GSMNP, Twentymile to AT to Fontana Dam – April 2021

Photo Album for this hike.

After a night’s stay in Bryson City, we moved down to Fontana Dam. A shuttle from Bryson City Outfitters dropped us off at Twentymile Ranger Station around 1 PM and after a few pics, we set off. We were only going so far as campsite 93, a mere 1.8 miles ahead, so there would be plenty of time to fart around and enjoy the scenery. Some rain was predicted for later in the day but for now the skies were holding back. Twentymile is one of the least visited areas of the park. It’s pretty remote in comparison to other access points. That was just fine with us though. The fewer the people, the better. It wouldn’t be until we moved up to the AT the next day before we would run into more than a handful on the trail. Up to 93, the grade is about as gentle as it gets. This was an old rail bed for logging operations nearly a century ago. Later, the CCC would use it to access Shuckstack fire tower high above. While the grade increases after 93 on your way to the AT and Shuckstack, its a far easier walk than coming up to the tower on the AT from the dam. At least I thought so.

Wildflowers were abundant through this section. Large patches of Crested Dwaf Iris, Catesby’s Trillium and Foamflower. Even some maroon colored Trillium.

Catesby’s Trillium
Foamflower
Toadshade Trillium

Half a mile into the walk, we come to the first bridge over Twentymile Creek and notice three young guys heading the other way, back towards the trailhead. Two of them are carrying much of their gear in their arms while the other is pulling a small roller suitcase with the remainder of his gear strapped on top. They certainly didn’t have the “appropriate” gear but said they had a great time. Just so long as they stay safe, more power to ’em.

Just beyond the bridge is a short side trail to Twentymile Cascades. Much of the view is obscured but it was nice all the same. There are many small cascades along the walk up to 93 to enjoy as well. A few pics and we move on. The gentle grade continues. Along the way we see flowering Dogwood, Squawroot and Rue-Anemone.

Twentymile Cascades
Flowering Dogwood
Squawroot
Rue Anemone

Over another bridge and we reach our destination soon after. We have the site to ourselves! Excellent! We pitch the tent and a new 10′ x 10′ tarp I had purchased from Oware before the trip. We even got a small fire going just before the drops begin to fall. It was never more than a drizzle but stayed with us through much of that night. The tarp came in very handy.

Backcountry Campsite 93

After a cold night (down into the 30’s), we set off to finish the Twentymile Trail which terminates at the junction with the AT. From there, we would turn left on the AT and head for campsite 113 for the night. Just over a mile on we reach the junction with the Long Hungry Ridge Trail at Proctor Field Gap. From this point the grade gets stiffer and it took some time to get our sorry, out of shape butts two miles up to the AT. On the way, we caught our first glimpse of the tower.

First view of Shuckstack Fire Tower

Once at the junction with the AT, we met thru hiker “Soldier Boy”. He was wearing what he said was his grandfather’s WWII uniform, complete with hat and pack. The boots were ditched early on due to blisters, traded in favor of more functional footwear. We took a long break here and watched the steady stream of thru and section hikers move by.

“Soldier Boy”

Once back on our feet, we headed Northbound on the AT towards 113. Deep Woods and I had a permit to stay at this site when we passed through on our section hike back in 2015 but it got closed due to a bear encounter. That seems to happen each year at this site but we were fortunate now that it remained open. We arrived to find several folks already there. And it wasn’t that appealing of a site. Small, flat spots had been carved into the hillsides that straddled a small stream and the spring feeding it. The sites positioned lower on each side had been taken, leaving us to pitch higher up towards the ridge crest. The wind was picking up and would howl throughout the night. We were satisfied with collecting water, knocking off dinner and retreating to the tent early. Loonie said the tent flapped like crazy all night long. I don’t think I heard much of anything. Few pics taken this day.

By the next morning, the wind had calmed down substantially. The skies were overcast and would remain so until the afternoon. Breakfast out of the way and bags packed, we headed back down the AT towards Shuckstack. I had been looking forward to returning here and wasn’t going to let the cloudy skies spoil the moment. We arrived at the side trail to the tower to find numerous packs left on the ground. Those who had reached this point before us had opted to drop their packs here rather than lug them up to the tower. When Deeps and I were here, I refused to do this, choosing to carry my stuff all the way to the top and he did as well. I didn’t want to risk having my precious gear snagged by a hungry bear. On the other hand, I think I was carrying less than 20 lbs at that point of the hike. Not so now. More like double that. Deep Woods and I would later be told by a ridge runner that two guys had their packs raided by a bear at the base of the tower shortly before we had been there. Loonie and I chose to take our chances this time. There were a lot of packs for a bear to chose from. Hopefully it wouldn’t be one of ours!

Shuckstack Fire Tower
Shuckstack Fire Tower

We reached the base of the tower to find a crowd there, all debating whether or not to risk their lives by climbing to the top. A couple of them made it but were glad they were now safely back down with the others. Some would make it a flight or two up before retreating back down. Others were content to take in the limited view from the base. The tower was pretty rickety when I was here in 2015 and it didn’t appear to be any better now but nothing was going to stop me from getting to the top. Then or now. It was just a question of whether or not Loonie would join me. She absolutely hates heights and freaked out climbing a tower when we were younger. I finally convinced her that she would do just fine and she did. We made it to the top and despite the rotten floor and the cloudy skies, it was spectacular. If only she could have had the same view Deeps Woods and I had. The skies were clear and blue by the time Loonie and I made it to the dam later in the day. Go figure. You take what you can get and we were thrilled with what we got. She was even more thrilled once we reached solid ground again.

Beautiful Martin Guitar

Back on the AT, we begin the long descent to Fontana Dam. More hikers pass by, many on their long journey North. On the way down, the rocky hillside has been carved away for a short stretch to make way for the trail. Lots of interesting Lichens and such grow atop the rock here, fed by seeps. This is also a great vantage point to catch a view of the mountains you were just looking down upon from Shuckstack.

We move on, thankful we’re heading down rather than up. Descents are often worse than the alternative but the switchbacks and relatively smooth trail work in your favor here. Northbound hikers often resupply at Fontana before making the long climb up into the park. And most are headed to at least Mollies Ridge Shelter, more than ten miles from the dam. Not that all of that is uphill, but just getting up to Shuckstack with a heavy pack is a chore.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time we near the bottom of our descent and we decide to sit a spell. An elderly couple approach, both carrying very heavy packs and heading up. Both are clearly very tired already. They never mention how far they’re going but 113 is almost five miles away and nearly all of that is up. Loonie and I are each thinking to ourselves that there isn’t any way possible the two of them will reach that point until well after dark. Judging by how it appeared they were doing at that moment, I couldn’t imagine them making it anymore than halfway up. Other than saying that it was quite a climb to the top, we made no suggestion as to turning back. We probably should have but instead let them trudge on. I feel bad about that now.

Moving on, we hit the road leading out of the park and across the dam.

Fontana Dam

Despite the showers and good food that were waiting for us at the lodge, we stopped to get pics at the park sign and of the lake and dam.

Fontana Dam
Fontana Dam

We do eventually make it across and thankfully find the van in one piece. From there, we move on to the lodge, check in, take those much needed showers and then stuff ourselves at the restaurant. Some sort of VW convention was underway in the village and cars are speeding by all over the place, WAY beyond the speed limit and riding peoples’ bumpers. It was absolutely insane. I looked forward to leaving it all behind and starting the next hike. That wouldn’t happen until the day after next. Tomorrow would be laundry and some R&R. A big surprise was in store as well!

More to come…

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