This section of trail offers a challenge to anyone’s stamina, and it provides a small glimpse into the wonderful trail culture that can be found along the Appalachian Trail. Make sure to arrange for a shuttle or plan a way to get back to your car, as this is a one-way hike. There are many shuttle companies in the area that can be found by doing a quick internet search.
Parking at Fontana Dam is plentiful, and there are several options. One can park near the visitor center or continue across the dam and into Great Smoky Mountains National Park where a small parking area is available at the AT trailhead. Restrooms and showers can be found at the dam as well as a nice hiker shelter (dubbed the “Fontana Hilton”).
After crossing the dam (either by foot or car) and following the road uphill for a brief distance, you’ll come to the AT trailhead. From here the trail climbs steadily uphill for several miles. The trail finally levels out for a bit around Shuckstack Peak. A short side trail leads to the top of Shuckstack where an old fire tower is located. Climbing to the top of the tower provides sweeping views of the Smokies and Fontana Lake. Continuing on you’ll come to an intersection with Lost Cove Trail and then campsite 113. This is the first (and only) campsite along this section of trail. For the remainder of the trail you will be required to stay in one of several shelters. To lessen environmental impact, the use of tents and hammocks at these sites is prohibited. All of the shelters on this stretch of trail are located next to a reliable water source, and most have a privy onsite.
After passing Spence Field shelter the trail emerges from tree cover and traverses grassy hilltops for the next mile or so. A steep climb then leads to the summit of Rocky Top. On a clear day the views are fantastic. You are in for more great views as the trail stays high on a ridgeline for a while. Eventually the AT drops back under tree cover and some of the terrain gets very difficult and strenous.
The last shelter on this stretch of trail is Double Spring Gap. From here it is only about 3 miles to Clingmans Dome. The trail climbs gradually, and soon different vegetation and trees begin to appear. Eventually the AT breaks above the peaks, and great views are to be had. After arriving at the top of Clingmans Dome, be sure to climb the observation tower for fantastic 360-degree views. A short 0.5-mile hike down a paved trail will take you to the road and parking area, or a brief 1,990 miles on the AT will take you to Katahdin, Maine - your choice!
Please note that permits are required for all overnight trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are available here.