GSMNP, Lakeshore Trail (Days 1-3) – April 2021

Photo Album for this hike.

Our brief tour of the SE quadrant of the park continued with a snail-pace hike along the Lakeshore Trail. With the exception of day four, the weather was predicted to be really nice. Cool nights in camp and perfect hiking…okay, strolling for us…weather during the day. It actually got a bit warmer a day or two than I would have liked (mid 70’s) but no complaints from us. Once again, a shuttle from Bryson City Outfitters picked us up at the dam after our two-night stay at Fontana lodge. We make the long drive to the end of the Road to Nowhere and are greeted by a horde of day hikers and horseback riders. It’s wall to wall people with some horses thrown in for good measure. We start the hike by immediately walking through the tunnel. The pavement ends once we exit. After waiting for some riders to get their skittish horses settled down and move on, we proceed. It’s not long and we hear them no more.

The 35 mile long Lakeshore Trail is a mishmash of old road bed and single track. There are many trail junctions along the way but we had no trouble staying on track throughout the hike. We had purchased a Garmin InReach Mini prior to the trip and I had plotted out our route on the Garmin Explorer online portal. That was then synced with the Mini and Garmin’s Earthmate app on my phone. This was our first trip with the unit and once we got the hang of it, it worked flawlessly. Our family members were able to follow our tracks and we were able to regularly exchange texts via satellite. The navigation aid wasn’t really necessary though.

Once more, we had a very short first day. The beautiful weather left us with zero inclination to rush down the trail. Backcountry Campsite 74 is only three miles from the tunnel itself. Trail condition was generally good up to that point. On the way, we cross paths with several day hikers. Otherwise, its pretty quite until we reach the campsite.

There is one couple already there for the night and they are fishing Forney Creek. Loonie and I make camp and hang one of our food bags on the cables. A trio, husband, wife and son I assume, arrive and proceed to setup their tents. The son places his right under the cables, directly below our food bag! Okay. They step away for a bit, providing Loonie and I an opportunity to get the bag down without stepping all over the tent. Later, after they’ve returned and see me hanging the bag from another set of cables, they give me a look that says “Oh, right. So that’s what was hanging above our tent”. We knock off dinner, spend a bit of time checking out Forney Creek, and stay up far too late enjoying the fire before calling it a day.

Backcountry Campsite 74
Forney Creek
Bluets
Forney Creek

Site 98, 6.5 miles ahead, was our destination this day. We immediately cross over Forney Creek via a wide bridge to begin the hike. This appeared to be the least traveled section of the entire Lakeshore Trail. There were a number of blow-downs to negotiate, the trail is slanted and eroded in places and a bit overgrown in others. It wasn’t terrible by any means but we had become spoiled by the wide, gentle grade of old roadbeds we had walked on much of the trip thus far. The nice, easy stretches interspersed throughout the hike were welcome and the weather was fantastic.

The Lakeshore Trail happens to serve as a part of the 300 mile long Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT). Various trails make up the 93-mile GSMNP stretch of the BMT. Like the AT, the BMT’s southern terminus is atop Springer Mountain in Georgia. The northern terminus is below Mt Sterling at Big Creek, also within the park. Over the course of our Lakeshore Trail trek, this day in particular, we would run into some northbound BMT thru hikers.

As is characteristic for much of the Lakeshore Trail, the path undulates up and down over ridges into various drainages which eventually find their way to Fontana Lake. Those crossings that weren’t bridged were an easy rock-hop across, though there were some muddy sections.

Another characteristic of the Lakeshore Trail is the abundant evidence of those who inhabited the area prior to the creation of Fontana Lake and the expansion of the park. You can find historical remnants throughout the park but they are strewn all along the Lakeshore Trail, especially around Hazel Creek (later in the hike). We were already seeing quite a bit this day. Terracing, old washtubs and pails, and bits of metal were left behind around old homesteads that the forest has slowly reclaimed.

We also come across one of several hog traps we encountered during the trip. Feral hogs are a scourge in these mountains, as elsewhere. They multiply like crazy and seem to destroy everything in their path.

Hog Trap

A final, gentle road bed descent brings us to Chambers Creek and site 98. Immediately across the bridge, four gentlemen are already setup beside the creek. Technically, this area is not part of the official site but its obvious that its heavily used. Its one of the few decently flat spots to pitch. Large blocks of styrofoam that had washed up on the bank of Fontana Lake have even been repurposed as benches by previous hikers. We move up creek to the official site. Across Anthony Branch there are a couple of nice flat spots on either side of an old chimney. A gentleman has claimed both, tent on one side and the rest of his stuff spread out on the other. Rather than disturb him we look around a bit more, even contemplating camping on the bank of the lake, but Loonie’s not thrilled with that idea. Its exposed, the wind is blowing pretty good at this point and its going to get pretty cold. We’re both ready to call it a day so we finally settle on a spot that’s none too flat. We make do and enjoy some conversation over dinner with a gentleman who has pitched a tarp nearby. We then spend some time enjoying the beautiful evening down by the lake before heading off to bed.

Chambers Creek
Fontana Lake
Old homesite at Backcountry Campsite 98
Backcountry Campsite 98
Fontana Lake

We start a bit earlier this day, intent on taking our time to reach Backcountry Campsite 77, less than seven miles ahead. A short climb right out of the gate now behind us, Loonie spots some Fire Pink and we get some decent pics of them at last. Actually, there were quite a few Fire Pinks through this stretch. My color blindness makes it hard for me to single them out from the surrounding follage. Loonie, on the other hand, has no trouble spotting them. It isn’t until we were nearly on top of them before I can make out the distinctive petals. More wildflowers line the trail as it continues rolling gently up and down on its way to the dam. The dam is still more than twenty miles away at this point and there’s much more to see, so we move on.

Fire Pink

We reach another former homesite a little more than a mile in for the day. Various relics are scattered about in this area as well. The Little Brown Book states that more than 600 families were displaced for construction of the TVA dam in 1944, most of whom resided in the area through which the Lakeshore Trail passes. I imagine the majority of those were located in the Hazel Creek vicinity. That would be our destination the following day.

The easy walking continued on an old roadbed, passing campsite 76. Small rock walls erected years ago channel a creek past an old homesite. A couple of old car bodies and parts left behind by former residents still sit beside the trail.

The old roadbed descends, bringing us to Pilkey Creek just above the lake. A long picnic table sits here and we made use of it to have an early dinner before making the final push to 77. I’m not sure but this could be an area that descendants of former residents gather at. We make the short walk to the lake shore for some pics and proceed on.

Pilkey Creek

A short ascent after Pilkey Creek and we reach site 77 to find it vacant. We get ourselves situated in a nice spot towards the back and alongside the creek (Clark Branch). Loonie gets a fire going while I scavenge for the fuel to feed it. About this time, a gentleman shows up and proceeds to pitch his tent. I recognize the tent as a Durston 1P X-Mid that just came out a couple of years ago. A 2P version is available now as well. This is the first one pitched that I’ve come across and I want to have a look. A lot of people have been snatching these things up, originally through Drop and now through Amazon. I introduce myself and ask if I can take a peek. Ian, our new camp-mate, says “Sure”. It looks to be a great tent. Of particular interest to me is that its pitched “fly first”, meaning the inner would be spared of getting drenched were you forced to set it up in a downpour. Not so with our SMD Lunar Duo. You have to expose the inside of the tent in order to install the two short, curved ridge poles. Its been a great tent and has served us well. We especially like the generous space. But it has always concerned me that at some point we’ll find ourselves caught in a storm and having to mop out the inside of the tent before spreading out the quilt and changing clothes.

Ian then mentions that he’s waiting for his three buddies to show up. They roll in shortly after and each proceeds to setup his own X-Mid. Cool. The four guys are soccer mates and they are absolutely hilarious! We’re told that Ian is apparently trying to relive his youth by leading them on a death march through the park. After a grueling first day, they are contemplating going to “Plan B”. After Ian describes their original route, I can understand why.

Backcountry Campsite 77
Backcountry Campsite 77

Three of the four (Ian, Juerg and Steve) head to bed early while the fourth, David, spends a bit of time at the fire with Loonie and I. Its not long. Its getting butt-ass cold. Some rain is predicted for the next day and we want to try to get out of camp a bit earlier. Something we’re not so good at! I’ll wrap up this hike in the next post.

More to come…

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