I love a good hike. I love the peacefulness it brings. The camaraderie it provides when traveling with friends. And, I enjoy a good challenge. This past weekend I got my wish.
Three buddies and I hiked the Great Smoky Mountains via Fontana Dam. As an added bonus the lot of us hit up Tsali Campground for a couple nights where we swam a bit, fished, got poured on, and hit up the Nantahala River for a ride.
We arrived at Fontana Dam on Saturday around noon, grabbed a permit from the dam welcome center, and began unloading our packs from the car. Within minutes it was evident that the 100° F (37.7° C) temperatures were going to be a factor in our planned 12-mile hike. Every one of us were sweating buckets. Thank God for water bladders and bottles.
After leaving our cars at the dam parking lot we headed across the dam road and up to the trailhead around 12:45PM. Our first leg was a 2,120′, 3.5 mile climb to the Shuckstack Fire Tower; an 80-foot fire tower built like 1,000 years ago <– “fact”.
A traditional swig of rum and we set off up the trail. Before long we came up on a deer crossing the path, beetles devouring an animal carcass, and lots and lots of black bear poop. Lots. Not kidding. Loads of berry-filled poop littered the trail.
Hiking up the mountain I couldn’t have been happier for A) hiking in the shade, and B) getting my pack weight down to 26 lbs (from 35 lbs the previous trip). Still, neither could prevent my body from leaking sweat at a ridiculous rate. By the time we hit the intersection of the AT Trail and Shuckstack Tower my 50 oz bladder was dry. The nearest water source was 2 miles down the AT trail and I was a wee concerned I would be in trouble having only 20 oz of H2O left.
The last .1 mile up to Shuckstack Tower was a doosy, but we were ecstatic to reach the top. The views from atop the tower were spectacular, the flies were aplenty, and the ticks were annoying.
After taking a few moments to snap pictures, climb the tower, and utilize my tick key, we began the descent to the AT intersection where we hung a right, and eventually another right at the AT/Lost Cove Trail intersection. Next stop, Campsite 86.
Finally some downhills. For all the climbing we just did, our knees were now feeling the brunt of the descent. While difficult, it was a huge break; especially with the promise of cold water up ahead. Two miles down the trail we passed campground 91. Our spirits began lifting. We were hiking now, instead of climbing straight up or straight down.
A half mile later we came across a Timber Rattlesnake. Watch the video and try picking it out. Yeah, it was just as hard in person.
Fueled by adrenaline and an increasing thirst for water we hiked another quarter mile until we hit a creek. Refills all around! We rested again, drank, and hit the trail. Another half mile or so after our water break we came upon campground 90. I looked at Coop and just sighed. My feet were soaked with sweat. I could feel ’em squishing around in my boots. The group agreed to check out the campground, and I made a B-line for the cove.
When I took off my shoes and socks there was no question in my mind, I was not going any further. My feet looked like prunes. My heels and pinky toes were blistered, and two of my toe nails were ready to pop off. Our 12-mile hike just got 4-miles shorter.
The campsite was an interesting one. We ran into an old dude who volunteered at the park and had been hiking the Great Smokies for 76 years. We met the Addams Family; a mom, dad, 2 son scenario. They were totally creepy ::snap:: ::snap:: And, we camped across from four dudes who backpacked in with two gigantic coolers, a bango, four tents, 2 hammocks, and a poopload of other gear <– not a hyperbole. These guys hit the liquor hard and rocked cover songs ’til 2:30AM.
As for us, we set up our tents, chopped wood, started a fire, and enjoyed s’mores…yes, s’mores. Thanks to the miracle of dry ice our chocolate bars and marshmallows survived the 6 hour 100° F (37.7° C) hike. We had dinner, smoked stogies, partook in beverages of the adult variety, then hit the hay.
We broke camp at 7AM and were back on the trail by 8AM. A mere .4 mile later we hit the 5.2 mi Lakeshore Trail where we remained until the trailhead. The hike on the Lakeshore trail wasn’t too bad. Apart from my feet (which were now moleskinned and duct taped) I didn’t have any issues. As for wildlife, we saw a chipmunk and a turtle, and thankfully no bears.
If you ever get the chance to hike the trails at Fontana Lake I recommend you do it. Sure it’s challenging, but there is so much to look at, and so much to take in, it is absolutely worth the pain.