Shuckstack Fire Tower Hike – Great Smoky Mountains

fontana damTO THE TRAILHEAD:  From the Fontana area, go over Fontana Dam.  The trailhead for the Appalachian Trail will be on your right .5 past the dam.

THE HIKE:   The view from Shuckstack tower is one of the very best views in the entire national park.  It is also one of the toughest day hikes in the park.  This hike is a 6.9 mile RT, strenuous hike.  Before you even start your hike, you are given a great treat. Fontana dam is huge and is an engineering marvel done by the TVA decades ago. It is the tallest dam in the east at over 400 feet, and you get to walk right across it. Fontana Lake is a prime resort area with all kinds of water sports, swimming, and much more. The views here are outstanding despite the lower elevation. And if you look up from the dam, you can make out your destination in the distance…the Shuckstack Fire Tower. The trailhead is a half-mile from the dam on your right hand side. Before you tackle the trail, be sure to check out the hiker shelter right by the water. It is known as the Fontana Hilton by the hikers. It is one of the nicer shelters on the entire trail, but it’s real magic is being right next to running water, bathrooms, and showers. Perhaps the best part is the ability to order food from this location. If you have seen other AT shelters along the Smokies, the others don’t even come close.

Once you get on the trail, you will follow the 2.6 white blazes of the Appalachian Trail all the way to the top.  The trail is tough, and there is no easing into this one. It starts with a hefty climb and pretty much stays that way. There are spots that level out and ease the hiking, but you are climbing over 2000 feet, so you know it is going to be tough. Luckily, you can focus on the hike and your footing most of the way.  Trail intersections aren’t around to get you off track and you have the white blazes to guide your path all the way up. You will know you are about 2.5 miles up when the trail suddenly gets easier. Enjoy it for a brief time, because in a few tenths of a mile you will get to the hardest part yet to reach the fire tower. You will come to a major trail intersection 3.3 miles in. At this point, you will take a right and leave the AT for a brief period, just a tenth of a mile, to reach your destination. One of the cool parts of this hike, is you can see your goal most of the way up. It seems so small and illusive at first. In fact, at times you might think the tower is mocking how far away you are, but when you have hiked the 3.4 miles to the top, it is worth it.

Before you even climb the tower, the views are terrific. In other places with fire towers, the views are okay or nonexistent from the bottom of the tower. Here, they are already fabulous. But let’s get to the tower. If you have hiked any of the other towers in the Smokies, the first thing you are likely to notice is that this one seems to have seen better days. The tower appears to be in disrepair. That’s not a comforting thought when you are that high in the sky. But I have been assured it is safe.  On a windy day, you can feel the tower shifting in the breeze. This is a little unnerving, but if you think about sky scrapers in the big cities, they do the same thing. At the top, the views are tremendous everywhere you look. You can see the trail you came up, Fontana Dam and Lake, and that’s just a start. The Nantahala Mountains and the ranges in the Smokies in Tennessee and North Carolina seem to go on forever; certainly as far as the eye can see. You can make out trails continuing north on the AT and roads cutting through the mountainside. It is really quite a view, and you will want to spend some time here so long as your fear of heights and moving platforms can take.
Once you have had enough, simply retrace your steps steeply down the mountain to arrive back at the trailhead at Fontana. Depending on the time of year you go, your chances of seeing a thru hiker are good. Northbound hikers usually reach this area between March-May and Southbounders usually get here in September-November.

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