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 Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains

Shuckstack Fire Tower Dayhike

Description & Photo by Jacqueline Lott

Length: 6.8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Medium to Strenuous
Highlights: Excellent views of Fontana Lake and the Smokies
Caution: Steep terrain can be slick in snow or rain, or on fallen leaves
Note: Best hiked on a clear day to enjoy the view.
Directions: Shuckstack is on the North Carolina side of the Park. From Bryson, take NC 28 to Fontana Dam. Start your hike from the north side of the dam.

Hike to Shuckstack Tower

The historic fire towers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were once used to gain a bird's eye view of the mountains in order to spot forest fires. Though many of the towers were removed as more modern methods for fire detection were developed, Shuckstack and three other towers remain. These out of the way destinations are well worth the extra effort, and the vistas they provide are by far better than any view available from any roadside overlook.

Located on Twentymile ridge, the Shuckstack fire tower is just a tenth of a mile from the Appalachian Trail and a mere 3.4 miles from the road. The quickest and easiest way to access the tower is to begin on the north side of Fontana Dam, which is on the North Carolina side of the Park. Please note that the dam is under renovation at this time, and vehicles are prohibited from crossing the dam. Foot traffic across the dam is allowed, however. The section of road you have to walk to reach the trailhead is nice and level, but it will add a little over a mile to the roundtrip distance of the hike.

As you cross the dam, scan the mountains to the north and you'll be able to make out the tower in the distance. Fontana Dam is a monumental piece of engineering, and is the largest dam east of the Rocky Mountains; the lake is over 400 feet deep at full pool! Continue across the dam, take a right, and you'll find yourself at the Appalachian Trail in a little over half a mile. Now begins the fairly challenging ascent of Twentymile Ridge. The trail is uphill nearly from the start - just remember that slow and steady wins the race. Take breaks as you need them, and you'll find that the three and a half miles to the tower isn't as daunting as most make it out to be. You'll notice that there are plenty of short but flat stretches on the trail that allow you to catch your breath, and plenty of fallen logs and rocks to sit on and rest along the way. Though it's often difficult to gauge your progress, you will have glimpses of the tower from time to time (especially in winter months). At around two and a half miles the trail will level considerably, and the walking will be easy for the next half mile or so. Then, about a quarter of a mile from the tower you'll encounter your steepest climb (it's mercifully short, though). Once on Twentymile Ridge, you'll encounter a three-way intersection. The AT is marked with simple white line blazed on the trees, while the path the tower is marked with a white "T". From here, the tower is just a tenth of a mile.

The Shuckstack fire tower is actually a small wood and metal building perched atop a winding eighty-foot staircase. You'll no doubt see that the view from the rocks at the bottom of the fire tower is incredible, but the view from the tower is much better. As you begin to climb the tower, you'll notice that it moves ever so slightly, but don't be alarmed. Wind continuously blows across View of Fontana Lake from Shuckstack Towerthis ridge, and the tower is made to give a little. From the top of the tower, you'll be awarded a spectacular 360-degree view, with mountains in all directions. The Unicoi Mountains can be seen to the west, the Snowbird and Nantahala Mountains to the south, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the southeast, and the Smokies to the east and north. Remember looking up at the tower as you walked across Fontana Dam? From this vantagepoint, you'll be able to make out the dam and all of the land you covered on your way to the tower. You've covered about three and a half miles and climbed over two thousand feet. It's a rewarding feeling indeed. To return to your car, simply descend from the tower and return the way you came

If your trek to Shuckstack is a day-hike, take a knapsack and carry a few extra items. Include some bottled water and a snack. Never drink the water from a Park stream without boiling it first. Though the streams in the park are invitingly cool and deceptively clear, they contain bacteria that can wreck your trip and a substantial period thereafter, if you succumb to the temptation to drink from them. You might even include a camera in your knapsack too. A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Certain campsites are reserved in advance. Permits are available at visitors centers or by calling (865) 436-1231.

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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on this hike can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. Our own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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