Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap

It was a good pitstop at Fontana Lodge, even if the comfy bed didn’t quite work out! The soft saggy bed and overstuffed pillows left me longing for my inflatable sleeping pad and pillow on trail,  but we got in hot showers, laundry, food shopping and two good hot meals, so it turned out ok. And it was great to enjoy some beers with Rex and Morgan, two thru-hikers of similar age to us who we’d met a few times before. We met with them again for breakfast, but as they were planning a rest day and we hit the trail at lunchtime, we’re out of sync for this section. Hopefully we’ll meet them further down the trail!

It was a fresh and sunny morning as we followed the shores of Fontana Lake round to the “Fontana Hilton”, the plushest shelter on trail, with charging points and nearby flush toilets and showers. We continued on to Fontana Dam, a hydroelectric project built in the 1940s; after crossing the dam we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and posted our thru-hiker permits (for which we’d paid $40 each a month ago).

View from the Fontana Hilton

From there it was a long long climb up to  the Shuckstack fire lookout tower, which gave our first view of the Smokies. They certainly lived up to their name, though it was hard to tell how much was haze and how much was smoke! The tower itself was amazing – a spindly 60 feet high structure built in 1934, with an enclosed viewing box on top. Protective railings were pretty minimal, and the whole tower shook slightly as we climbed the steep wooden stairs. All a bit unnerving!

From there it wasn’t far to the Birch Spring tentsite. In the Smokies you can only stay in shelters or on designated campsites. Our information said there was only space for 4 or 5 tents here, but in fact there were lots of well used camping spots dotted around the small valley, with the spring at the bottom. A chilly night was forecast, so again we slept in hats, gloves, socks, thermals and fleeces, and enjoyed a comfortable night while the wind roared in the tops of the trees.

The next day was a relatively easy one, around 12 miles, and it was good to take our time, enjoy the superb weather and the spring flowers, and hang out at the shelter. We had planned for the next day to also be an easy one, saving Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6612 feet, for the following day. But the weather forecast suggested that wind and rain were coming on that day, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on the views from this highpoint of the trail. So we decided to pull out all the stops and go for a 19 mile day, and take on Clingmans Dome in good weather.

The day got off to a good start with a long slog up to Rocky Top, immortalised in a song which is a bluegrass classic. The sky was clear blue and there was frost on the grass, and there were long views in all directions.

Rocky Top you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee

The day rolled on through ups and downs, with occasional rests at shelters, meeting a handful of hikers along the way, until the final steep climb up to Clingman’s Dome. For the first time on the trail we went through thick pine forest, and the cold air trapped between the trees was really refreshing. Once out of the trees the air was hot and we poured sweat. Finally, we reached a tarmacked road leading up to the viewing tower  on top of the mountain. It is a huge concrete construction, designed to be wheelchair accessible. It wasn’t as hideous as I expected it to be, and the views really were outstanding! We enjoyed looking at the boards identifying all the mountains which could be seen. Good to see Standing Indian Mountain, way off in the haze, which we’d hiked over 9 days and over 100 miles previously!

By now it was 5pm, and time to get a move on to our shelter for the night. The trail dropped steeply through pine woods on the north side of the mountain, and there were patches of ice all along the trail. We were getting pretty tired, but there was one final steep ascent to get us cursing before a final descent to the Mt Collins shelter, buried in the cold north-facing woods. As quickly as possible we cooked dinner and climbed into our sleeping bags, with plenty of layers of clothing on to keep the cold at bay.

This morning the temperature had risen to just slightly chilly, and with only 5 miles to Newfound Gap and a trip to Gatlinburg to resupply, we hiked fast. We had only been at the gap for about 10 minutes when two South Africans pulled over and offered us a lift into town.

So everything is going well, we’re mostly pain free apart from occasional aches and sore patches on feet, but both looking forward to a rest day once we’ve finished the Smokies!

2 Responses

  1. Becka
    | Reply

    I just binge-read all your posts so far – they are great!. Some gorgeous photos too but the cold and the rain sound tough, hopefully the weather will improve as you head north

  2. Roz Savage
    | Reply

    Glad to hear the bods are holding up well. Thanks for the gorgeous photos!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *