I have hiked the Great Smoky Mountains for several decades. My first trip was in 1981 at the age of ten when my family hiked up to the Appalachian Trail from the Elkmont Campground. Since then I have hiked many times around Cades Cove, Cosby, and Cattalahochee, but never the Fontana Dam Area. I finally decided to give this area a whirl.
First time hiking the Fontana Dam area
One reason I have never hiked this area, is it is a little difficult to get to. When I come to the Great Smoky Mountains, I drive nine hours from Chicago to Knoxville. Then it is another hour to Gatlinburg. To get to Fontana Dam, it is another hour on top of that. I drove through Marysville and through the Dragon’s Tail to finally get to the trailhead at Fontana Dam.
The Fontana Dam is the entry point of the Appalachian Trail into the Smokies on the southern border. The trail actually goes over the dam. Then it follows a road up the ridge until diverging off to the left. I followed along the road, but instead of going left, I turned right on to the Lakeshore Trail. The Lakeshore Trail is also called the Benton Mackaye Trail. Benton Mackaye was the founder of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Fontana Dam Visitors Center and parking lot
There is a huge parking lot and a Visitors Center for the Dam. At the center there are bathrooms and a shower, so bring a towel if you plan to hike. The parking is plentiful and free for bother dam visitors and hikers. There are blockades over the dam, but this is to prevent cars from going over. You can just duck under the blockades and walk across the dam. On the other side is a paved road. Continue a half mile up the road. The AT goes left and soon after the Lakeshore Trail goes right.
The Lakeshore Trail runs 30 miles along Fontana Lake. The name is kind of a misnomer however. There are few times when the trail actually follows the lake or even offers overlooks. For the most part, it is your normal Great Smoky Mountain Trail through the backcountry. The first stretch is an approximately five mile hike to Campground 90. Campground 90 is a gorgeous campsite at the junction of the lake and Eagle Creek. You can take Eagle Creek up to Spence Field on the AT or continue on the Lakeshore Trail.
Lakeshore Trail to Campground 86
The next stretch of the Lakeshore Trail is an approximately 4.4 mile stretch to Campground 86. I wanted to go farther than 86, but I got a late start, so I settled down at Campsite 86 after an 11 mile hike. The terrain after Campsite 90 was pretty tough. There were two ridges to climb over. It was not as tough as a hike up to the AT, but still pretty strenuous. I ran into a group of day hikers just after Campsite 90. There were about 15 of them spread out, and I talked to a few of them as they passed.
Campsite 86 along Hazel Creek
Campsite 86 was just as nice as 90 and probably even bigger. There were several fire rings on both sides of the trail. There was probably room for 20-40 people to camp here. There was just one other camper in the area. He came by my camp and said hello while he was searching for firewood. He said he was on the other side of the trail. The campsite was so big, I did not even see his site.
I put up my tent along Hazel Creek. On the other side of the creek were trees of red and orange. It was a beautiful spot. I actually reserved a campsite for farther down. At first, I was worried that other hikers would come, and I was taking their spot until I walked around and realized how big the campsite was. No one else came.
There used to be a thriving village supported by a sawmill many years ago. There are traces of civilization everywhere including an old house along the Lakeshore Trail. It was actually kind of spooky. A couple of times around the campfire, I felt like I heard voices coming from where the house was, but I am sure it was just the wind and the sound of the river. A wild turkey called the field in front of the abandoned house home. The turkey in the foreground of the colorful trees was an ideal autumnal scene.
Early morning rain
An early morning downpour led to another late departure. The week I hiked this stretch was just after the time change, so light was limited. Once again I fell far short of my hiking goal and only completed about ten miles. My initial goal was to hike up to Siler’s Bald on the AT after 35 miles on the Lakeshore. Since I only completed 20 miles on the Lakeshore in two days, I decided to just do an out and back since I really did not have enough time for a loop.
I hiked through the Smoky Mountain backcountry to Campsite 77. I did not see a single other hiker on this day. The terrain was more of the same. There were no extreme climbs, but a couple of ridges that got the blood pumping. On one of the ridges, my phone chirped, and I was in cell range. A weak signal showed that the Democrats had won the House back.
The Smoky Mountain backcountry campsites are absolutely beautiful. I enjoy the shelters on the AT too, but they are crowded and not as scenic. It is fun to meet and talk to other hikers in the shelters, but I recommend doing some hiking off the AT next time you are in the Smokies. Campsite 77 was no exception. It was much smaller than 86 and 90, but perfect for a small group. Again, I was a little fearful someone might show up because I had a reservation for another campsite; however, I ended up not seeing anyone for two days.
I turned around the next day and hiked out the same way I came. Even though I hiked over ground already covered, it seemed like a new trail from this opposite perspective. The leaves were just about perfect although not as colorful as they usually are this time of the year. The color seemed a little burnt. I think this was due to a warm fall.
I ended up back at Campsite 86 the next night. This time I had the whole huge site to myself. The next day I hiked out. I ran into a couple hiking up to Spence Field via Eagle Creek. They were the only people I saw in my last three days of hiking. Soon enough I was back on the pavement of Fontana Dam and hiking back to the parking lot. I took a quick shower and jumped back into the car. This hike turned into another successful Smoky Mountain backpacking adventure. I enjoyed the Fontana Dam section just as much as any other part of the Smokies. You cannot go wrong in the Smoky Mountain backcountry.
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