I’m back in the Smokies to tackle a section of the park I’ve been dreading for years — the network of trails on the western end of Fontana Lake. A dry weather window opened, three days of sun with a 10-20% chance of thunderstorms. It will be enough to get me past the toughest trails on this 5-day, 4-night backpack. I book the campsites and cross my fingers. The forecast holds until the day before I leave. The first day on trail is now 80%, sigh. Most of that day will be spent wading across Eagle Creek anyway.
I drive to Fontana Dam the afternoon prior with the intention of spending the night at the shelter known as “Fontana Hilton.” It’s a large A.T. shelter open through the center like a barn with a set of sleeping platforms to either side. It has a great view of the lake, a fresh water spigot, and access to bathrooms with showers nearby. Thru-hikers love the relative luxury of “Fontana Hilton.” There are several people milling around when I arrive around 6 p.m. I ask one section hiker if there is room for me. “Maybe,” she says. “There’s a group of 14- to 17-year-olds on a camping trip staying here. They are ADHD kids,” she notes with a slightly troubled brow. That’s all I need to know. “Yeah,” she adds, “I may be pitching a tent tonight myself.”
The tenting area above the shelter lines a ridge arching steeply above the lake. Concrete pads take up most of the narrow space and are not conducive to a non-freestanding tent. I’m resigned to spending the night in my car. After dinner, I settle down with a cushy sleeping pad and pillow for a surprisingly decent night’s sleep.
Next morning, I move my car to the dam’s visitor center parking area and am on my way before 7:00 a.m. It is cloudy and certainly looks like an 80% chance of rain. I waste no time covering the nearly one-mile walk to the trailhead. To reach Lost Cove, requires a 3.7-mile hike on the A.T. past Shuckstack fire tower. Climbing to 3,700 feet, I’m ready to begin the first of seven new trails.
Lost Cove descends eastward from the A.T. at Sassafras Gap opposite Twentymile Trail, following Lost Cove Creek’s carved path between Red Ridge to the north and Little Shuckstack’s Snakeden Ridge to the south. Over 2.7 miles, it drops 1800 feet and merges seamlessly into Lakeshore Trail continuing eastward toward Campsite #90.
Starting inauspiciously as a narrow slit through Jewelweed, Early Meadow Rue, Wood Nettle, and tree seedlings, the Lost Cove quickly opens into one of the more lovely trails in the park. No one knows where the “Lost” part of its name comes from, but the “Cove” part is obvious. The trail meanders 2.7 miles through beautiful cove forests. All the markers of a rich and diverse flora, particularly in spring, are here — Mountain Silverbell, Cucumber Magnolia, Lady Fern, Richweed, Cinnamon Fern, Catesby’s Trillium, Blue Cohosh, Nodding Mandarin, Geranium, Great Merrybells, Bloodroot, Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Maidenhair Fern, Crested Iris, Seersucker Sedge, and many more.
Fungi are in full reproductive mode this time of year, sprouting colorful sporocarps along the trail. Little red knobs of Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) are beginning to push through the soil, still encased in their firm, clear gelatinous covering. Fresh, velvety Red and Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor), wrinkled caps of Corrugated Boletes (Boletus hortonii), and everyone’s favorite summer gastronomic ‘shroom Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) brighten my morning.
A half-mile down, the trail’s grade takes a nose dive for another half mile. Progress slows as smaller steps are needed to keep the descent under control. It’s a shame attention must be diverted from the beautiful surroundings to footsteps. The same is true near the end due to multiple stream crossings, some of which could be dicey in high water. My mid-summer hike downhill has the dual advantage of far less exertion and low water.
An uphill hike could work on a colorful cool fall day, and, if the water is not too high, on a colorful cool spring day. On this hot and very humid summer day, I meet two women backpackers struggling up Lost Cove. They look completely wiped, and though I hint at the steeper section to come, I don’t have the heart to undermine what energy they have left.
The upper stream crossings are completely dry. After Campsite #91, a wide level site, lower crossings also pose no problem. The junction with Lakeshore takes me a minute to figure out. Lost Cove appears to continue straight ahead, but a trail sign indicates I’m now on a different trail. Lakeshore eastbound falls in line with Lost Cove’s trajectory along the creek. Lakeshore westbound toward the dam turns sharply upslope away from the creek.
In 0.4 mile Lakeshore makes another dramatic turn at Campsite #90, a very large and well-used site, though no one is here late on a Thursday morning. Little trails, I guess to bathroom locations, spiral out from the main camp. It takes a little wandering around to relocate Lakeshore Trail proper. Look for a footlog spanning Lost Cove Creek’s last gasp prior to joining lake-tamed Eagle Creek.
I am now walking beside a new creek companion, Eagle Creek. Its eponymous trail splits off in a half mile. Just before the junction, Lakeshore crosses the creek on a bridge trussed in a maze of iron struts, overkill if you ask me, but I’m no engineer. At the trail junction, I’m again stumped momentarily. Not because the paths are confusing, but because a large tree has fallen and strategically blocked both trails at the start. Fighting my way through limbs and foliage, I begin Eagle Creek Trail.
Within minutes, I’m at the first crossing. It’s 12:15 and a good opportunity to eat lunch before shedding my boots. While eating, I’m startled to see a man through the trees walking upstream. He’s fly fishing. A second man appears. Both move methodically up Eagle Creek casting their lines. Neither notice me.
With water shoes on and boots secured in my pack, I roll up my pants legs and begin the first of 16 fords across Eagle Creek. The fishermen are walking back downstream, and I can’t resist asking, “Is your name Dwight by chance?” Dwight, the distracted fly fisherman, is a reader of this blog, and it would be quite cool to catch him in the act. “No, I’m Bill,” he says and asks me where I’m headed. He confirms that the water level is low, and I shouldn’t have much trouble. He tells me to take care; I wish him luck fishing.
Indeed, I’ve chosen an excellent time to hike Eagle Creek Trail. The water level is easily manageable and not very swift. It comes over my knees only a few times in one or two spots. It is still important to exercise caution, however. The flow remains powerful enough to throw off balance while walking through. Trekking poles are essential gear, providing extra stability with a second pair of ‘legs.’ On one crossing a downed log was perfectly positioned to lean against. The water feels cool and refreshing on my feet.
The first 4.6 miles of Eagle Creek (which is 8.9 miles total), run a serpentine course up the creek valley, crossing and recrossing the creek 16 times. The valley, seeming wide enough on the ground to question the merit of this routing, looks quite different on a topographic map. Eagle Creek is hemmed by an odd collection of steep ridges emanating from the Smokies crest. Though I still question the true need for so many crossings, on this hot summer day, I’m enjoying the regular relief. That last-minute 80% chance of rain was either a misprint or it simply evaporated. The day is as clear and sunny as originally forecast.
This section of Eagle Creek rises a scant 700 feet in elevation. It’s a little rocky and rooty in places, and I’ve encountered a handful of small blowdowns. Yet all in all it’s been smooth sailing. The stream crossings slow the pace somewhat. At 1.6 miles is Campsite 89, and at 2.7 miles, the trail bisects Campsite 96 with a small site to either side. The Smokies hiking book says #96 is an ‘island’ campsite, but this is certainly not evident to me. However, it’s rather overgrown, and I didn’t stop to explore. If that area is a stream island, it’s a big one.
As with many areas of the park, Eagle Creek watershed was heavily logged in the early Twentieth Century. I come across two long strips of iron train rail, one lying in the creek. At times the valley widens enough during a straight run of the creek to lay out an avenue. I’m strolling creekside through a park in every sense.
The moist valley is a boon for evergreen Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, and Partridgeberry, all prevalent along Eagle Creek. There are also impressive showings of New York Fern and Hayscented Fern. Fruiting Cateby’s Trillium and budding Yellow Fringed Orchid dot the trail. A female Diana Fritillary suns on a downed branch.
Mushrooms are happy here too. Bright red sporocarps of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) complement the dark green mossy banks of Eagle Creek at several crossings. Understated Lactarius quietus var. incanus features a soft pinkish bloom over the purple-brown caps. False coral (Thelephora vialis) sprouts fresh rosettes, shining like lights against the dark earth.
Around 4 p.m., I arrive at my destination for the night, Campsite 97. The hiking book indicates there is a site on the far side of the sixteenth and final creek crossing. Not so. The space has been unused for some time with plants sprouting all through it, and there are no bear cables. I cross back to the real site and set up camp.
It turned into a beautiful day in the mountains, yet there were few people in this remote area of the park. I saw four hikers on the A.T., two backpackers on Lost Cove, and two fishermen on Eagle Creek. No one else comes to Campsite 97 tonight. I sleep well lulled by the shushing sound of the creek.
The next morning I strike camp, cross the creek one last time, and prepare for the final 4.3 miles of Eagle Creek Trail. The grade begins to steepen and undulate and the valley narrows, yet the first 2.7 miles remain easy enough with one stretch perched along a raised rail bed. Wood Betony joins the plants already listed as a notable presence on trail.
Mushrooms include Yellow Blusher (Amanita flavorubescens), Powdery Amanita, Ruddy Puffballs (Morganella subincarnata), False Coral Mushroom, Gem-studded Puffball, young sprigs of Hericium americanum, and possibly Frost’s Amanita (Amanita frostiana). One bolete looks like a massive pancake bigger than my hand. Montagne’s Polypore (Coltricia montagnei) is a widespread but uncommon fungi whose pores radially elongate to form gill-like concentric rings beneath the cap.
With 1.6 miles to go, the real fun begins on Eagle Creek as the trail makes an abrupt change in grade at 3500 feet and climbs alongside Spence Cabin Branch. A slow and deliberate pace with pauses to catch my breath and drink water proves a good strategy. One steep section is actually a cobble corollary to the branch, and the rocks are sturdy and stable enough to make decent steps. The trail moderates as it crosses the branch just past the mid-way point. Here the forest is lush and beautiful. Grasses and sedges that make Spence Field so lovely are here along with Bee Balm, Cutleaf Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Heart-leaf Hedge-nettle, and White Wood Aster. Blue Cohosh is loaded with green fruits not yet ripe.
I pass three men coming down from Spence Field. They are pleased to learn the stream crossings ahead will be easy. I’m pleased to learn I’m almost at the top. One final steep push puts me at the spring for Spence Field Shelter. I stop here to filter a liter of water, then rest a bit at the shelter, eating a snack and drinking. I’ve got 0.2 mile left on Eagle Creek Trail through the sea of sedges carpeting this area to reach the A.T. Another 0.3 mile past some tasty blueberry bushes will put me at the start of Jenkins Ridge Trail. It’s a long trail (8.9 miles), but it is mostly downhill. I feel good knowing the hard part is over.