AT 2017: Day 15, Fontana to Mollies Ridge Shelter

These are the days now that we must savor

Climbing Shuckstack Mountain

People will often tell you to enjoy the time you have with your children when they are young.

"They grow up so fast," is what you're told, and that much is true.

Let me tell you, though, special moments can be had with your children when they are adults. In some ways, those moments are even more enjoyable.

DateTuesday, April 18, 2017
WeatherCloudy with brief, light rain showers during the day, heavier rain in early evening; high temperature in upper 60s
Trail ConditionsDry, then becoming wet and muddy
Today's Miles13.1
Trip Miles177.0

The case in point for me is the next few days as I hike with Landon, our younger son, through the Smokies.

Logan, our older son, was intending to join Landon and me on this section as well, but after I had to change my start date, conflicts in his schedule prevented that. He may be able to join me on the trail later.

Landon's and my day began with breakfast at the Fontana Village Lodge restaurant. Then after collecting our gear we got a shuttle ride to the marina, which is where Kim and Landon had picked me up yesterday.

Leaving the marina

It was cloudy and pleasantly cool when we left the marina.

View of the lake

The trail continued along the shore of the lake, so we had frequent views of it.

Fontana Hilton

Before long we reached a shelter known as the Fontana Hilton. It was built by and is maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the quasi-government agency that runs the dam and several other power-generating facilities.

The Hilton has a number of features not found in any other shelter, such as a solar-powered phone charger and shower facilities.

Quiet Man was there, so we chatted with him before moving on.

Viewing the lake

There were a few information plaques along the next part of the trail, including one to tell tourists about the AT.

Where the lake is today was at one time a logging camp. It was named Fontana by Mrs. George Leidy Wood, wife of the executive vice-president of the Montvale Lumber Company.

During this time ALCOA, the aluminum manufacturer, began buying land with intentions of constructing a dam here, but initially the company focused on other dam projects in the area.

In the meantime the logging camp grew to a small town when a copper mine began operating nearby.

After the outbreak of World War II, a dam at this location suddenly became an urgent priority when the U.S. government saw a need for aluminum to help the war effort. The TVA took control of the land, forced out the copper mining operation, and began building the dam.

Fontana Village, where Landon and I stayed last night, was constructed as a home for the 6,000 workers and their families needed to build the dam.

Fontana Visitors Center

When we reached the visitors center I recalled there used to be a soft drink vending machine here. Thinking a sugary drink would give a good boost to our re-entry into the mountains, we went looking for it.

We found it, but it was out of order.

Fontana Dam

The trail continued across the dam, so that's where we went.

When construction of the dam was completed it was the fourth largest hydro-electric power dam in the world and the largest in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. It stands at 2,365 feet long and 480 feet high.

This dam is not, however, the only place where the AT crosses a dam.

Fontana Dam

Walking farther, we could see the tracks of a narrow gauge funicular railway. At one time, TVA allowed tourists to ride a railcar down to the power generation building.

Rides were halted, however, after September 11, 2001, because of terrorism fears.

Fontana Dam

Once we reached the other end of the dam we entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Entering the park

It's scary to think what this land would look like if the park didn't exist. Most likely, it would not be one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. It would not be rich with thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The area would not be part of an International Biosphere Reserve.

Certainly, GSMNP would not be home to roughly 187,000 acres of old growth forest, the largest such stand east of the Mississippi River. It would not contain the densest black bear population in the Eastern United States or the most diverse salamander population outside of the tropics.

We can presume these things because by the 1930s, about two-thirds of the virgin forests in the Smokies had already been removed. Water and minerals were also being exploited.

What saved this area, though, and made this a protected national park, was a movement that began in the 1920s by residents of Knoxville, Asheville, and other surrounding communities.

Permit box

Entry into the park is free, but all campers are required to purchase a permit.

When we arrived at the box to deposit our permit it was jammed full.

Thru-hikers use a different permit system than all other campers. They must reserve space in a campsite or shelter for each night they are in the park.

Thru-hikers are less able to be as exact about their schedule, so their permit gives some flexibility.

The permit is good for eight days, which is enough time for most hikers to hike the entire portion of the AT in the park, even if they choose to stop in Gatlinburg.

Everyone is required to stay in a shelter, but if all of the reserved spaces are full, thru-hikers must pitch a tent. This is the only time tent camping is allowed at shelters.

There is just one campsite on the AT that doesn't have a shelter.

Master Splinter

Only a few steps away from the permit box we met Master Splinter, one of the ridgerunners who work in the park.

Like the ridgerunner I met in Georgia, Master Splinter and the others help hikers, pick up trash, and report problems they might find.

View of Fontana

Right from the start the trail began a long ascent. Occasionally we got more views of Fontana Reservoir.

Climbing Shuckstack

Early on, Landon was hiking behind me, but soon he became weary of my slower pace and asked to hike in front. He was kind enough to occasionally wait for me so that he didn't get too far ahead.

Flowering tree

One of the nicest benefits of hiking in the Smokies is there are many spots along the trail that give a full view of surrounding mountains.

The first mountain we went up was Shuckstack. It's said that when you view this mountain from Thunderhead Mountain, it looks like a bundle of cornstalks, which are sometimes called shuckstacks.

Shuckstack Tower

At the top of Shuckstack is an old fire tower.

The 60-foot tower was constructed in 1934 during the Great Depression by the Public Works Administration.

Ten years later, after the dam was built, the AT was rerouted to go up Shuckstack and pass near the tower.

View from Shuckstack Tower

The tower provided an outstanding 360-degree view of mountains, but we didn't stay at the top long. We could hear the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm.

Walking in the rain

Almost as soon as we came down from the tower it began to rain. Although the rain was heavy only briefly, the shower continued for the next several miles.

We stopped at a side trail that led to Birch Spring Campground, the only site without a shelter, but decided to not stay there. We chose to continue on to Mollies Ridge Shelter, as we originally planned.

Walking toward Mollies Ridge

Before we reached Mollies Ridge the rain stopped, so once we arrived we decided to get water first. This turned out to be a mistake, as it started to rain while we were getting water.

Later, we would have to set up our tents in the rain.

At some point near Mollies Ridge we had entered Tennessee, the third of 14 states on the trail.

For the next 200 miles, the trail will meander across both Tennessee and North Carolina, and usually it will be difficult to tell which state we're in.

These are the days now that we must savor
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.