Not so long ago, the wild ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were peppered with fire towers. The idea was to send men into these towers and diligently scan the country side hoping to spot and prevent forest fires. As it turns out, fires are rare in the Smokys due high rainfall totals, and with improved technology, the park service has abandoned all but a few of these structures. Today, they are accessible to the public and offer sweeping panoramic views of the park for those that risk a climb to the top. They are rare, ominous, aging contraptions that feel completely foreign, yet very much a part of the surrounding landscape. I love to incorporate fire towers into a weekend backpacking mission because they offer thrill seekers a big pay off in the backcountry.
That brings us to our first target. Located just off the Appalachian Trail in the North Carolina woods lies the Shuckstack Fire Tower. Named after the 4,024 ft mountain it occupies, this fire tower was constructed in 1934 by the Public Works Administration. The trail is strenuous and the spur trail to the summit can be obscured by overgrowth. Map out your route and know your surroundings before setting off.
Overview: This is a challenging hike that will test weekend warriors and enthusiasts alike. Plan on thigh-busting inclines where you will gain over 2,000 feet in the first 2.5 miles alone. You’ll be walking on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and the history and drama that go along with this treasure are palpable. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and bear, and bring plenty of fluids to make sure your trip is a success. Expect annual AT thru-hikers (those attempting the 2,200 mile trail in one long continuous hike) to be plentiful in early spring.
Trailhead Data: Due to ongoing construction, hikers are no longer able to drive over Fontana Dam and park near the trailhead. Instead, the hike now requires you to traverse the engineering marvel on foot which adds about 3 miles to this hike’s round trip total. Follow the 6-inch white blazes (on the road, on rocks, everywhere) until you reach the AT trailhead sign. From there, pace yourself up the mountain as you continue to search for white blazes made famous by the long trail. FUN FACT: When 480-foot Fontana Dam was built in 1940, it was the fourth highest dam in the world, and remains the tallest dam in the Eastern United States today.
The Hike: With the added mileage from the dam, figure about 5 miles each way for this trek. I would put this right at the limit for a day hike, and less-active individuals should expect a “come-to-Jesus” moment at some point during the day. The grading of the trail is gradual but constant, with the most severe incline coming near the end at approximately 45 degrees. Enjoy hardwood canopies, wildflowers in early summer, and superb single track trail on the way up. Hopefully all those distractions are enough to keep your mind off gaining more than 2,300 feet in elevation.
Climbing the Tower: According to the park service, the tower’s future is uncertain. It seems there are more modern ways of detecting forest fires these days, and the lack of use clearly shows on this relic. You’ll notice that the 60-foot staircase to the top of the tower has rotten – and sometimes missing – steps. Yes the tower sways in the wind, yes it’s 80+ years old, no it isn’t inspected on a regular basis by the NPS… in fact it isn’t maintained at all. But that’s where my earlier comment about thrill-seeking comes into play! Brave the climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with stunning vistas of Fontana Lake, the Smoky Mountains, and the ranges beyond. Be sure to admire the chimney near the base of the tower which marks the remains of the fire marshal’s cabin.
Hope you enjoyed the journey and congrats on bagging your first fire tower!