Four years ago, I hiked the eastern half of Lakeshore Trail (17.9 miles). Over the next two days, I will complete this roughly 35-mile trail (16.9 miles), walking to Chesquaw Branch and returning to finish at the dam. I’m on my way Sunday morning before most campers at #86 are even awake. With the majority of my gear secure in a bag on the bear cables, I can more comfortably tackle the 12.8 total miles to and from Chesquaw plus the 0.6 mile out and back on Ollie Cove Trail.
A kiosk next to Proctor Bridge tells of the area’s evolution over two centuries. Wilderness largely untouched for thousands of years began to harbor settlers farming the land in the 1830s. It became the town of Proctor in 1886 with the establishment of a post office. Twenty years later, W.M. Ritter Lumber Company turned sleepy Proctor into a booming “company town” complete with cafe, barber shop, movie theater, and its own dentist. Twenty years after that, Ritter left town having harvested the timber, and Proctor became a quiet farm community once more. World War II sealed its fate with impoundment of the dam and Tennessee Valley Authority deeding land north of the lake to the new park.
Images of the town 100 years ago on the kiosk are hard to reconcile with the bucolic scene today. A wide grassy avenue that is now Lakeshore Trail was once Struttin’ Street. The only things struttin’ here this morning are American Plantain and White Clover. Lakeshore exits the grass-covered roadbed and starts uphill following another old road that had connected farmsteads and small communities near the Little Tennessee River, now Fontana Lake.
At 0.7 mile, Ollie Cove Trail drops to the right along another old road ending at the lake. This 0.3 mile route is often used by boat shuttles when lake levels are too low to access Hazel Creek. Steep and eroded, its utilitarian purpose is all that recommends this trail. There are some colorful Indigo Milky mushrooms fruiting here, and the lakeside view has merit.
These old roads expose a soil type that is prone to serious erosion, particularly when the grade and trail trajectory provide a perfect sluice for rain water. Add the churn of horse hooves, and deeply trenched, rocky trail sections are insured. This is the case climbing Welch Ridge. It’s a short but steep half-mile haul. Following a one-mile descent, Lakeshore Trail bottoms out below 2,000’ and remains there the rest of the way. Small stream crossings like Whiteside Creek, Mill Branch, and Calhoun Branch plus low mucky areas dot the next 1.5 miles.
Before Campsite 81, Lakeshore crests two small ridges. Spur trails follow these ridges to cemeteries, Fairview and Cook. Fairview sits on a small knob overlooking the lake and ringed by trees that obscure the view in summer. The access trail just outside the cemetery is lined with three long picnic tables. Graves in these small cemeteries typically face east, an orientation that places the approach to Fairview from behind. Each site is graced with colorful plastic flowers.
A half-mile past #81, the trail no longer follows old roads and becomes a pleasant footpath through the forest, rising and falling with each hillside wrinkle. The area between Calhoun and Chesquaw branches was farmed using stone terraces. Despite vigilance, the only evidence of terracing I can see comes just before Chesquaw, where at least three levels of stone walls can be detected.
Chesquaw Branch is somewhat unique, its waters sheeting down a narrow rock slide for almost 30 feet, one of a few such stream conditions found during my hikes and, interestingly, most on the North Carolina side of the park. I sit next to Chesquaw to eat lunch and rest before heading back. I’ve seen this lovely little stream twice and may never have occasion to visit again.
Yesterday at Proctor Bridge, today walking to Chesquaw, and again on my return trip, I encounter an older man (father or grandfather) and his teenage son (grandson). Both look tired and the teenager also looks bored and sullen. They are hiking an ambitious loop from Clingmans Dome following the A.T., Hazel Creek, Lakeshore, and Forney Creek. The man’s maps are so tiny as to be worthless, not even realizing he’s looking at them upside down. He knows little about the trails, and I suspect has no camping permit from the park. I show him my National Geographic map so he can get a better idea of where he is and what is in store. He’s a nice guy, but what makes this duo stand out is the teenager’s hair. This skinny white kid is sporting a massive reddish-brown afro that reminds me of the movie Naked Gun’s club scene flashback with O.J. Simpson character Nordberg’s “doorway-wedging” do. The kid needs a two-person tent to accommodate his hair!
Naked-flower Tick-trefoil’s (Desmodium nudiflorum) tall racemes of pinkish purple flowers and strings of triangular seeds are a consistent presence on trail, joined sporadically by Sweet Joe Pyeweed. A few mushrooms, False Fly Agaric and Strangulated Amanita, can be found. Otherwise, it is an uneventful stroll through the summer forest.
Back at Campsite 86, I filter water (it’s hot and I’ve been drinking a lot), eat a snack, and load up to move 1.4 miles further down Lakeshore to Possum Hollow, Campsite #88. Across Proctor Bridge and past the Calhoun House, Lakeshore is a gravel road (formerly Calico Street) heading uphill a quarter mile then dropping slightly past Proctor Cemetery. In this section, Lakeshore Trail moves away from the lake and cuts straight across a thumb of land between Hazel and Eagle creeks, working its way up Shehan Branch through Possum Hollow for the first half. A tall chimney rises from a flat bench just below the road surrounded by lush greenery.
Campsite #88 hides off trail 0.1 mile, camouflaged amid a resurgent forest. Look carefully for the small wooden sign as the faint access trail will escape notice. This isn’t helped by the fact that you must cross a tiny walled creek, then meander aimlessly a bit before reaching the campsite. This site is listed for 12 people, but there was only one tent location anywhere in the vicinity. It would be hard pressed to accommodate 2! Heaven knows when the last person camped here. The water source is that little trailside creek. Its walled sides make access more difficult than it needs to be. I feel more ‘stuck in the boonies’ here than at any other time on trail. I hang my gear on the cables and half-joking think it might be a good move to hoist myself up there too. However, the night is quiet aside from a coyote yipping around 5:00 a.m.
Monday morning I’m off early for the final day…10 miles to my car. Lakeshore climbs the side of Pinnacle Ridge and joins the ridge line during a 3.5-mile stretch to Eagle Creek and Campsite #90. The fallen tree that blocked Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails on Thursday is still there. I snack at #90 and keep going, 5.6 trail miles to go. Lakeshore continues to do what it does best…up and down, up and down, up and down…working its way around the bases of Snakeden and Shuckstack ridges and major draws in between.
Three miles past #90, the trail’s route mirrors old North Carolina Highway 288 for 1.5 miles. The road must have been a tempting alternative to the trail at one time. NPS posted a little metal hiker sign with an arrow to indicate the true path. The road behind the sign is now dense with impenetrable vegetation. No one could mistake it for a viable route. Yet the sign remains, bearing all manner of scratches, including a rather devilish looking smily face.
The 288 stretch is level and wide, though vegetation is trying to reclaim the inner half. One plant proves a shocker, American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). I would never have anticipated finding this southeastern native species in the Smokies, but it is healthy, happy, and flowering. The park lists it as a rare plant at low elevation. Its clusters of pink flowers will result in thick bracelets of magenta purple fruit encircling the twigs at each foliage node. Mockingbirds love the fruit.
Old Highway 288 boosts some interesting cultural artifacts as well. World War II not only necessitated electrical generation through impoundment of the Little Tennessee, it also made rubber a scarce commodity. Some locals leaving their homes before the dam was closed did not have tires for their vehicles and were forced to abandon them. Scavenged car bodies litter the trail. I find 5 chassises in varying states of disassembly.
I don’t see very many wild hog traps on trail these days, but here is one with its door raised close to the path. Someone has exercised artistic license to decorate the solid door panel with a cute cartoon rendering of this exotic animal. This will be the only time “cute” and “wild hog” occur in the same paragraph.
A bit more up and down, then the trail levels out through a groundcover of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and slips into the trailhead at Lakeview Drive West. It’s 1:35 p.m. My car is at the dam visitor center one mile (25 minutes) away. On the road is a doe and her fawn. The little spotted deer is frisky, prancing and dashing about on the asphalt, as mom stands like a statue, giving me an unwavering stare.
Fontana’s bathroom facilities provide an opportunity to shower away the stink and grime and don fresh clothes before my five-hour drive home. It’s a fantastic feeling to have this trip successfully behind me!