Ever since my trip to Fontana Lake in September of 2008, I’ve had my eye on going back when the lake level was higher to get the real Smoky Mountain canoe camping experience–complete with actually making it to the designated park campsites. When a friend recently expressed interested in such a trip, I jumped at the opportunity. We set out on a Saturday through Monday trip the weekend after Labor Day hoping for less crowds and more isolation. Based on the TVA operating guide, the lake level was going to be just right to get us where we were going. From the knowledge of the area I gained on my last trip, we were able to put together a great long weekend trip; but it wasn’t without last minute changes and new lessons learned.
We originally planned a roundtrip route that started at Fontana Marina on Saturday, September 8, 2012 and ended at the same place on Monday the 10th. We were to head to the famous “island campsite,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry campsite #87. That particular site doesn’t require an advance reservation (at least not yet–it could certainly benefit from such a requirement, as we were about to learn), so no contact was made with the Park’s backcountry office. We’d fill out a backcountry permit (required for any overnight backcountry hiking in the Park to simply let the Rangers know who’s out there and when they should be back) at Fontana Marina. We were going to spend two nights on the island, leaving our gear at the campsite on Sunday while we paddled up Eagle Creek to campsite #90 and set out on a day hike up to Shuckstack fire tower. It all sounded like a solid plan…then ol’ man Murphy visited us and changed it right from the get go! I may have dropped Boy Scouts for a chance at a baseball career as a kid, but I never forgot the motto: Always Be Prepared!
We arrived at the Marina on schedule with the canoe still attached to the top of the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s factory roof rack (in case any one is wondering if that works, like I was: it does, at least on an ’07). The last half hour’s drive into the Fontana area on NC28 was rain-soaked and we expected we’d have to take a chance and set out around 2pm when the rain seemed to stop. After unloading all the gear at the bottom of the boat ramp, free and relatively secure parking was found at the Marina (just remember to park at the top of the hill, per the staff’s request) in my same spot as the 2008 trip; next to the bathroom hut.
When we paddled out of the Marina’s cove and made the turn northward toward Eagle Creek, we could see that the rains weren’t done in the area. Gray rain clouds were slowly making their way over the ridge that runs parallel to Eagle Creek on the west and had Shuckstack socked in. We made it across the lake to the mouth of Eagle Creek with only the water from our paddles getting us wet and made a course for the tip of the island. As we approached the long skinny tip of the island that juts out into Eagle Creek, we could tell there were others already camped out on the island. We made the right turn around the tip of the island toward the beach when we saw the other two paddlers landing and heading up onto the island. A father and son who’d tried to reach #90 but turned around beached literally minutes ahead of us. And sure enough, they found and took the small camp site on the other side of the island leaving us with no place on the island.
At this point I was really crunching the numbers in my head. We’ve got rain headed our way and no reservation for any other campsite in the area (if you haven’t noticed, there are no other GSMNP campsites along the lake that are not reservation-only). My “play by the rules” warning light was flashing in my head, but we decided to override it and press on. After all, what other option is there?
The rain finally caught us near the end (or top) of Eagle Creek. The mountains had done a good job chilling every last rain drop and the wind was funneling down the Eagle Creek valley at a steady 5-10 MPH. My initial thought of sucking it up and making it to the campsite was quickly trumped by memories of the stern warning on the GSMNP website about hypothermia being a killer even in the summertime. We’d done such a great job wrapping the gear in a tarp that it took a considerable effort to not only find where my poncho was stashed, but to also extract it from the gear burrito while not tipping the canoe! We got the canoe up on plane (or so it seemed) and made it into a tiny cove under some tree cover (such spots are few and far between on the lake, FYI) to give us a chance to dig out the rain gear. Note to future self: if rain is in the area, don’t pack your rain gear somewhere that you can’t readily get to it!
GSMNP Campsite #90 “Eagle Creek”
Just as we pulled out of our temporary shelter, we spotted the trail marker for the low water level access for campsite #90 (located here–we missed it on our 2008 trip, but it’s quite a trek from there to #90; maybe a half mile or a little less) and I knew we were close. We found the beach for #90 about 200-300 yards further upstream and pulled in. The beach is hard to miss no matter what the water level is. If the water is up, it would be a large lagoon-type area that is very shallow (there were signs that the water does or has been a couple feet deep over most of the beach). If the water is down, the beach is exposed and very large. There is no other area along Eagle Creek that looks like it. There is no trail marker or campsite marker visible from the water, so look for the beach. After pulling your vessel ashore, walk toward the treeline and you’ll see one or two paths into the trees that lead immediately into the campsite.
There was a couple already camped in the middle of the site and we decided to give them some space. At their recommendation, we headed across the bordering Lost Cove Creek to a smaller area that was perfect for our two day camp. The Eagle Creek Trail technically runs through the site, but there was plenty of room to set up tents and a shelter. Access to the creek was pretty easy for getting water and cleaning. After getting a tarp up to keep the light rain off of us, we got set up and took the rest of the evening to relax. The decision to move to the side site proved to be a good one as another canoe group came in about an hour later and set up in the main area; two guys and two younger daughters. They turned out to be a quiet group, but you still want your privacy. The Lost Cove Creek noise made an excellent noise buffer between us.
Overall, campsite #90 is pretty big; maybe one of the most spacious backcountry sites I’ve been to in the GSMNP. Certainly one of the most flat with plenty of level tent spots, likely due to its location at the confluence of Lost Cove Creek, Eagle Creek, and Fontana Lake and the deposition over time that’s made the area more of a floodplain than a mountain slope. There are at least two separate bear cables with five total cables to hang your smelly stuff. I’d guesstimate that there’s room for probably 20 tents total in the area. Just remember that it is a reservation-only campsite and requires a free reservation made with the GSMNP backcountry office prior to camping there.
Hiking up to Shuckstack via Lost Cove Trail
The plan for Sunday was originally to leave our camping gear on our deserted island campsite (ha!), paddle up to #90, secure the canoe and stash the paddles, and head up to Shuckstack via the Lost Cove Trail. Now that we were camped at #90, we had to decide whether or not the campsite was “safe” enough to leave the gear unattended for half the day. I’ll admit, I have some reservation about trusting others, but when I really thought about it, I found comfort in knowing that the vast majority of folks in the backcountry are not out there to make trouble. As an added bonus, I found mental comfort in knowing that no one ever wants to gain pack weight while hiking, so our gear would likely be just fine. Long story short, we made peace with the mental boogeyman, put all the loose pieces of gear inside tents (because that tent fabric is good enough to keep you safe from bears in the middle of the night, it MUST be good enough to secure valuables, right?), and set out for Shuckstack at a leisurely 10am.
The Lost Cove Trail picks up very near to campsite #90, but not right at it like I had thought. You actually take the Lakeshore Trail for about 0.3 miles to the trailhead for the Lost Cove Trail. I had read that this route had a few water crossings–that’s the understatement of the year! I lost count after 10 or so crossings and I’d guess there were maybe 4 or 5 more plus a few more that were dry. If you were to hike this route in a rainy season, there could easily be 18 +/- water crossings, none with footbridges, and several being pretty tricky. If you’re one who doesn’t like to get your boots wet, you’ll have difficulty on this trail. Trekking poles definitely come in handy on this route for balance while crossing water and the steep incline. The trail stays pretty easy all the way through backcountry campsite #91–a good small site that is within a reasonable short distance to water, has bear cables, and room for about 6-10 tents. I wouldn’t consider it a good backup to #90 if you come in by boat since your vessel will be far out of sight and you’ll be lugging gear a little more than half a mile from the lake.
That’s a perfect segue into an overall trail description: STEEP!!! The trail starts at a very deceptively flat grade, just following the grade of Lost Cove Creek. I kept wondering how we were ever going to make up the elevation difference between the campsite/lakeshore and Shuckstack (approximately 2,200′ or so) at that rate. After passing through campsite #91, my wonder ceased and was met with an unending, non-switchback-ing, uphill answer! For the last two miles, it’s all uphill with little to no flat relief. Definitely bring your mountain legs for this hike. Even with a light day hike load, this trail is a butt-kicker! It also keeps your distance estimating skills at bay by not giving any sight of the ridge that you’re headed to. Before you know it, there’s an intersection with the Appalachian Trail signified by a trailhead marker. Hang a left to head toward Fontana Dam for about 0.3 miles on a little bit easier grade, but still uphill. That leads to an unmarked intersection with a spur off of the AT. No signage tells you that it goes to Shuckstack and the foliage is thick enough to hide sight of the tower. Going on gut instinct (and noticing that one direction continued uphill and the other downhill), we went left and were soon encouraged by a glimpse of the tower. The spur goes maybe 200 yards to the top of Shuckstack mountain, passing an “illegal” small campsite on the way. It’s worth noting that if you get caught camping here, outside of a designated Park campsite, you’ll get in big trouble by the Rangers (more on how I know that later).
Shuckstack Fire Tower
I researched a fair amount about the fire tower through others’ YouTube videos and various blogs. I knew there were some cabin ruins and the tower was accessible–that’s it. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good exploration adventure and I was definitely looking forward to this one. As soon as we reached the tower site, I could tell that this was going to be really cool. The views peeking through the trees were begging to be seen from above the treetops. It was interesting to try to figure out what the old cabin looked like; what shape was it it, how big was it, why was the fireplace filled in? Our best guess on that last part was that the Park didn’t want people using the fireplace so they sealed when the site was abandoned. Then of course, there was the tower itself. It’s impressive from any angle, especially when you think about the sort of conditions that are thrown at it on that peak. I quickly went about photographing the site as much as possible to help remember it all and to help others see it.
I decided to copy the other folks on YouTube who’d videoed their ascent up the tower. Sure, there are already a handful of others on there, but I can promise you one thing: there’s only one from my day! The weather was perfect and the trees were still green which also made for a unique video since a lot of others are either socked in or shot in the winter. I originally narrated the video on my way up but a combination of not talking loud enough and the mic picking up every breath making me sound like Fatty McGee made me decide to just put music over the whole thing. I think the Infamous Stringdusters do a much better job with their instrumental “Moon Man” than my blabbering anyway:
Words and pictures can hardly being to describe the views seen from the tower. I’ll also admit to being thrilled just by exploring the old tower. After the first couple of flights of stairs, my worries about its integrity we’re gone as there was no swaying and the steps felt rock solid even though they looked weathered. Each landing revealed a better and better view of a different direction. The first one just barely made it to the tops of the trees and gave an initial “holy cow” view. The second landing was totally out of the trees and offered the first rare Smoky Mountain unobstructed 360 degree view–well, minus the thin steel frame members.
Pushing on up to the top, you come up through the floor of the room. With a Camelbak daypack on, it was a little bit tight, but not bad. The first thing you notice is the floor that’s currently made of several layered sheets of plywood. The walls are hole-free but two of them are missing their interior sheething which exposes the few studs and the rear of the exterior panels. The windows are surprisingly intact with the exception of a few panes of glass. You’d think something glass out in the middle of nowhere would surely have been targeted by many rock throws over the years (very thankfully, it hasn’t). Each wall had two windows; one fixed and one that leans outward, hinged at the top. The roof is about 50% deteriorated and there’s a framed hole which allowed roof access. If it were raining I’d have been soaked.
An unexpected surprise came when I was busy taking a bunch of pics at the top. I noticed a couple of yellow jackets and didn’t think much of them. Then I noticed a few more, and a few more. There’s definitely a hive up there and the best I could figure is that its in one of the walls. I kept still and they didn’t bother me but they were definitely on my mind. What are you supposed to do when swarmed by yellow jackets in a tower 80′ above ground in a 6’x6′ room?!?! Did I mention the room is small? I wouldn’t send more than two or three people up the tower at any one time. No sense in overcrowding and overloading the old tower.
After a little while of ooo-ing and awe-ing at the sights, I made my way back down and we grabbed lunch at the base. Odds are good that I had the tallest packet of tuna fish on the east coast that day! The return trip was much easier than the trip up. There’s always a worry that the downhill trek will be tough on your legs, but this one wasn’t for some reason. In fact, we cut our time in half making the return trip right at an hour.
Memorable Slap on the Wrist and a Good Lesson Learned
As I came strolling back into #90, I expected the two groups from Saturday night to be gone. They were and two small new ones replaced them. As I was scanning the site trying to get a glimpse of everyone, I noticed someone at the bear cables hoisting something up. I could tell it was a woman and she appeared to be solo (just a small tent and all alone on the far end of the camp site). A further look revealed she had a heavy duty belt on with a gun. Very interesting I thought. Then I noticed the signature dark green pants and gray shirt. “Crap! Ranger!” I thought to myself (remember the part about not having a reservation for that site?). Just then, she hollered over a friendly “hey! Where ya headed to?” I headed her way and started to chat about our itinerary. She asked for our backcountry permit (which we had) and then asked about a reservation at the site. D’oh! Time to come clean; besides, what’s the worst that could happen, I thought. After telling her we didn’t have one, her face went from friendly backpacker to concerned law enforcement officer. I know that look. Not good! I told her what our situation was (with the island being full and there not being another non-reservation site anywhere around) and that I was honestly sorry for breaking the rules as I understand the intent of the reservation system. I mean it when I say I don’t want to be “one of those people” who don’t play by the rules.
She did her job dutifully and told us we wouldn’t get a ticket given the circumstances. “A ticket?” I asked. “Oh yeah. It’s $50 per night per person, plus a $25 processing fee for camping without a reservation” she said. Insert the picture of me jaw-dropped here. I had no clue! I thanked her mercifully and then realized that she’s technically a law enforcement officer and I needed to inform her of my carrying concealed. She didn’t even flinch and simply asked to see my permit and ID. No request to remove my gun or disassemble it like I’ve heard in so many other stories about LEO interaction with concealed carriers. I fully believe it’s all about attitude and demeanor and if you play it right, it’ll go well. She told me she had less to worry about since the majority of concealed carriers she comes across present the least problems for her (or something to that effect). She was so comfortable with it in fact that we even talked guns for a little while (out of earshot of the other folks at the site). To say she was professional and extremely reasonable about the whole thing is a vast understatement. I recorded her name and asked for a supervisor’s name the next morning after letting it all process in my head overnight. I fully intend to send a good word to her office since all too often only the negative stuff makes its way up the chain.
The rest of the evening was relaxed and we got to make the other campers jealous with our steak and baked potato dinner. Hey, when the canoe is doing all the gear lugging, you better believe there’s room for a little bit of splurging! Compliment that meal with an ice cold canned Guinness (kept cold by dry and regular ice in a cooler) and that, folks, is the best I’ve ever eaten in the backcountry!
We sat out at what I’ve dubbed the “Taj Mah-Firepit” until 9 or 10 pm with a small fire while watching the incredible sky above. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park remains the only place I’ve ever seen the Milky Way. It amazes me every time, even just the infinite abundance of stars once your eyes really dial in to the darkness.
We broke camp on Monday morning and started loading the canoe for our return trip around 9am. Our new ranger acquaintance had camped in the main area of #90 and was scheduled to be picked up by a ranger crew in a boat that morning. We chatted while loading the canoe and she gave some insight into her job. As one of three basic types of rangers (interpretive, maintenance, and law enforcement–she being the latter), she spends four or five days on the trail in the backcountry checking on trails and facilities and making sure folks are abiding by the rules (like this knucklehead). Then she heads back into the office for a couple days to report and record what she did and encountered, plan a new trip, and back at it again. What a gig!
We shoved off at 10am and made good time back down Eagle Creek and across the lake to the Marina. I think we were back at 11:20 or so and we weren’t breaking any speed records. In fact–this may be blasphemy to think of on a canoe trip–I couldn’t help but think a small motorized John boat would be really great for these types of trips. For me, the fun is in the remoteness and just getting away. I don’t necessarily care if I get an upper body workout by paddling, and to be honest, when you’re at the end of the trip and just want to get back in, how great would it be to just steer? More relevantly, I’d be much more willing to explore the numerous coves tucked away on the miles of shoreline if I didn’t have to pay for it in muscle cramps! My point in sharing this is to say I think you can have just as good of a trip with a motorized boat as you can in a man-powered vessel.
Final Thoughts and Pointers
The big lesson on my 2008 trip was water level. I paid attention to it and knew where the acceptable range was this time around and it paid off. In my opinion, you should think twice about a boat trip if the water level dips below 1685. The lake stays above that level from about mid-May through mid-September during an average rainfall year. And when it starts tapering off in September, remember it can come down on a scale of 6-12″ per day.
On the topic of Park rules, follow them is all I can say. In addition to not camping in the designated site in 2008, this trip also had me crossing the line by camping without a reservation in a site that required one–and I nearly paid (literally) for it. While I can’t really think of a solution for a low water level situation, I can for the reservation issue. Have a backup plan if you’re anticipating camping at a non-reservation site. This goes for Fontana Lake as well as everywhere else in the park. I’ve never given much thought to this, but I will now on every trip. Some trips may not have a fallback plan, but many could. For this trip, I could have made a reservation at 90 in case 87 was full. I realize this might result in an unused spot at the site, but I’d rather be safe than out $75 or more.
I chalk this trip up a great one. Lots of good experiences and new memories made. As I mentioned already about the tower climb, it had been a while since I’d done something outside the norm like that. It’s been sticking with me this past week and I can’t wait for a chance to do it and the handful of others in the Park. As always, feel free to drop me a comment or question about the area. I’m glad to help when I can. If you haven’t already, check out my 2008 Fontana trip write up and my Fontana trip guide. If you’re planning a trip out there, I think there’s some good info to pick up from them!