Shuckstack Fire Tower and Fontana Dam

The last weekend of October 2018, Jason and I made last minute reservations for a 4-day camping trip at Fontana Village and Resort to see the fall foliage in one of our favorite places, the majestic Smoky Mountains.  Fontana borders the southwestern edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP), and importantly, is 30 minutes from the nearest cell service or grocery store. A bit of trivia: Fontana Village Resort, established in the 1970s, traces its origins to the early 1940s.  The town of Fontana sprung up overnight to accommodate thousands of workers and their families who were hired to construct Fontana Dam as part of the war effort. However, just as quickly as it was built, the town was abandoned several years later as the families moved along to build more dams for the TVA.

The resort took advantage of the town structure, and created a beautiful haven, tucked away just south of the infamous winding highway nicknamed Dragon’s Tail. The campground area is
about a mile from the resort, in a peaceful, secluded bend of the river, just below the dam.

You can see our white camper in the far right

Camping snuggles
We checked in Thursday, and found the accommodations to be simple, but adequate. Fortunately, we booked one of two campsites that have a covered pavilion on a concrete pad, as it rained the entire time we were there! Our camper’s heater kept overloading the site’s power, so our space heater backup was a necessity.  The bath house is not heated, and has countless resident spiders, but there is plenty of steaming hot water. As we’re used to camping in the national park without showers or power, this was indeed a luxury! We had no issues whatsoever, but just don’t expect “resort” accommodations at the campground!

That said, campers enjoy all of the amenities of the resort, including nightly s’mores around one of the many beautiful fire pits, disc golf, mini golf, or pools, all free to guests of the resort (or campground!) There is also a general store and a restaurant. The lodge itself has cell service boosters, so if you MUST get a call or text out, with a little patience, you can without running into town.
I was ecstatic when an employee at the general store gave me a map of the 20+ miles of trails that wind through Fontana Village itself! Jason was just as excited to fish for small mouth bass in the river and lake. After he bought a fishing permit at the resort’s marina, our first adventure was exploring the Squatter, Elmer Hollow, and Whiting trails which are accessible from the lodge parking lot. Unfortunately, we found these trails to be extremely overgrown with prickly brush and many fallen trees blocking the trail. We scrambled over and under, and made it with only a few bumps and scrapes, but I certainly wouldn’t consider these trails “runnable.”

That evening Jason cooked up an amazing “brinner” (breakfast for dinner) on our camp stove, and started a nice fire. Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down to eat, it started to rain heavily, so no campfires were to be enjoyed on this trip!
NOT a bike chain! These control the dam

We woke Friday morning to rain, so we decided to splurge and head to the lodge for a reasonably priced breakfast. This gave us an opportunity to check the weather forecast and plan our hikes accordingly. We decided to go ahead and visit the dam museum while it was raining, and save our outdoor adventures for when the weather cleared Saturday. That afternoon Jason fished from the small dock along the river near our campsite. He found that the steep and rocky banks of the river and lake were nearly impossible to access. Next time he will definitely bring the kayak, and put in at one of the boat ramps at the marina or adjoining the campground.

While he fished, I relaxed in my hammock I hung underneath our pavilion. Camping life is good! That evening, we ventured out to the village to play a fun round of mini golf in the rain, and were disappointed when s’mores were understandably canceled due to the weather. We headed back to the camper early to plan for Saturday, which was to be a big hiking day. 

Can't forget the bear bell!
The Shuckstack firetower hike as been on my to-do list for a couple of years now.  Jason and I are never ones to shy away from an adventure, and possibly prone to overestimating our abilities. Case in point: our last debacle hiking down from Mt. LaConte on an abandoned llama trail in the middle of the night OR the fact that we chose to get married at the finish line of our first ever Ironman. Hey, it’s worked out okay so far! After looking at the trail map, we decided not to simply hike out and back to Shuckstack via the Appalachian Trail from Fontana Dam. Instead, we decided on a 14ish mile loop out to Shuckstack, then Lost Cove Trail and finally Lakeshore Trail which would circle back to Fontana Dam.  With a plan in place, we filled our day packs with food, water, rain gear, and headlamps (we learned something from Mt. LaConte!).  

Come Saturday, the weather had not in fact cleared.  (Welcome to weather forecasting in the mountains.) Determined that the rain would not hamper our plans, we parked at the dam and hiked along the paved road until we came to the fork in the road where Lakeshore Trail branches off from the AT. Already a mile into the hike, we took the left into the woods. We soon found ourselves in an unrelenting climb up the mountain. The shuckstack hike is extremely demanding, and uses numerous switchbacks to ensure that you won’t find yourself on a downhill grade until a couple miles into your trip.  Honestly, the rain made the demanding hike less than fun for me. Jason was happy to continue, but I knew that once we completed the hike, the clouds would obscure any views of the mountains.

After .25 mile, I talked Jason into turning around.  Back at the trail fork, we went left onto Lakeshore Trail. A volunteer at the dam museum recommended this trail, which originally followed a road that wound around Fontana Lake. At one point, the road was flooded, and the lake claimed several abandoned vehicles. Much later, these vehicles were winched from the lake, and left along the trail. I have no idea if there is any truth to this, but it was an interesting story, and made for a truly unique hike.  

Once we returned from the 7 mile Lakeshore hike, the rain was still a steady drizzle, and Jason and I decided to explore the remaining trails around Fontana Village.  Unlike the other trails at the village, Llewllyn Cove was clear and well traveled. We followed this trail to Gold Branch, which lead us to a 70 foot long bridge across a rock outcropping with a stream underneath. It was a peaceful little spot for a break. We circled back along Old Fontana Road and lower Llellyn Cove for a total of 5.5 miles. These trails were much more runnable than the ones closest to the lodge.
Initially, we intended to return home early Sunday, but with the sun FINALLY peeking out after three days, we decided we couldn’t leave without giving Shuckstack one more shot. We woke early, packed up the camper, and returned to Fontana Dam. As we climbed the unrelenting switchbacks, we realized that the 13 miles from the day before had affected us more than we thought! It was slow going, but the forest was beautiful.
It took us just over two hours to complete the hike to the tower, and it was absolutely freezing on top of the mountain. The wind was blowing a steady 20 mph, and gusting 40 mph. I’m morbidly afraid of heights, and suffer panic attacks, but after that attempting that grueling hike TWICE, I knew I had to at least try to climb the tower. Fortunately, the steps were replaced 2-3 years ago, so the base of the tower seemed quite steady. It was still unnerving when the huge wind gusts caused the tower lurch, slowly vibrate, and creak.

I made it to the second landing before I just started to shake uncontrollably and cry. Jason was wonderful, and patiently waited on each landing with me as I collected myself, even offering to give up the climb. When we finally reached the tower, I was devastated to find that the floor was thin, rotted, soaking wet plywood. I couldn’t force myself to leave the top step to stand up and enjoy the view we had so hard for. The wind slammed the thin, rusted siding against the frame, and rattled the few window panes that were left. I am not exaggerating when I say it was a flimsy, dilapidated death trap!
I’m still disappointed that I couldn’t get the photos I had dreamed of for over a year, but it was a victory in that I pressed on when my brain screamed at me to quit.  I conquered Shuckstack! To my knowledge, it’s still standing after those crazy conditions that weekend ;)
Taking photos from one of the lower landings
I’m not sure what our future will be with regard to exploring the remaining fire towers of the GSMNP, but I DO know that this will most likely not be my last hike to Shuckstack.  Jason and I were certainly tested this weekend, but we realized that we can make the most of less than ideal weather. Every trip is certainly an adventure together, and there’s nothing better than being together, meeting new people, and exploring God’s creation.
Views from Shuckstack fire tower


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