Thursday, August 2, 2012

Walking Along the AT: Fontana Dam

Date: March 27, 2012
Direction: NOBO, then SOBO
Distance: ~1 mile round trip
Start (NOBO): Fontana Dam Visitors Center
End (NOBO): Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River is the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Sitting on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is a stunning sight, sitting high above the river valley below it. The lake behind it, Fontana Dam, is a popular lake for fishing and boating. For me, however, it is most important as the entrance of the Appalachian Trail into the Smokies.

Like Hot Springs, the walk at Fontana was both mostly flat and fairly short. For most of the way I walked on the raised sidewalk next to the roadway on top of the dam. On the way across I walked on the lake side and enjoyed the view of the Smokies rising up behind the lake. Before long I had crossed the dam and walked into the grass towards the sign marking the entrance to the National Park. Had I continued, I would have walked along a road for a while, before returning to the trail and a hell of a climb up the ridge line of the Smokies. As tempting as that was, I found it much more prudent to turn around. Making a several thousand foot climb on a whim with few supplies was not a recipe for success.* Instead I walked back across, this time on the side of the dam wall. From here I got a view of the high peaks on the south side of the dam, which were close to where the AT had come from.

A short walk from the Visitors Center at Fontana Dam is a shelter known as the "Fontana Hilton". It is called this because of its proximity to actual bathrooms, showers, and a resort complete with buffet. On a previous visit I walked along the effective path of the AT from a parking lot towards the shelter. I saw it in the distance, but did not approach because I wanted to let the hiker there do what they were doing in peace. The close bathrooms were locked at that time, but it was still winter time, and thus not peak hiker season.

I've actually had the fortune of seeing the AT at its western entrance to GSMNP at Fontana, and its eastern exit at Davenport Gap. As I've seen its crossing of US 441 at Newfound Gap many times, I suppose you can say I've seen both ends and the middle of this memorable section of the AT. However, I still have almost the entire 70 mile stretch yet to actually experience IN the park. This is something I hope to rectify, preferably sooner than later.

Next Week: I walk up to Round Bald, and marvel at the majesty that are the Roan Highlands.

Fontana Dam

*Besides, I had to make it to Wayah Bald before sundown. By going there, I was able to experience sunset atop one of the great panoramic views along the Appalachian Trail, as well as meet a few honest to god thru-hikers. And all it took was a few miles of bumpy driving, and an embarrassingly short walked up a paved trail (most of which was the AT).

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