winds its way on gravel and country roads across rural America to the Pacific coast in Oregon. States visited during the trip include North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma (right up to the Kansas border line), New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon (also updated - routing on west has been changed some so that the Pacific route to Port Orford is now a spur).

For me, my TAT trips were focused on photo opportunities across rural America. I shot some basic dashcam video during my first trip, and will include a few short snippets in the blogs as well to illustrate the type of terrain a TAT driver/rider can expect. Note that I followed Sam Correro’s maps (www.transamtrail.com), so when I talk about the TAT, it is the routing from Andrews, North Carolina to Port Orford, Oregon.

In 2017 I ran the TAT east to west, starting in late-May. That trip took 28 days but I had stops for two photo workshops along the way and one stop for Jeep maintenance in Colorado Springs. 

In late-July, after an extended visit on Vancouver Island, I reversed direction and ran most of the TAT on my 'TAT backwards' trip. On that trip I picked up the trail in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho after cutting down across Washington state and western Idaho. Utah was very hot mid-summer, so I bypassed the western desert and drove directly from the Pocatello Valley down to Moab, via Salt Lake City. From Moab I stuck to the TAT mainly (but for a diversion to Great Sand Dunes National Park) and cleared all the mountain passes that were blocked by snow in June. 

I've also run much of the eastern part of the TAT several times on shorter trips out of Atlanta. You'll notice some autumn pictures in the blogs, which were taken autumn 2017. 

Most people do the TAT east to west (but it is great the other way too), so I'll start the blogs in the east and run through some highlights in a east to west direction.

Unfortunately my TAT maps are packed away in storage in Canada at the moment (I'm working in Sweden), so I cannot give mileage from Sam's maps for particular features or highlights, but I will give GPS coordinates from my waypoints. 


Forests of the Southeast

The TAT starts in Andrews, North Carolina and within the first several miles is on gravel roads in the Appalachian Mountains. The TAT winds its way through a short section of North Carolina before entering Tennessee, and the route continues across Tennessee with shorter diversions into Georgia and Alabama, before crossing to Mississippi and traversing forest service roads across the north part of that State. Some gravel roads are good, some are quite rough, and there are a number of paved sections across the rural countryside.

There are a few different options logistically for the start. One is to get a hotel in Andrews the night before and set out in the morning - that should get you to the Georgia border, where there are some good camping spots.

The other option is to start from farther afield (e.g., Atlanta) and stay the first night at some beautiful, remote campsites in the Nantahala Game Lands. There's some great campsites along the river and an old historic cabin (the Stewart Cabin), which is the first good photo opportunity. GPS coordinates here are: N35.341 W83.937, and the best campsites are just west of the cabin, along the river. 

On my dry run out of Atlanta (2 day loop of the first part of the TAT), I organized my rig some while enjoying a nice lunch along the river. Be aware there aren't any campsites on the first gravel section, so you need to allow 2 hours from Andrews to get to the campsite I mentioned above. 

Above is Jeep 2.0, just at the start of the TAT in 2017. I did some further modifications autumn 2017, so Jeep 3.0 is a better equipped for the rigors of overlanding.

Jeep changesJeep changes

The next section of the trail follows gravel and paved roads to Tellico Plains. At one point along North River you reach a T junction where the TAT goes left on a long winding tangent. If you are a photographer, I'd recommend going right towards the fish hatchery on River Road as there are some great waterfalls down here. 

North River, TennesseeNorth River, TennesseeSmall waterfalls on the North River, a tributary of the Tellico River in the southeastern part of Tennessee. This was taken on the Trans-America Trail, 18 November 2017.

A surprise find in TennesseeA surprise find in TennesseeI was out along the TAT in November 2017, exploring some alternative options for a couple of the sections I thought were kind of boring (all trees). This falls was a surprise find along the way, just a little before Tellico Plains, just on the Tennessee - North Carolina border. 18 November 2017.

Tellico Plains has a great bakery, so if you are on the trail early in the day it makes a perfect lunch stop. As you go into Tellico Plains, take a left into the historic downtown. It's just along the main street (not open on Sundays and Mondays though). 

After Tellico Plains, the TAT heads south and gets onto some quite rough roads and the first water crossings (the ones you always see on YouTube). The low quality frame grab from my video shows that it would be possible to hang up if you are too far left on the last of the 4 crossings and drop into a bit of a hole out there. There are a couple of crude campsites at the crossings - best is just over the last crossing on the right (directly ahead in the picture below) but I wouldn't recommend staying here with nice campsites in both directions. 

Water crossingWater crossingA low quality screen grab from video that shows me slightly cutting a corner on a water crossing )watching for the ledge of the left). Trans-America Trail Day 01 in Tennessee, 29 April 2017.

This road takes you through some real rural areas of Tennessee, and eventually out to the small town of Reliance. At Reliance, there's an old Baptist church on stilts. About 20 minutes beyond Reliance there's good camping at the Lost Creek forest service campsite; I've stayed here on several trips and quite enjoy it. 

Beyond Lost Creek camp, you get into some of the remotest parts of the TAT in the Southeast. There aren't any regular campsites for a long ways now, though there are lots of places you can just pull off. First time I came through here on the dry run in April 2017, a tree blocked the TAT (the video frame grab below) so I diverted south to intersect the Kimsey Highway (actually a little-used gravel road). The TAT is a little rougher still and less traveled than the Kimsey Highway option, but I found a very interesting Rymer family cemetery on the diversion (N35.129 W84.443). To get to the cemetery, there's a spur road left at a bend (watch for the sign on the left) that leads up (one could camp up here too). 

Blocked in TennesseeBlocked in TennesseeLow-res screen grab from my video. I was just a bit too tall to get the Jeep under this tree, recently downed in a storm. On the Trans-America trail in the Blue Mountains, Tennessee, 30 April 2017.

Backcountry cemeteryBackcountry cemeteryAfter being blocked by a downed tree on the Trans-America Trail in Spring 2017, I found this cemetery way back in the hills of southern Tennessee. This was taken late-autumn 2017, when I was back in this area again on a circuit of the first part of the TAT.

The forest out here is great. I hit a wonderful sunset in November 2017 out in the middle of nowhere. Both the TAT and the alternate diversion have some good views down into the valleys below as you run trail up on the ridge tops. 

Tennessee forest sunsetTennessee forest sunsetWhile on a weekend trip on the eastern section of the Trans-America Trail, I hit am amazing sunset in the forest of the Tennessee mountains, 17 November 2017.

As you come out of this section, you're more onto rural roads for the next while, down through Dogtown and Ducktown area, before getting back onto gravel near the Tumbling Creek Recreation Area. That road winds along through forests and eventually comes out very near the Georgia border. The TAT then does a long loop up and overlooking Parksville Lake, before coming back to within 3-4 miles of where you originally came out at Sheeds Creek (maps show a camp here but it is derelict). That loop adds several hours and is mainly through forest, so I'd consider cutting a corner here and heading south at Sheeds Creek, the couple of miles to the Georgia border. There are nice campsites here along the river, just over the border at the horse camp (Willow Flats I think it might be called - just a mile or two down the road once over the bridge), or - best option - another hour or so down the road at Lake Conasuaga Campground (but take bug spray in the spring!). It is possible to do a short diversion out to Cisco to gas up if needed. For trucks, this is a good day driving from the Stewart Cabin area. 

Coming down the long hills after this brings you to the Mulberry Gap Rd. The TAT officially goes right here but the road was closed most of 2017 due to a major washout. Last time I was there (Nov 2017) heavy machinery was in working, so it will likely be open for the 2018 season. Note, however, that there's a great old fire engine photo opportunity just 100 yards left down the Mulberry Gap Rd. If you stick on the TAT at that intersection, you won't see it (N34.801 W84.613). 

Fire engine in the forestFire engine in the forestAn old decaying fire engine along a backcountry road in northern Georgia. This vehicle is no more than 100 yards off the Trans-America Trail, just after coming to the long hill dropping out of the Cohutta Wilderness. 23 October 2017.

Decaying fire engineDecaying fire engineA surprise find on backroads of northern Georgia. This truck is not more than 500 ft off the Trans-America Trail but you would never see it unless you did a slight bend back around a corner spur. 22 October 2017.

From here, you're on paved country roads for quite a long time. For anyone interested in photographing old cars in the woods, you absolutely have to divert 25 miles down to White, Georgia, and visit Old Car City (check to see what days and hours they're open prior to visiting - it is a $25 admission fee for photographers). If you camp back up at Conasuaga Lake, you could spend a morning at Old Car City and then do a longer drive through pretty mundane roads to get to the next decent campsite, back up in Tennessee, for the evening. 

Old car collage (black borders)Old car collage (black borders)Portraits of old cars in the forest, Old Car City, White, Georgia, 2 September 2017. Canon 1DX mk ii; Zeiss Otus 55mm; individual cars shot at between f/1.4 and f/5.6.

 

For my initial April dry run, I ended where the TAT crossed I-75. I then picked up at the same spot in May when I started the trip west. The next section of the TAT was not, in my opinion, super interesting (lots of country roads, so it was nice but nothing like being back in the woods the first few days). I left Atlanta in the morning, and drove all the way to Tim's Ford State Park (below) for a very urbane first camping experience on the rest of the TAT.

Tim's Ford is just past Winchester and quite close to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg. I did not visit the Jack Daniels factory despite being close (I was on a mission to get to Clarksdale on time for a fashion photo shoot!). I also had noticed while watching YouTube videos prior to my trip that some people driving the TAT made it to the Jack Daniels factory and then mysteriously never posted any more on their trip – I’m sure there are some stories there!

Expect slow progress (i.e., 200-250 miles a day) through much of the Southeast. If you do it in foul conditions, expect really slow progress. There are some bights of road that can be cut off to save time; after seeing so many forests in the Southeast, I would certainly recommend cutting a few corners as the scenery does not vary a huge amount in the forest.

As a photographer, I love cemeteries, churches, and old farmhouses; this part of the TAT had some great ones along the way, including some in some really remote locations. I found this part of the country to be very friendly and picturesque and a real pleasure to travel through, and certainly not like the rural stereotypes one sometimes hears about.

That's it for the first blog. This one's more detailed than most of the rest will be only because I know these areas really well after living in Atlanta. I'll get to the next one, which I think will cover from this western Tennessee stopping point, through to Clarksdale Mississippi. Until then, happy TAT planning! 
 


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