I left my home in Charlotte at 6:00 a.m. for a long drive to Fontana Dam, NC. Near Sylva, NC I met up with Judy and we drove both cars on toward the dam, where today’s hike would end. But first, the backstory on why we were roaming around this far end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Now that I have completed the crucial trails that originate on roads that are closed for the winter months, my next area of concentration is hikes with big creek crossings, and Eagle Creek is lurking ominously. A couple of recent hiking reports tell me that there is no way to avoid wading on Eagle Creek and the water is only going to get higher and colder from this point on.
SO…I proposed a plan to Judy that included a ridiculous shuttle for attacking Eagle Creek and, well, here we were. We needed to leave a car at the Fontana Marina because I had arranged a boat ride from the end of Eagle Creek on Thursday afternoon (too far to walk out with the short daylight). And since we were leaving a car, Judy suggested a shorter hike in the area. Well, I guess 14 miles is short compared to what we’ve been doing lately…and did I mention that Lost Cove Trail (part of today’s hike) has a few creek crossings too? This was our chance to see if we could stand getting wet and cold before we tried out Eagle Creek deep inside the Park.
So that is how we came to be driving our cars over Fontana Dam on this cold but incredibly clear Wednesday morning. We left my car and headed for the Twentymile Ranger Station. This is a new area of the Park for me in my hiking project, hard to get to and full of stories. Believe it or not, at the trailhead were a father and son getting ready to backpack in for a couple of days. The young teenage son was wearing jeans, which we could not help commenting on. Hope they did okay! And they were the only hikers we met all day…or the next day…
Twentymile Trail begins, like so many Smokies trails, as an old logging railroad grade. It felt great to be back out in the woods after nearly two weeks and the walking went quickly. As usual, we started off dressed warmly and removed layers as we climbed. Here's a photo of an ice branch suspended over the creek, a clue to the chilly temps today. On this trip I believe I finally learned how to dress for mid-20s to mid-30s temperatures.
The last part of Twentymile is a steep climb up to meet the Appalachian Trail and the Shuckstack fire tower was teasingly visible as we seemed to walk parallel to it. Our hike plan was to cross the AT, but if the weather is fair you should always take the detour to Shuckstack, and so we did. Judy is a very strong hiker who has hiked about two-thirds of the AT in two sections (she is planning to begin again and thru-hike the whole thing in a couple of years.) Her trail name is Heartfire and you can read her journals for the section hikes here. As we walked up the trail to Shuckstack she told me how thru-hikers will stop here because they can get cell phone reception and call home. She obviously enjoyed being at Shuckstack again. The tower is in disrepair and not currently maintained, with missing railings and sketchy-looking stairs, We climbed halfway up (it’s tall and I’m a chicken, okay?) and then back down and paused for a little snack at the tower's base.
It was too cold to sit still for very long and we soon resumed our hike on the Lost Cove Trail. By now we were noticing snow on the ground and speculating on whether we would see snow tomorrow on our Eagle Creek expedition. Lost Cove Trail appears to be seldom used and between the snowy spots and the deep leaves we lost the trail a couple of times. This trail goes down very steeply, losing all the altitude we gained coming up Twentymile Trail, and it was a lovely walk once we got the hang of it. Turns out the creek crossings were all rock hops, so we foolishly hoped that Eagle Creek would be the same.
Uh, it wasn’t.
But first let’s finish today’s hike. Lost Cove Trail ends at the Lakeshore Trail and here we took a detour to the left and followed Lakeshore back to Campsite 90. This was a little .4-mile spur that I needed to cover, and we wanted to get an idea of where we would meet our boat shuttle the following day. We got that all scoped out and then walked back to where Lakeshore turns toward Fontana Dam. By now the hour was getting a little late (after all, we didn’t begin our hike until about 10:20 a.m.) and we needed to hustle. So the last 5.2 miles was a fast walk that I will do again someday when I have more time, because this part of Lakeshore trail (all of it, really) is a fascinating walk back through time when there was no Fontana Lake and there were thriving commu- nities here. We did take the time to explore some of the old cars that were abandoned when this was a road. Although some of these cars were probably in good working order, their tires were not. Because of tire rationing during WW II, their owners had to leave them where the rubber wore out.
(Another hiking scenario that includes Shuckstack and Lakeshore Trail can be found in Danny Bernstein's book, "Hiking The Carolina Mountains" or on the hikes page of her website.)
We arrived at my car at Fontana Dam as the sun was setting and then we began Phase 1 of our ridiculous shuttle. We retrieved Judy’s car from Twentymile, placed it at the Fontana Marina, and then drove all around the western end of the Park to Townsend, TN, where we were spending the night in a hotel (temps in the 20’s, you better believe I’m sleeping in a hotel room!) The driving took nearly two hours. We had a nice meal in the only restaurant open in Townsend, checked into the hotel and prepared as best we could for our Eagle Creek adventure. Judy set the alarm on her phone and we crashed.