Sometime late last year I was online looking for cool places to hike for Shawn’s November birthday, I had come across an article about abandoned towns that spoke very highly of Lost Cove, North Carolina. Located almost on the border of Tennessee, the town that had originally grown due to it’s remote location, access to what was then a new rail line, and precedent for being out of reach of the long arm of the law; a quality quite appealing in the mountains where Tennessee meets North Carolina, especially during Prohibition, at the peak of moonshining. The town, though hidden deep in the mountains, drew a number of citizens who built a life there during the early twentieth century. The area didn’t last long, and the remote location lost it’s allure as the surrounding areas grew and alcohol was made legal again. The last families left in the 1950’s, leaving behind the houses they had built by hand and the area to grow over, eventually hidden completely in the mountains. But the rails can’t let anything be hidden long, and travelers and hikers continue to visit Lost Cove, and tell others about it. We decided it would be a good hike for Shawn’s birthday at the end of November, so we planned and when the weekend came, we got hit with a huge blizzard. Every time it snows here, everything just shuts down, so we cancelled and rescheduled. We finally got a good weekend now at the end of January, the weather was clear, though cold and we had a couple friends coming along to keep us company and share in the adventure. So we set off early Saturday morning and drive an hour and a half to the town of Erwin, Tennessee, where we found the trailhead just out of town near the railroad tracks.
Lost Cove, North Carolina
Route: “Trailhead”/Parking area is just outside of Erwin, Tennessee. Unicoi County. Parked by a gate across from a cemetrary, walked a few hundred yards down a nice open trail to the railroad tracks. Made a right and walked 3 miles down the tracks. Shortly over 3 miles down a curvy railway that follows the Nolichucky River, there’s a steep dirt path heading off to the right. About 10 yards up the trail is the first visible campsite. Used commonly it seems, it boasts a decent fire pit and flat dirt area, as well as (at least when we came through) a resident grilling grate, a metal pot, and a bucket for #2s. Pretty damn decent for a random campsite 3 miles from any civilization, located on train tracks in between a cliff and a river. Hobo culture is alive and well it seems.
As soon as you leave the flatness of the railroad tracks, the climb is immediately brutal. We took short breaks every 20 yards or so, partially because of the heavy packs filled with burrito-fixin’s, partly because we were climbing a creek, frozen but still flowing, directly up the side of a mossy ridge. It just kept climbing. The trees get bigger and bigger, and unlike much of the Linville Gorge where we reside and do most of our hiking, there wasn’t any undergrowth, no Rhododendron or the like to block the view. Just huge, tall trees with space in between them, filled with fallen leaves and bright green mossy rocks and boulders. The ridge we were aiming at was stretching out directly in front of, and above us. To our right was a frozen cascade way up the mountain, an area carved from white frozen water flow, easily visible against the brown and green of the ridge wall. As we made it through the mossy rocks, the path we were following started curving around the side of the ridge and getting wider and smoother. It also got a lot flatter, but a lot flatter than the first part is still a pretty steep climb. Our party split up into 3 groups here, Marcus, the fastest in front, me a ways behind him taking slow steady steps, just glad to be not climbing a creek but just walking on actual dirt, and the two pack mules (my husband and our friend Dave) both carrying a ridiculous amount of supplies, about the same distance behind me, stopped for a break. We couldn’t see each other, but every couple minutes would yell back and forth, relaying what we saw or just making loud Sasquatch noises and listening to them echo off the gorge walls.
“Gets flat, good spot to take a break!” I hear Marcus yell from like 50 yards above me. I see his silhoette move into the trail, sans backpack, from around a bend that we were hoping was the top of the ridge and the edge of the town. Whew, so glad to hear we’re almost done climbing I buckle down and keep trudging up the hill. At the top there’s a large tree fallen across the trail, but it’s exactly chair height, so no problem there. I plop down on it and let my backpack rest on the trunk before starting to unclip and freeing myself altogether.
The ridge we stopped on has another trail running into it, and we think it’s what forked off at the bottom of the path we just climbed. They join and curve around the ridgetop, Marcus says it forks and looks to be almost the top of the mountain, which means the town should be close.
Straddling my log seat and stretching my stiff and sweaty back, I can see through the trees the Nolichucky River in the distance. I believe from this spot we are looking across the gorge at the mountain that the Tennessee/North Carolina border runs along. The river is far enough away that we cannot see movement, just a swath of blueish gray and white smeared across the wall of the gorge. A vague overlook at the river that is probably not visible in the summer, but this January hike lends a lot more vision without the leaves. We sit and ponder the whereabouts of Bigfoot while Shawn and Dave catch up. We all take a rest, have a snack, a drink, a stretch. We need a few minutes of recovering from hauling ourselves up the side of this mountain. I am amazed that there were people doing this 100 years ago in ridiculous clothes with none of the modern luxuries we have. Although I must say if we had a mule or a good workhorse, it would make for a lighter load on our backs. And since we haven’t had service since we left the town of Erwin, our cell phones aren’t going to save us either. We hoist our packs back on and continue up the trail, eager to see some signs of Lost Cove.
Well, it did seem to fork, but then come back together, although there are beginning to look like paths coming off from the main trail now. We are still gaining altitude, and some of the path is muddy and covered in leaves, making pulling up the incline even more difficult. The excitement about getting close to the town is keeping us all moving, but still we take short breaks often. No reason to beat ourselves up any more than we already are. Finally as we walk up the trail we see what has to be Miracle Rock. A huge whitish yellow boulder juts out into the trail, with an old lovely tree growing along the side, roots molded to the edge of the rock. We admire it for a second and then excitedly move on.
The edges of the trail start to raise up and have more rock piles, gradually turning into hefty rock walls, built by simply stacking a lot of rocks tightly together, and still stacked today. The trees now are low and wide, not trees that grew up in a dense forest, but trees that were cultivated when this was fields and clearings. The Woodland Homestead refers to them as Pasture Trees. Shawn points out some old apple trees, and the use of ornamental thorn bushes and decorative trees. For a short second, if we didn’t know that there was once civilization here, it would be clear that someone had lived here. As we continue on the path we come up on some more evidence of human activity. Metal pieces, rims, rods, the frame of an old Dualie truck next to the path, all but the densest of iron parts rusted away. Trees grow into it and around it now, but when this truck was first left here, it was parked on the side of a road. At it’s peak the town of Lost Cove had around 100 citizens, and although most of the homes are nothing but stone shapes, barely decipherable, the metal still sits and slowly rusts. There’s another abandoned car, full of bullet holes. Impossible to say when the car was abandoned, or when the bullet holes were made. The bridge we crossed on the railroad had carvings from the 1980’s, and from the trash we’ve seen littered on the trail, this is probably a hangout for teenagers and partiers as well. The town was abandoned in the 50’s but there has been foot traffic here steadily since. The old shot up truck is parked near a large tree on a hill, with the first full chimney we find. The rest of the house has been destroyed by fire and time, but the chimney is standing tall and strong in a clearing that hasn’t bothered to grow completely in, possibly partially due to the thorned security hedges surrounding it. Those were planted for that purpose, no doubt about it.
The first solid looking structure is small, too short to stand up in, a dirt floor, hand hewn log beams stacked together to form a small 6×12 cabin. Shawn postulates that it may have been one of the first structures, but after population in the area grew, became just a pig house or something similar. There’s a foot path leading off behind the structure that we vow to explore more next time, possibly leading to more structures or the cemetery. But for now it’s starting to get close to dinnertime, it’s cold, and we are all tired, so we continue on down the trail in search of a possible home place to sleep in.
Just as the path finally starts to head down the hill, we come across what we knew immediately was John B. Tipton’s cabin. It was in remarkably good shape for it’s age and location, and for the amount of use it’s seen since it was abandoned by it’s original owner and builder. The front door and shutters are gone, but much of the wood floor remains, as well as a couple of the interior walls. The porch floor is gone, most likely burned in campfires by hikers and hobos over the years. The walls of the house, inside and out are covered on every inch by years of writing. Sharpie, spray paint, knives and charcoal, names and messages, quotes, bible verses, phone numbers, dates. We drop packs by the mound of rocks and trash that functions as the main fire pit and peek inside the house.
The floor seems sketchy at first, but the more we move around the more sturdy it seems. We sign the wall and keep reading the layers of names and messages. On the inside back door that used to open to the porch, there’s quotes from Gandhi, Thoreau, John Muir and “Kernal Sanders.” Seeing these scribbles from years of visitors warms my heart and makes me giggle, but the rest of me is still freezing, so we decide that this will probably be where we’re staying. Marcus heads further down the trail to make sure there isn’t a better structure we can use, but returns without any leads, so with the late afternoon chill setting in, we make the final call to set up camp here.
The fire pit is full of plastic garbage from the last visitors, who made the effort to gather all the Lunchable trash and put it in the fire pit, but not to bag it up and carry it out. Animals. Dave and Shawn get the garbage out of the fire pit and gather kindling and start a fire. I lay down a towel for Duke and take his dog pack off of him, then steal his blanket and wrap it around my legs. I wait until the fire starts rolling and then change my socks, laying the wet ones near the fire, and putting on 2 pairs of fresh ones, and wrapping my feet in a blanket so my shoes can dry a bit as well. I take off the wet shirts I’m wearing and replace them with the dry long underwear shirts from my pack, then layer the silk long underwear bottoms over my thick leggings and put my jeans back on over them. I now have on 3 pairs of pants, 2 long sleeved shirts, an insulated zip up hoodie, a therma-insulated hat, and gloves and I can feel the temperature dropping. Especially now that we’ve quit moving and sat down, my body isn’t creating as much heat but it still has remnants of sweat from the walk. The fire is crackling and building, but the cold moisture in the air is holding it back so we huddle around it, taking boozy nips for warmth and dipping into our snacks.
We had decided to do burritos, a tried and true foodshare for group camping. We hiked in a variety of ingredients, disperced very unevenly between us, including precooked fajita steak, black beans, refried beans, corn, an onion, three avocados, tortillas, two bags of corn chips, a giant jug of salsa, multiple types of hot sauces, shredded cheese and some various other treats and snacks, as well as a large pot, a camp pot and some utensils. The meat goes on in the pot, and since it was frozen in the morning and has been carried in below freezing temperatures through the day, it is unfortunately still frozen, a minor detail of winter camping we had overlooked. It’s a minor inconvenience and nothing more, frozen in some fatty sauce and quickly reheated over open flame, it still tastes great and fills our bellies. The corn and beans are stuck right on the fire in the cans and we all inch closer and closer as the food cooks. We have some beers to warm our bones and kill the time before we get to chow down. The Drum Circle Haze Juicy IPA goes down smooth and delicious, and we all let out a little “wow” at the 8%/alc. With some whiskey and some white (to appease the town’s resident Moonshiner ghosts we’ve heard about) our muscles start to loosen up and our appetites are peaked. We lay out all our burrito ingredients on a rock near the fire and start building, discussing the validity of Hot Sauce and whether or not it’s the Greatest Thing Ever Invented as Marcus says, or an unnecessarily masochistic addition to what would otherwise be great food, as Shawn argues. Whichever one is right, the burrito fills my belly and warms my bones and I’m happy.
We began cooking in the late afternoon haze of a cloudy January day, but by the time we eat, the sun has set down behind the mountain and the true chill of dusk is creeping up our sleeves. The hot sauce and alcohol do wonders to keep us warm from the inside and we sit around the fire listening to music and telling the only true ghost stories we have. Deep in the woods, far from civilization, with no communication, camped in front of a cabin rumored to be guarded by a violent ghost, you would think the Fear would set in, but despite the cold it was comfortable. The adventurous spirit won out, and just intrigue and a joy of exploration remained. We chatted and stumbled while our BAC rose and the temperature dropped. It began to be apparent we should set up our sleeping area. Dave had brought a sleek little tent that claimed to be two-person but was probably better for one, and set it up in the clearing across from the house. Shawn, Marcus and I decided to brave sleeping inside the house, as without a tent it would be the warmest area, and we were prepared with a propane heater and two tanks. A few tarps hung over the windows, our hammocks hung above us to block some large holes in the roof, and one big tarp walling off the back room of the house weighted at the bottom with rocks, made for a decently insulated little bedroom for three humans, 2 large dogs, and one incredible Coleman propane heater. We lay out all our sleeping gear, set the heater above our heads and climb into our bags. The dogs curl up with us and all is quiet.
Marcus is asleep first, basically as soon as he lays down, with his headlamp still on, shining straight up to the ceiling. I’m tipsy but the adrenaline of sleeping in a “haunted house” has me feeling wide awake. I pull out my dslr and push the shutter. Black. Crap, I forgot I had the lens cap on. Okay, take that off. Aim the camera up at the corner of the ceiling. Get a very bad feeling. Maybe I shouldn’t compromise where we’re sleeping. Maybe it’s better not to see anything. Maybe there’s power in ignorance. I wrap my camera back up and slide it into my pack. It’s time to go to sleep. I climb into the zero degree bag and wrap it around my head, pull Duke closer and scoot up against Shawn to steal as much body heat from them as I can. I can hear just about all of my bunkmates snoring at various levels, and a low breeze blowing outside, but the house is otherwise silent. I start to doze off, snuggled safe in my sleeping bag. Suddenly I hear heavy footsteps walk from the front door to the entrance of our little tarp room. I’m only half lucid and I think maybe it’s Dave coming to get in the slightly warmer shelter we’ve got, but I hear nothing. I raise my head up and realize that if it was Dave he would say something…..or knocked. These heavy footsteps had confidently strolled across the old oak floor and stopped on the other side of our tarp. And then I never heard them move. I put my head down, curl up tighter and beg with my bladder to leave me alone to sleep. Somehow I drift off again.
I awake a couple hours later with my bladder screaming and my hips throbbing from rolling back and forth on this old wood floor with almost no padding. I debate the cold but I’m not going to be able to get back to sleep until I pee. Reluctantly I sit up in my bag, rummaging around in the dark for my headlamp and boots. I stand up and step directly from the warm bag into freezing cold boots. Shawn’s jacket is the first thing I see so I slip into it, feeling it crunch from the cold as my arms go in. It had frozen laying in the floor of our room. I step over Ava guarding the door and out of the tarp. My buzz has worn off and I can feel the cold completely now. I walk lightly across the floor and step out into the front of the house, just far enough away to say I tried. Squatting to pee I look up at the sky and admire the stars. The best thing about being in the middle of nowhere is the lack of light pollution. So many more stars than you ever see, even in a small town. I finish up and try to ignore the creepy feeling running down my neck. Kick off my boots, jump back into my bag, which still feels warm compared to the freezing air around it. The first propane tank is still blowing hot air, so I scoot as close as I can without risking it falling on me and try to get back to sleep.
This time it doesn’t work so well. I had pulled a muscle in my butt a couple days before this trip, lifting my 50 pound two-year-old over a puddle, and then over stretched it on the hike in trying to bend down with my pack on to pick up Duke’s leash. The pressure on the hardwood floor was starting to bruise my hips and I couldn’t stay asleep for long without rolling over. I try to use my bag of clothes as a pillow and lay on my back, but it’s just too cold. I roll over and lay partially on my stomach and drift off for a little bit.
Then I’m awake again, but this time I sit up fast, thinking I’m going to throw up. I’m wide awake, sitting cross legged in my sleeping bag, holding down the burrito/beer/shine combination. I really don’t want to throw up, mostly because I know it’s cold as hell outside, and if I don’t get outside quick enough I’m no longer drunk enough to justify ralphing on the floor. So I sit and do some breathing exercises, and it starts to subside. I lay back down and immediately it bubbles back up, so I sit up again. At this point the tiredness of a 4 mile walk, a night of drinking and sleeping on a wood floor is catching up with me. It seems to be 2 or 3 in the morning. The witching hour. I try not to think about whether it’s bad dreams or ghosts making me sick, and remind myself of the beating I’d put on my body the day before, and how much white liquor had mysteriously vanished in the space of just a couple hours. I pull the mummy hood over my head and doze off sitting cross legged in my bag for a few minutes, shift my weight and do it again. It starts to hurt my neck, and the nausea comes back slowly at first and then suddenly my shoes are on, I’m ripping my sweater out from underneath the dog sleeping on it, and running outside. I make it just out the door and blow corn and booze around the corner of the house. Horrible, disgusting relief. I look up and notice it’s actually starting to get light out. It must be 6am or so. I stumble to the fire pit and sit on the log, making sure the urge to vomit has passed. The fire has burned down to a charred teepee and a pile of coals. It doesn’t lend me any heat at this distance, so I drag myself back inside. Shawn heard my race to the door and moves when I come back into the tarp room. He offers me his blanket and sleeping bag to help pad me, possibly get a little sleep. I say if he’s going to get up anyway I’ll take it. I stack up all the blankets I can and get back in my sleeping bag, but it’s no use. I’m up now I suppose. I put on my boots and bring the sleeping bag out to the fire pit. Shawn is building it back up, so I sit on the ground and wrap the sleeping bag around me. I wrap Duke’s blanket around him to keep him warm and await some instant coffee. My stomach is not happy, but every minute that passes it gets less upset and more just hungry. We slowly get moving, reheating all the burrito ingredients together in the pan, cheese and all and stuffing the remaining tortillas. I eat a burrito and about 4 packs of pretzels and cheese. Dave is up shortly after us, and Marcus a couple hours later, feeling rough. A slow start is pretty clear, but it’s Sunday, it’s still morning, and we’re all trying to store as much energy as possible for the trip down the mountain and the long walk down the tracks back to civilization. Food and water and coffee starts to kick in, and we wander around gathering our gear, rolling blankets, changing socks, piling up trash. Marcus makes the noble call to gather up the trash that was there when we arrived and pack it out. We fill an entire black garbage bag, he lashes it to the back of his pack and hauled it out. Maybe our gracious intentions could be felt by the spirits that inhabit this town, because even though people have reported being chased out, or having rocks thrown at them, I did not feel threatened. I felt pretty welcome in the house, all things considered. I wrote as much on the doorframe. I take some daytime pictures of the house and surrounding area, we do one last dummy check in the house and decide to leave a few things for the next guests. The large metal pot we brought, a thick towel, some food. Maybe it will save someone’s life, or at least be a pleasant surprise for an exhausted traveler, or serve as an offering to the Good Folk, maybe granting us some good luck the next time we visit Ol’ John B.
We bid farewell to the cabin and start off back down the trail. I carry my camera around my neck this time, and snap pictures along the way. It’s easier this time, not only are we going downhill, but our packs are many pounds lighter after consuming all the food and beverages. We veer off the trail and find an old homeplace that consists of a large stone wall in a square, about 3 feet high at its tallest, so long abandoned that there are saplings growing all through it. Right in front of the shell of the long-gone cabin is a huge, beautiful tree. Four or 5 feet across, it splits about 12 feet up into thick arching branches that extend out over what must have been a gorgeous area when it was used. Now all that remains is this ancient tree, and stones fallen in. I wonder who lived in this little house, and stare up at the tree. Shawn and Marcus meander towards a pile of rocks a dozen yards away that begins to look more and more like a rudimentary tomb. A nice pile of rocks, about the length and width of a grave, piled evenly 4 feet up. I keep my distance, because I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it was. We notice some more ornamental shrubs on the way out, and a few more foot paths leading off in other directions. The prospect of returning is starting to look like a guarantee. There’s too much we haven’t seen to be deterred by a couple tough miles of hiking. We all agree that warmer weather, where we need to carry less weight in general, another visit must be planned.
The hike back down the steep creek isn’t as hard as up, but is still a pretty strenuous jaunt. I remember halfway down that my knees take the blunt of these steep downhill climbs, and try to be a little lighter on them, but the ground is wet and there are rocks below a layer of dead leaves, that jolt your ankles and knees when you step on them and walking carefully is all you can do to make it easier. We break and look at the old trees, gaze down the cliffsides and admire the moss. We’re getting close to the bottom and we’re starting to drag. We get back to the first campsite at the tracks.
We didn’t stay here, just took a short break on the rock before hitting the tracks. This campsite overlooks the Nolichucky and the railroad curving on up the river, cutting in front of a large waterfall another 1/2 mile down the tracks. It could be more or less, that’s a visual estimate. Next time we go to Lost Cove, I’d like to keep walking up the tracks and check out the waterfall, or possibly try and find it from the top. There’s a small section of the trail close to the top where you can hear rushing water either from the river, a creek or hopefully a waterfall. We sit on a rock and watch the river go by. There’s trees across the tracks on our side that have been felled by beaver. Across the river there’s more, these are ambitious beavers. We drink some water, eat some snacks and brace ourselves for the next three miles.
Shortly down the tracks, Duke starts to consider going off down towards the river. I think he smelled the beaver, when I looked over the edge there was the pile of a dam, and he was making that snorting sound with his nose that means he smells something he wants to meet. Thankfully he decides the hill is too steep to go down and continues down the tracks. We stop and break every half mile to mile, snacking along the way. The tracks are flat, but the gravel is large and hard to walk on. The ties are too close together to take single steps, and too far apart to take double steps. I alternate between trying to walk on the gravel, half-jogging while stepping on every wooden tie, and lunging to step on every other wooden tie. Dave and Marcus pull ahead of us, as I stop to take a picture of every little waterfall next to us, and every pretty icicle on the rock walls that tower over the tracks along the route. The tracks drag on and on this way. We’re tired, sore, worn out, cold, and now a lot later getting back than we had estimated. Still no service on our phones, so we’re trying to keep a pace to get back to the trucks and let our loved ones know we didn’t get Blair Witched. Finally we come around a bend and there’s a metal box for the switch and a steep path off to the right. That’s us. We stop at the big metal box, resting our packs on the stairs and gathering the last remaining energy to make it up this 200 yard hill.
Finally we’re back at the cars. They’re intact, so we drop packs and start the process of re-entering the normal world. For me that was getting rid of the 2 extra pairs of pants and 3 extra shirts I was wearing. We drag ourselves around the two vehicles, gathering phones and water and making an assortment of groans. By the time we get in the car, Duke is practically asleep in the backseat. He would continue to sleep for the next 36 hours, and let me tell you, I’m jealous. We stop at the gas station in Erwin, I opt for chocolate milk and Dill Pickle flavored potato chips, hoping maybe they’d have the same effect on sore muscles as an actual pickle. They did not, but the salt was still soothing and the chocolate milk got me through the 90 minute drive home through the mountains. Exhausted, sore and completely beat we all returned home, with no doubt in our minds we would soon be returning to beat ourselves up again, just to see some old buildings. A great place to explore, with or without any of the history it is amazing to see the remnants of hidden civilization hidden so deep in the woods.