Fontana Dam & The Smokies
After I got back on trail from my quick detour to Trail Days, I hiked into Fontana Dam. This was such a fun spot. When you cross through Fontana Dam on the AT you come up on the marina. There were a few of us hikers sitting on a bench near the trailhead enjoying some time with our packs off when one of the marina employees stopped by and said to come down to the marina and enjoy some live music, so we did just that. There were about ten locals and five or six of us hikers and we sat and enjoyed the view of the lake and the great music too. After that nice little excursion, we had about a mile left to get to the shelter area as the sun set. Upon arrival, a trail angel had prepared a chili and rice dinner and left it on a gas stove near the shelter for us to enjoy along with towels to use at the bathroom shower area near the shelter. It’s not normal for a shelter to have a bathroom (there are some shelters with privies) or shower, but since it’s near the dam it is special. It’s even called the ‘Fontana Dam Hilton’ in the guide we use and it’s on a plaque on the side of the shelter.
The Smokies were so pretty. They also lived up to their name and were smoky with mist. Our sunrise attempt at Clingman’s Dome was a washout, but we made the best of a very windy and cold situation. McLeazy, Snacks, and I got up at 4:30 to get camp packed up and hike to the Dome in time for sunrise. We didn’t get the sunrise, but Snacks made us all coffee and we sat against the wall up on the Dome to try to stay out of the wind. There was another man there who was attempting to capture the sunset with a fancy camera and a nice thermos of coffee, but no sunrise photos this time. Hiking through the pines in the mist was beautiful. We all agreed we’d keep chasing the sunrise and are hoping to catch one on a bald soon. Most of the time on the AT you are hiking in the ‘green tunnel’ so sunrises/sunsets are not visible every day.
Outside of the Smokies on the AT you can camp at random little campsites between the shelters, but you have to stay at the actual shelters in the Smokies. It kind of forces you to plan your mileage each day, which was the only thing I did not care for. One of the shelters (Cosby Knob) was closed due to aggressive bear activity. The morning that I passed that shelter I ran into a Ridge Runner who warned me and also explained that there is a decoy tent set up near the shelter and it has a game camera on it. They monitor for a length of time (not sure how long) and if the tent is left untouched they reopen the shelter. I passed through and saw the tent, but no bears. One of the shelters we stayed at even had a chain-link fence covering the normally open fourth wall. As I approached the first shelter on the first day in the Smokies, I saw a small bear roll out of the lower branch of a tree and run off down the mountain. I was about .3 miles from camp and it was dusk so I was not able to snap a photo.
Snacks and I took a Blue Blaze to see Charlie’s Bunion, and that was so worth it. The view and the rocks are just beautiful. We chatted with a few women who were day hiking there – then we climbed out to the rocks for photos, had lunch, and started hiking again.
There is a parking lot and overlook in the middle of the Smokies and the three of us hitched a ride into Gatlinburg from there to get a resupply and check the town out. Gatlinburg is like being at the beach on the boardwalk but in the middle of the mountains. Mini golf, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, popcorn stores, arcades, just a huge strip of that kind of stuff over and over again. There is a lift up the side of the mountain for people to take to get a view of the Smokies and Gatlinburg. We ate tons of restaurant food, checked the strip out, and got a game of skee ball in. We resupplied and even managed a swim and another morning soak of our feet in the motel pool while we drank our coffee before heading back into the mountains. We took a local shuttle to get back to the gap to get back on exactly where we got off the trail. The hitchhike into town was our first and there have been plenty more since, which always add a little spice to the day. All the road crossings are near trail towns and most people are very friendly.
Standing Bear Hostel is right along the trail as you come out of the Smokies. I stopped there and met up with lots of other hikers who were also celebrating finishing the Smokies with frozen pizza and cold beverages.
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