The Appalachian Trial (AT) is the longest footpath in the world, spanning across 14 states from Maine to Georgia. 2,190 miles in total, it can take up to 5 to 7 months to complete and only 1 in 4 make it!
After reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, I felt inspired to experience my own backcountry hiking adventure and in August 2015, a friend and I hiked the 71 mile section of the AT that weaves through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited National Park in the USA with over 10 million visitors in 2014.
We had an amazing 6 days on the AT and here are 5 reasons why the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains is for everyone!
1. Well marked trail
The Appalachian Trail is well marked by frequent and highly visible white blazes, making it virtually impossible to get lost! In addition to the blazes, there are also signposts at all trail junctions.
2. No water worries
There are plenty of water sources located in close proximity to each backcountry shelter – simply head down with your water sterilizer apparatus and you are in business! Every evening, we would fill up for the next days hike using our Sawyer water filtration system.
3. Stunning vistas at the viewpoints
Hiking the AT trail within the Great Smokies offers a true sense of remoteness, as you are spending each day deep within the forest. As you catch your breath after dutifully making your way up some of the steeper climbs, you are rewarded with four notable viewpoints: Shuckstack Mountain, Clingmans Dome (the highest point on the AT), Charlies Bunion and Mt Cammerer.
4. Connect with great people along the trail & shelters
We met some amazing people over our six days, feeling a real sense of camaraderie between hikers on the trail and at the shelters. We also met with a group of AT volunteers who maintain their own section of the trail – all of whom had their own AT story to share.
5. Meet the local residents
The Great Smokies is home to over 1,000 black bears and we were fortunate to see two on the trail – one black bear ran off before we could get a proper look and the other stood calmly eating berries!
One thing that we were not aware of prior to the trip was the number of wild hogs that inhabit the National Park – I have to put my hand up here and confess that although we never saw one, we stopped drinking water after dinner to avoid going to the privy in the dark!
Feeling inspired? Here is our route – get in touch if you have any questions!
Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap
6 days to hike 71 miles, heading south to north from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap – hiking around 10 to 14 miles per day
DAY 1: Fontana Dam > Mollies Ridge Shelter, 10.3 miles
DAY 2: Mollies Ridge Shelter > Derrick Knob Shelter,12 miles
DAY 3: Derrick Knob Shelter > Mount Collins Shelter, 13.8 miles
DAY 4: Mount Collins Shelter > Pecks Corner Shelter, 14.9 miles
DAY 5: Pecks Corner Shelter Side Trail > Cosby Knob Shelter, 12.9 miles
DAY 6: Cosby Knob Shelter > Davenport Gap, 7.1 miles
The planning process can be quite daunting, but hang in there as the pay off is worth it! One of the benefits of hiking the Great Smokies, is that despite being the most visited, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park receive the most overnight stays – increasing your chances of securing your spot in the backcountry shelters.
• Direction & distances: Decide which direction and daily distance you want to hike and then find the closest shelter. You may need to be flexible, as your preferred shelter may be closed in the event of increased bear activity and annual maintenance.
• Permits: Backcountry permits must be obtained prior to entering the park and can be booked online.
• Shelters: You can only book the shelters 30 days in advance of the 1st night of your trip and there are 15 in total. If you are unsuccessful in reserving a shelter, there are backcountry campsites available – we opted for the shelters so that we didn’t have to carry our tents and with little experience of bears, we thought it might be safer!
• Getting there: If you are travelling from overseas, pick a city you want to fly into (e.g. Atlanta, Charlotte or Nashville*) and the easiest option is to hire a car as there is limited public transport available.
• Shelter facilities: The shelters are extremely basic, however it is a great experience and you have all you need for the night – water source, bear cables, privy (selected shelters only), seating area and great company as you are joined by different hikers every night!
• Supplies: We bought all of our food supplies at REI – using a Jetboil to ‘cook’ a selection of re-hydrated meals for lunch and dinner and porridge for breakfast.
• Hiking safety: Take some time to go through the safety tips from the National Park Service, as backcountry hiking has inherent risks and rescue is not a certainty. Needless to say, your mobile phone will not work for the duration of your trip (although you may get reception at Clingmans Dome)!
• Leave no trace: Above all, you will need to pack out whatever you pack in (take plenty of small and large zip-lock bags) and yes, that means everything!
Fontana Dam accommodation
We stayed with Nancy and Jeff at the Hike Inn – they were fantastic hosts and made us feel extremely welcome! In addition to accommodation, they offer a reasonably priced convenient shuttle service to and from the park. Jeff drove us to the entrance of the Great Smokies in Fontana Dam and collected us at Davenport Gap (we left our hire car in their car park).
Nantahala Outdoor Centre: If you have time, take a 30 minute drive from the Hike Inn to the Nantahala Outdoor Centre in Bryson City for a cold one to celebrate the end of your successful hike!
* We flew into Nashville, TN and spent the weekend enjoying the sights (highlights included the music, food and bars on Downtown, The Bluebird Cafe and Grand Ole Opry) – before driving around 250 miles on the I40 to Fontana Dam, NC.
Useful Great Smoky Mountain links