published Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Fond of hiking in the Fontana Dam area

By Gary Petty
  • photo
    Chattanooga Hiking Club member Reggie Jay crosses Lost Cove Creek. The creek parallels major portions of the Lost Cove Trail and had become impossible to "rock hop" due to recent snow melting in the Smoky Mountains National Park near Fontana Dam. Photo by Gary Petty

While hikers hit trails partly to get exercise and to spend time outdoors, many venture to see a waterfall, a mountain vista or a place in history.

All come into play in the Fontana Dam area.

Started in January 1942, the 480-foot-high Tennessee Valley Authority dam was completed in 1944. With work 24 hours a day seven days a week, construction of the massive concrete structure was done in record time.

Built to harness the energy of the Little Tennessee River with electrical power needed during World War II, the dam is the tallest in the eastern part of the United States and creates a shoreline of 238 miles. About 5,000 workers took part in the project, and because of its remote location a village for them was created nearby.

The renovated village offers a great mountain get-away on the southwestern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just a short distance into North Carolina from Tennessee.

Chattanooga Hiking Club member Owen Holbrook has walked the entire Appalachian Trail and all the trails in the country's most visited national park. He is fascinated by the Fontana region.

"I guess it is the dam and the history of the area," he said. "I really like the Hazel Creek area. That is where the old lumbering town of Proctor was located. You can still see some old footings of the old sawmill there.

"That side of the Smoky Mountains is what I really like."

AT through hikers know the area well for the "Fontana Hilton" shelter. Hikers look forward to getting to the 24-person facility near a bathhouse that provides hot-water showers.

The only other hot-water shower on the AT is 133 miles south of Fontana.

After walking 2,365 feet across the dam, AT hikers enter the national park. The next major trail landmark is the Shuckstack Fire Tower -- a 60-foot-high steel-framed structure at the end of a 3.7-mile ascent. It was built in 1932 and provides a 360-degree view.

At the base of the tower are the ruins of an old chimney and part of the foundation of the house where the tower watchman once lived. Caution is required in climbing the abandoned tower, as some handrails are missing and the wooden steps need replacing.

While AT through hikers continue into the Smokies, others may opt to take the Lost Cove Trail back down to Fontana Lake. Crossing several streams, the Lost Cove Trail drops 2.7 miles before intersecting with the Lakeshore Trail.

In the wake of melting snow or heavy rainfall, rock hopping across the streams may become impossible, requiring hikers to walk through the streams.

Backcountry campsite number 91 along the Lost Cove is on the remnants of an old logging railroad.

Those hiking the Lakeshore Trail, part of which was North Carolina Highway 288 before Fontana Lake covered it, can watch for old homesteads and abandoned automobiles. During the war, rubber tires were in short supply and owners drove the vehicles until the tires were no longer serviceable. Tires were available after the war, but the lake waters prevented removal of cars.

At the intersection of the Lost Cove and the Lakeshore trails, hikers can choose to walk 5.2 miles back to the dam or trek 30 miles toward Bryson City, the trail ending at "The Road to Nowhere."

In 1943 the state of North Carolina, TVA, the U.S. Department of Interior and Swain County agreed on building a highway from Bryson City to Fontana to make up for the loss of Highway 288. Hundreds of residents had to vacate land that would be covered by the lake, but many wanted to maintain access to their families' cemeteries.

Only a few miles of the road were completed, however, and after many years of environmental concerns and legal battles, the Department of Interior settled the issue in 2010 by paying Swain County $52 million. Former University of Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler, a county native, spearheaded the resolution as a U.S. congressman.

Contact Gary Petty at sports@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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