Since my old original post of a kayaking camping trip on Fontana Lake draws so many visitors to this site (about 10-20 per day), I figured I’d make a detailed post of recommendations and resources for planning a similar trip to this deceivingly remote piece of the majestic Great Smoky Mountains. I presume most of the visitors who stumble upon my post are trying to piece together info on the Fontana Lake region–a region that doesn’t have too many detailed information sources (at least not on the web). I spent weeks searching and piecing together info from the web. One website would have some great info, but leaves holes where I needed more info; another website would be relatively thin on the details, but provide the missing puzzle piece I was looking for! My hope is that I can give you, the trip planner, as many pieces of your puzzle as I can so you can have a great trip.
Fontana Lake is in a very remote part of western North Carolina. When I say “it’s in the middle of nowhere,” I mean it! You’ll lose cell phone reception 45 minutes or more before getting into the Fontana Village area; basically just outside of Bryson City, NC, where 74 hits 28. Don’t expect to have coverage at all–if you do, it’s a fluke and your bars will likely disappear just as you try to take advantage of making that quick call and hit “send!” The only means of contact that I found was a pay phone at a small gas station/pit stop located here. I’m sure there’s another one somewhere in the Fontana Village area, but this is the only one I used and can guarantee is there! Be sure to let whoever is staying behind at home know that you’ll be pretty much unreachable for the entire time you’re out here. Any emergencies will have to wait until you’re headed home and back into cell coverage. Someone would have minimal luck even contacting the GSMNP Ranger’s office to have them locate you in an extreme emergency, so be sure that those staying behind won’t need you at all (think: pregnant wives, dependant kids, dog sitters, etc.)!
Note: according to the Fontana Village website, they apparently now have Verizon service at some spots in the Village. I still wouldn’t rely on it–if not for anything other than a cell phone tends to ruin the getaway experience!
UPDATE September 2012: I had absolutely no cell service at the Marina (Sprint customer)…not even a roaming signal. I had zero signal out on the water too. I did turn my phone on up on top of Shuckstack Mountain and the fire tower where I did receive a pretty good signal (for the backcountry), but it was not enough to make a call. I could only send text messages (since they require less cell signal to send–good survival knowledge there).
Now, don’t go thinking I’m implying that remoteness is bad and that it only applies to cell phone coverage! Absolutely not!!! The remoteness (and lack of cell coverage) is part of what makes this region so enjoyable. If you’re like the majority of the rest of us and are tied to the grind of suburban life, and you’re able to arrange to get away and completely cut those ties for a few days, the feeling will be nothing short of absolutely refreshing! Do not be discouraged by the lack of cell coverage–embrace it!
Of course we all come from different parts of the country, so there’s no easy generic way for me to explain how to get to the region. But, when you get within striking distance of the lake, there’s really only one way to get around: NC 28. Be alert for bikers as there are usually an over-abundance of them due to the proximity of the “Tail of the Dragon” road (US 129 just over the TN border). NC 28 is, for the most part, a two-lane (one lane in each direction) road. Leave plenty of time in your schedule to account for many potential delays: accidents (a biker decided to become part of a rock face when I was there–45 minute traffic delay), weather, scenery (fall time, expect tons of sight seeing bikers and motorists), etc. I suggest leaving insanely early the day of (“butt crack of dawn” time!) to leave plenty of time to get there and to take in the sights.
Here are some useful links for destinations in the Fontana Village region. As always, be wary of not-too-accurate directions that any map/direction source can give you in mountainous regions. Roads close due to weather and rock slides and have limited access (RV’s and longer vehicles are generally prohibited from overly curvy roads). In all maps, I’m pointing to where the green arrow is, not necessarily where the red marker is (the roads are so remote that Google hasn’t really refined the address routine out here on the maps):
- Fontana Marina: click here
- Fontana Village: click here
- Fontana Lodge: click here
- The “Pit Stop”: click here
Any of these locations would make good meeting points if you have two or more separate groups meeting up. They are larger destinations and well-known, so they should be easy to find (let alone, they’re pretty much the only things out there!).
You may notice a pattern of “Fontana Village” being repeated or referenced here. That’s simply because it’s the only thing out there! I’m not sure if it’s actually a “real” city or town; it feels like a gigantic camping ground that’s so big that it takes the form of a functioning town. Any police or medical service is provided by a volunteer force that typically doubles as Village staff at the Lodge, Pit Stop, Grill, etc. The Village itself is made up of several key features:
- The Fontana Lodge: this is a very nice rustic lodge/resort that looks, feels, and smells like you’d think a lodge would in the Smokies (that’s a good thing). They have a nice restaurant and a small bar among other amenities. I only stopped by for a quick drink before learning of another cheaper place to grab some food.
- The Fontana Marina: this is where everything “Fontana Lake” starts and ends at, at least for the area around the dam. It’s a very long boat ramp complete with many parking spaces and a long floating dock with a small boat supplies store at the end of it. I have no idea about ramp fees for motorized boat launching, but there is (was) no fee for launching kayaks and canoes–nor was there a fee for parking over night. You can’t beat that! I suggest calling the Marina ahead of time for confirmation of this info (see their website for contact info). Also, the Marina rents just about every kind of water craft: bass boats, pontoon boats, canoes, and kayaks. Of course, “rent” means for a fee, and the prices seem fair but are undoubtedly steep…especially when you figure you’ll likely be out on the water for two or more nights. The Marina also offers shuttle services for hikers wishing to just get across the lake to start their hike and head back around to the Marina (crossing over the dam on the way back). See the website for more info on this, including prices.
- The Fontana Campground: located literally at the base of the Fontana Dam, the Village owns and maintains a small tent and RV campground, complete with water/sewer hook-ups for RV’s and a small bath house for tent campers. I’d say there are maybe 40 or so tent sites and a handful of RV sites. Of course, I was there in off-peak season, so maybe they can squeeze in more than I estimate! The campground is great for staging a next-day kayak trip on the lake. It’s cheap (somewhere around $20 per tent site–which you can easily cram 2 or 3 tents onto) and the scenery is certainly unique! The jokes of the evening usually centered around hearing a cracking noise and being the first to run up the adjacent hillside to escape the rushing dam break (no, there’s no real threat of the 480′ tall dam bursting)! At least you get a sense of how deep the lake is that you’re about to set out on the next day; and there’s a constant sound of rushing water in the distance coming from the outlets in the dam that makes for a good night’s sleep.
Be sure to stock up on everything you think you’ll need well before getting into the remote region of Fontana Lake. If for some extreme reason you can’t get to your local Wally World (or other favorite cheap-o bulk supply depot) before leaving town on your trip, you’ll be left to the mercy of whatever the few small and scattered stores can provide; usually a very limited and relatively higher priced polarized array of either hard core basics or cheap touristy junk that has no business on a backcountry trip. The two places that I know of in the Fontana Village area that have some minimal stores for purchase are:
- Hazel Creek Outfitters: located here, within the Fontana Village, this small shop offers a modest selection of some of the basics…and then some of that stuff I mentioned (in my opinion) that has no business on a backcountry trip–but remember, this shop is really there to serve those “camping” within the village and maybe as a mediocre resupply point for AT through hikers. In any case, you can find a few things that you might have forgotten here, but don’t rely on it!
- The Marina boat shop: located at the end of the Fontana Marina boat dock, this very small shop is geared primarily toward boaters and fisherman. They focus on boat supplies and bait and don’t have much that would be a necessity for backcountry camping. That said, however, they do have ice cold drinks and some snacks that you might want to grab last minute before heading out–or better yet, for your reward after paddling back across the lake on your return trip! Again, don’t rely on this shop for your essentials.
- Worst case, if you really screwed up and forgot something critical that neither of these shops supply, your best bet is to take the 50+ minute drive back out to Franklin, NC or Sylva, NC to find a WalMart (yes, it pains me to recommend that!). There may be some better outfitter-type stores in Bryson City, but I don’t have personal knowledge of them. Long story short: as with any camping trip, prepare a list weeks in advance, continue to refine the list, and make one all-inclusive and thorough shop for it all before heading out here!
A quick note/suggestion to those who may not have much experience with canoeing/kayaking and camping (such as myself): you may be tempted to pack a little more gear and supplies than you would on a backpacking trip given the appearance of the kayak or canoe doing the lugging of the weight. While paddling across the lake to the site may not be as difficult as it would be if the gear was being carried by your back while hiking, remember that you still have to handle all of that gear! This becomes painfully clear when you end up in a situation like I did on my trip where the water is a little lower than “perfect” and you have to lug all the gear up a muddy steep hill to get to your campsite! Moral of the story: you don’t go kayak or canoe camping so that you can haul more gear. You go for the different experience of getting to the camping spot. Keep it minimal!
Fontana Lake is a man-made lake formed by the damming of the Little Tennessee River. At its deepest, the water is about 400′ deep (don’t believe me? check out the Fontana Dam). Remember, this lake was once a mountain stream flowing though the Great Smoky Mountains. Picture a mountain stream valley flooded to a depth of 400’+…that’s the lakebed of Fontana! The water gets deep very quickly from the shoreline since the lakebed is typically at about a 30-45 degree angle (again, think of a former mountainside),; remember this when you’re pushing off as it’ snot like a normal lake that you may be used to having a good while to walk out into the water. How does this water depth info relate to your trip out on the water? Simple: if you drop something, you’re not getting it back! For this reason, I had all of my gear tethered to my kayak (military surplus parachute cord works well for this…as do the buckles and straps on your backpack that’s likely shoved up under the nose or rear of the kayak/canoe).
The lakebed is made up of rocky, bouldery, clayey former mountainside land. Along the shores, you may see some old tree stumps still clinging to the submerged ground (these are usually visible in low water level times hiding down where the water never dips below (therefore, not allowing air to touch the stumps and rot them out). The water is a greenish-blueish tranquil looking color. I believe this comes from a combination of the hardness (amount of calcium) and the contact with the clay. as a drinking source, the lake makes a great source for filtering drinking water from, especially if you get your draw tube down a few feet below the surface…you’ll get nice cold perfect tasting water! As with any water source, I do not recommend drinking the water without filtering it by some method (or boiling it).
As I mentioned in my original Fontana post, the name of the game on this water body is lake levels. Since the lake is made and maintained by a dam (which uses the water to make electricity and also regulates the flow to the downstream receiving river), the water level of the lake hardly ever sits still. In addition to the dam drawing the water down through its various intakes, you’ve got many tributaries feeding the lake with fresh new water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the folks who own and operate the dam) publish a “dam operating guide” which gives people an idea of what elevation the water surface is expected to be (as well as where it has been for the past two years). Click here to see the guide. Before you glaze over and get intimidated about reading the graphical results, let me es’plain it all:
- The treeline on the lake is somewhere around elevation 1700. This would essentially be the highest level the water could normally get. Anything below this elevation means there’s exposed lakebed between you and the treeline; more specifically, lakebed between you and an improved designated campground. The lake is typically at this elevation from May through mid-August.
- The red color line, labeled as “20XX Observed Midnight Elevations” (“XX” being the year that you’re reading the graph, like 2010), is the latest current elevation data. This is the line that you want to focus on as it represents as real-time as you can get with the lake water surface elevation. If this line is going upward over the past few days/weeks, expect the water level to keep rising. If it’s flat, expect the lake to stay relatively level. If it’s headed downward, expect the lake level to drop. Of course, the level can change in a matter of hours, depending on how much water the TVA is letting out of the lake. On my last trip in September of 2008, the lake dropped about 6″ each night!
- The gray shaded area is where the TVA anticipates keeping the water level during the specified time frame. For instance, for the month of October, the TVA expects the water level to start somewhere between 1670 and 1685, and end the month somewhere between 1660 and 1675–which, by the way, are not favorable elevations for camping on the lake.
- The black line represents where the water level was last year. You can try to use this to gauge where the water surface will be during your planned trip time, but be mindful that sudden brief rainy periods can significantly alter the current water level (by a factor of 5-10 feet over a day or two). So use it only to plan, but always be mindful of regional weather patterns too that could cause current levels to fluctuate from last year’s numbers.
- For the average person (one who’s not looking for an extremely difficult camping trip), I recommend planning a kayak/canoe camping trip only when the lake level is above 1680. More on that in the next section…
I’m told that the lake is very busy with motorized traffic in the summer months–especially holidays. This could make traversing the lake tricky for a canoe or kayak, especially if it’s choppy. Of course, the other side of the equation to balance, if you’re trying to avoid crowds, is the lake levels. Boat traffic conveniently dies down when the water levels die down (this is actually on purpose as the TVA keeps the lake levels highest during the months with greater recreational opportunity–when it’s warm). It’s a sort of ‘pick your poison” situation: crowds or lower water levels. Personally, I’ll try to find the delicate balance between no crowds and water levels that are manageable (that would be late August through early September).
(Be sure to read the update a few paragrpahs below for important backcountry campsite info)
Camping on the shore of Fontana Lake is great! It’s very remote and secluded and provides incredible scenery. Better yet, the use of canoes and/or kayaks makes bringing folks that normally couldn’t do a backcountry hike possible (young kids, people with physical ailments, etc.). As long as they can paddle and are willing to “rough it” while camping, they’ll have just as much fun and see as incredible of sights as someone who hikes into the Smokies for miles and miles by foot. Another thing is the environment…it’s just simply different than hiking into somewhere to camp–you’re on a lake (and a darn big one at that!).
Fontana Lake forms the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That means that the entire north shoreline of Fontana Lake is National park land and is governed by the rules and regulations of the park. As it relates to camping, you must camp in designated camp sites (see the latest GSMNP trail map for which sites are open and where they’re located). Also, you must adhere to the Park’s backcountry rules–which includes obtaining a free backcountry permit. You can obtain one of these permits at the Fontana Marina (it’s nothing more than letting the Park know who you are and where you plan to be). Take note that GSMNP campsites #90 (Eagle Creek) and #86 (Hazel Creek) are reservation-only sites to limit the number of people at the sites. To reserve a campsite, simply call the backcountry office and tell them your dates and how many people you’ll have. I recommend you do this as soon as you know your dates to avoid being locked out! See the GSMNP backcountry website for more info. As I wrote in my September 2008 trip, we were not able to reach the actual campsites due to low water levels. The “fingers” of Eagle Creek and Hazel Creek eventually turn into mountain streams at the far upstream end of them. As the lake water recedes, more mountain stream is uncovered. In case you didn’t know, mountain streams are not exactly navigable by kayak or canoe! If you find yourself in this situation:
- Pick a spot as close to the campsite as possible (this may be a half mile or so from the site). In other words, make the attempt at getting to the designated campsite. If you happen to be visited by a park ranger, this will likely help your argument!
- Make sure the site will leave as little footprint as possible. Do not ever cut down trees (large or small) and try not to trample and plants or bushes. The perfect improvised spot would be a large flat silt bar at a bend in the creek.
- Remember to scout out a tree to hang your bear-sensitive supplies in. At a designated campsite, the park provides steel cables to make this easy. Since you’re not at a designated site, you’re gonna have to do this on your own!
UPDATE September 2012: As learned on my September 2012 trip, camping without a reservation in a backcountry campsite that requires a reservation is a big deal. The fine is currently $50 per person, per night, plus processing fees (as of September 2012). Every effort should be made to adhere to Park rules and regulations as they are in place to protect the Park’s natural resources. Reservations may seem like a pain and just the government sticking its nose into your business, but the intent is to keep heavily-used campsites from being completely destroyed by overcrowding. For now, the reservations are free and take no more effort than calling the backcountry office and scheduling your trip. As I learned on my last trip, it might be a good idea to think about contingency plans if you’re planning on using a non-reservation site. For instance, I was planning on using site #87 (non-reservation), but it was at capacity upon arrival. My only choice was to push on to #90 (a reservation site) without a reservation. Sure enough, I stumbled upon a ranger making a backcountry tour and got my hand slapped. Even though I give recommendations here for what to do if the lake level is low, do not think you’ll get out of a fine if caught. If you’re honest and are taking obvious measures to limit your impact, you might get lucky. The point that I’m trying to drive home here is to not be “one of those people” who turn their nose up at the rules. It’ll ruin our Park and we’ll be left with trashy, beaten-down, and ugly campsites and backcountry.
On my September 2008 trip, there was no shortage of wildlife: trout in the lake/streams (remember, you need a NC fishing license WITH a “trout stamp” to be legally able to fish for them!), turkeys on the banks, and bears in the woods! We were warned by the Marina boat shop regulars that there were reports of an aggressive bear at campsite #90. Thankfully, we had no such encounter. You should always be mindful of bears when camping in a high-volume park like the Smokies. The chance that the bears have become reliant or curios of humans and their trash is high. Simply taking the time to properly store your bear-sensitive gear (basically anything that has a scent that could be interesting to a bear: soap, food, lotions, etc.) will go a long way in preventing an unpleasant encounter. At our second campsite, we had no trees anywhere near us so we improvised and simply put all of the bear gear in a kayak and anchored it out in the deep pool adjacent to our campsite!
Hopefully this information can help you plan a better trip to Fontana Lake. I’ve dumped as much info here as I can think of…I’m sure it’s a far cry from everything! If you can think of anything I missed (or messed up!), feel free to drop me a line using the contact form on this website.