TO THE TRAILHEAD: If you are completing the entire AT through the Smokies, begin at the southern point at Fontana Lake. Parking is abundant by the trailhead. You can also begin at the northern point and go south from Davenport Gap. Take care if you park your car at this location. Several vehicle break-ins have been reported here over the years.
THE HIKE: The AT runs 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mount Katadin, Maine. For our hike, we will focus on the 70 miles that runs through the Smoky Mountains. The hike begins at the southernmost point, Fontana Lake. This place is a huge recreation area with a store, visitors center, bathrooms and showers, boating, swimming, and much more. Much of it is closed during the winter, so check about facilities before you go. Fontana Dam, the highest dam in the east is here and is an impressive sight to see before you depart. This place also boasts one of the nicest hiker shelters along the entire 2100 mile AT, nicknamed the Fontana Hilton.
It will take most people between 7 and 10 days to complete the distance of the AT in the Smokies before you come out at Davenport Gap. However, you can take your own pace here because there are shelters spread out all along the route every 5-10 miles. In all, there are 12 shelters along this route. As with any shelter stay in the Smoky Mountains, you must make a reservation to stay in shelters or campsites, so do so as early as you know you are coming. You will not be able to tent here, but it would be a good idea to bring an emergency tent or shelter with you when you are covering these kinds of distances.
Most of the shelters now have a privy, so that should make life a little easier while on trail. Obviously you need to ensure that you pack enough food for your trip or plan to resupply in Gatlinburg when you reach Newfound Gap. Water is abundant at these elevations except in drought coniditons during summer. Be sure to bring something to filter your water as we discussed in an earlier episode.
One of the great things about this hike is the opportunity to see people and to get away from them. There will be times such as at Newfound Gap and Charlies Bunion that you are sure to see many people. Other times, such as the distance from Doe Knob to Mollies Ridge, you are likely to see no one unless thru hikers are passing by. Another great thing about this hike is what you can see along the way. Some of the best sights in the Smokies can be found here. Shuckstack looking down to Fontana lake, Rocky Top, Thunderhead, Silers Bald, Clingmans Dome, Charlies Bunion, Mount Guyot, and Mount Cammerer are all found here along with much more.
I’m not going to kid you, this is one tough hike and not for beginners. The climb from Fontana Lake up to Shuckstack alone is the toughest uphill in the park. You will climb often up and down many, many peaks along the way. Other times though, the ridgeline walking is pleasant. Regeardless, there are too many places to stop and enjoy the scenery than I could name here.
Its important to be overprepared for this hike if you go. Consider your condition and the weather. During winter, there can be more than two feet of snow covering most of the peaks at this altitude. That can hide the trail, disorient you, and chill you to the bone faster than you can say hypothermia. Thunderstorms happen here at any time. You may have to get yourself quickly below treeline and seeking shelter in lightning storms. Always wear layers when hiking, especially at these distances.
If you don’t want to do the whole thing, or you are not sure if your knees will hold up, the good news is that that there are many places to come down the mountain. There more than 20 places in any direction that you can come down to a road. You are never so far into the wilderness that you cannot easily call it quits. Or if you simply want to plan a shorter trip, that is easy as well. The last time out, I hiked from Fontana Lake to Newfound Gap and had a shuttle pick me up there. It was still a difficult hike, but much more manageable by cutting your mileage nearly in half.
The opportunity to meet thru hikers on this trail that are doing all 2100 miles happens frequently. They have great stories and advice about long distance hiking and are always happy to have a conversation about their efforts. This hike is not for a novice. You should have some overnight experience before you attempt this hike, but it is achievable by someone with some experience that is in decent shape. Though long, this may be the best hike in the national park. You can find more information about some of the individual highlights along this hike such as Clingmans Dome and Mount Cammerer throughout the website.