The Smokies

Why do people honk in tunnels: The answer might surprise you

It’s the age old question: Why do people honk when driving through tunnels? In East Tennessee, we learn to honk in tunnels just as we learn how to walk with two feet.

We learn it at a young age, and we don’t question it too much. It’s just what we do.

It’s so Pavlovian to some of us that we don’t even realize we’re doing it anymore.

One time I was riding through a tunnel in the backseat of a car with my family. My brother-in-law, the last person on the planet to ever be superstitious, started honking on his way through.

“Why did you honk?” my sister (his wife) asked after we passed.

“You told me to!” he responded.

“No I didn’t!” she said.

“… I’m not sure why I do it.”

It’s because he’s from Tennessee, that’s why.

Why do people honk in tunnels?

I’ve had a few out-of-town friends ask me why people are honking in the tunnel along the Spur.

I’ve even seen a few posts from folks online thinking that they had a flat tire – or a missing headlight – because everyone was “honking at them.”

If you stumbled upon this article because you’re also scratching your head about what could be wrong with your car, don’t call the mechanic just yet. The honking is a friendly tradition.

If you ask a local why they honk in a tunnel, you’ll get a variety of answers:

It’s fun.

It’s lucky.

It’s friendly.

It’s superstition.

I like the way it sounds.

It scares away the bats.

My parents always did it.

Do you want to risk tunnel trolls getting you? They HATE loud sounds.

Okay, here’s the real reason we honk in tunnels

I turned to my friend google, and it turns out that this whole ordeal may not be very specific to us Tennesseans.

An article in The Guardian reported that in Wellington, New Zealand, officials have attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban honking in the Mount Victoria Tunnel.

They suspect the reason most people honk in this tunnel is superstition. Alternatively, some sources say that people honk in tunnels because it has more to do with safety precautions.

In the case of the New Zealand tunnel, some believe the honking has to do with the body of a teenage girl who was buried at the site of the tunnel a year before it opened in the 1930s. But, most historians say there is no proof of that theory.

An article in the Citizen Times states that tunnel honking began as a safety precaution. This article specifically talks about Beaucatcher Tunnel in Asheville, N.C., which clearly is a little closer to home.

According to an official with the Traffic Training Center, most tunnels, bridges and mountain cuts back in the day were only a single lane wide.

So during those times, honking your horn was encouraged by law to avoid the occurrence of two vehicles suddenly facing off inside a dark tunnel around a mountain curve.

Today, it is, shall we say, less encouraged by law.

The Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, North Carolina
The tunnel on the Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, N.C. (photo by Kim McGrew/Shutterstock)

Is honking your horn in a tunnel against the law?

Technically – please put your pitch forks down – Tennessee Code 55-9-201 does state that it is “unlawful … for any person at any time to use a horn otherwise than as a reasonable warning or to make any unnecessary or unreasonably loud or harsh sound by means of a horn or other warning device.”

To spare you the legal jargon, North Carolina more or less has the same law.

But, just as the case in New Zealand, attempts to put an end to tunnel honking would likely be futile.

This is moonshine country, after all.

Read Also: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not 

Where to find tunnels around the Smoky Mountains

The main tunnel around the Smokies is the one you’ll find along the Spur, just north of Gatlinburg, Tenn., along the Parkway (US 441). More tunnels can be found around the “other side” of the Smokies in North Carolina:

  • Rattlesnake Mountain Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.)
  • Sherrill Cove Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.)
  • Big Witch Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.)
  • Lickstone Ridge Tunnel (Maggie Valley, N.C.)
  • Bunches Bald Tunnel (Maggie Valley, N.C.)
  • Road to Nowhere Tunnel (Bryson City, N.C.)

Editor’s Note: Not all of these tunnels are located on drivable roads

Read Also: Road to Nowhere: The dam road that was never completed in Bryson City

Above all else, remember to drive safely, y’all. Beep beep!

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Is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad worth it?  

There’s so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains. But if you go just a little further past the state line of Tennessee, you’ll find that the neighboring state also has a lot to offer – especially for train enthusiasts.

Simply take Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and go just a bit further.

The tiny North Carolina town of Bryson City sits just beyond Cherokee on Highway 19  in the beautiful western North Carolina mountains, and it offers a getaway within your getaway.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train
A look inside the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train (photo by Ritu Jethani/stock.adobe.com)

Is there a train that runs through the Smoky Mountains?

Yes, you can take a scenic tour of the Smoky Mountains by train.

Bryson City, NC – besides being the hometown of former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler – is most famous for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The railroad offers scenic rail excursions through the fairly remote corner of Western North Carolina. Passengers wind through tunnels, across the historic Fontana Lake Trestle over Fontana lake, through fertile valleys and into a deep river gorge. 

There are seasonal rides, diesel rides, steam rides and even train rides for adults, which feature First Class coaches with wine and moonshine dining experiences, a private attendant, and souvenirs.

Special events throughout the year include Easter Beagle Express, Lone Ranger, Day Out With Thomas, Railfest, Pumpkin Patch Express and the Polar Express.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train winds through tunnels, across rivers and lakes and through mountain valleys (photo by Ritu Jethani/stock.adobe.com)

The Polar Express Christmas special event during November and December – based on the classic children’s book about a magical train ride to the North Pole – is one of the most popular rides that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers.

It’s highly recommended that you book early if you wish to ride the Polar Express as it is one of the most popular events in the smokies.

The holiday themed rides are shorter – and less scenic. But they offer the perfect opportunity for train-obsessed little ones to get into the spirit of the season and get to ride a real train.

Read Also: There’s a real-life Polar Express train ride in Bryson City

How much does it cost to ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad?

Prices vary by ticket, age and train experience.

At the time of this writing, the Polar Express during the off-peak season costs $67 for adults and $47 for children. Ticket pricing increases as you get closer to the peak season.

The Nantahala River excursions and Tuckasegee River excursions range from $56-126. Moonshine experiences range from $109-126, and the wine experience starts at $139.

Note that these prices may vary by selection and are subject to change. To learn more, visit their website. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad parking is located at 45 Mitchell Street Bryson City, NC.

Bryson City
The Polar Express Christmas excursion is a very popular ride, so be sure to book in advance (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Is the Smoky Mountain Railroad worth it?

Worth is always in the eye of the beholder. Still, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers a unique experience that you will likely remember for years to come.

I like to think of attraction tickets in terms of dollars per entertainment hour.

The regular Tuckasegee excursion to Dillsboro NC and the Nantahala Gorge are 4-4.5 hours. For a half day’s worth of entertainment, the prices are pretty reasonable.

The Nantahala Gorge Excursion includes an one-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) where guests can shop and dine at the center’s riverfront restaurants both with a fine selection of beer, wine, and cocktails and enjoy spectacular views of the Nantahala River.

All excursions are round-trip and return to the Bryson City depot.

Inside the Bryson City Trains Museum (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)
Inside the Bryson City Trains Museum (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

The Smoky Mountain Trains Museum

If you go to Bryson City, make sure to allow some extra time for the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum.

It’s a magnificent model train museum featuring a collection of 7,000 classic Lionel cars and two massive rooms with intricate model railroad villages. 

When I was a kid, I’d go to visit my grandparents in Northeast Ohio, and my grandfather would take me to a train museum that featured a large, intricate model train set.

I was never into trains. I never even heard of Thomas until I was grown, but there was something about following the trains along the tiny tracks, the small vignettes they passed, the switch tracks, the lights … everything. I found it incredibly diverting, relaxing and fascinating.

That feeling returned watching the museum’s trains wind their way through the tiny tunnels. The closest way I can describe it is a little bit like the feeling you get watching fish swim in a large aquarium. There’s just something soothing about it.

My son – who was really, really into trains for reasons I don’t understand – and I could have stayed in there for hours without ever setting foot on the bigger trains located just outside.

Visit the website here to learn more.

Read Also: Road to Nowhere, the dam road that was never completed in Bryson City 

Bryson City
All excursions are roundtrip and return to the depot in Bryson City (photo by elvisvaughn/shutterstock.com)

Outdoor recreation in Bryson City

One of the major attractions in Bryson City is, of course, the trains, but there are other things to do as well.

Like most small mountain communities trying to draw tourists, there’s plenty of outdoor recreation. Bryson City has fantastic hiking – it’s on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s also zip lining as well as tubing, white-water rafting and fly fishing in the Tuckasegee River and Nantahala River.

Bryson City also offers the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians, which, I suppose if you’re really, really into fly fishing, is a place you can go.

The website promises rods from as far back as the 1800s and in-depth explorations of the history of the sport. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers packages if you are interested in additional excursions.

Have you been to Bryson City? Have you taken an excursion on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad? Let us know in the comments!

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