Lakes, Hikes, and An Abandoned Town: Discover the Secrets of the Southern Smokies

Fontana Village at dusk.
Fontana Village at dusk. Brad Allen
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More than 11 million people visit the Smoky Mountains National Park each year, and the park’s easily accessible eastern edges tend to be favorite trekking grounds for Charlotte hikers. But a little extra effort can net some solitude, even in the most visited national park in the country.

The Southwestern "underbelly" of the Smokies holds some of the most remote and challenging trails in the park. In one of the largest sections without a road, the area north of Fontana Lake is a welcome respite for those hoping to find the quintessential backwoods experience.

It’s not only about rough and rugged hiking here, however. From your starting point near Fontana Dam you can stay at a cozy lodge, paddle a pristine mountain lake, and tour the remnants of an abandoned town.

Looking to explore this much lesser-known—but equally incredible—part of this popular park? Here’s how to get started.

A Look Back at History

Back in the 1940’s, companies supporting the U.S. war effort required a new source of electricity. The Fontana Dam, the highest dam east of the Mississippi, was built on the Little Tennessee River to meet this demand. A 17-mile-long lake was created as a result, and this slice of the Smokies would never be the same.

Springing up quickly among the heavily forested land just south of the dam, Fontana Village was constructed to house and feed the workers and their families. Today, these buildings are still in use as a full-service lodge and resort, offering an array of creature comforts along with the history of the village.

As the waters of the newly formed Fontana Lake rose, North Carolina 288 was submerged in its depths. This was the only road providing access to the communities lying north of the lake.

A new road, Lakeview Drive, was promised, started, but never completed. Known locally as "The Road to Nowhere", it famously peters out about six miles into the park just after a long, dark tunnel. Without access, the communities in the area faded, leaving remnants of their towns to be reclaimed by the forest.

The road now serves as a trailhead for several hiking destinations, including the scenic Lakeshore Trail. Along its 37 miles, hikers can see decayed remnants of the communities in this area, offering a fascinating glimpse into what life was once like here.

Backpacking the Lakeshore Trail

With no car access except for the trailheads on both ends, the 37-mile path provides plenty of opportunity for solo trekking.

Natural highlights include random lake views, deep forest immersions, and occasional access to cool mountain streams. The human history of the dam and lake are evident here as well. Hikers will see the rusted remains of classic cars reclaimed by the forest, the abandoned town of Proctor—left isolated without road access—and a cemetery filled with historic markers of Civil War soldiers and early area settlers.

Logistics of the multi-day hike are surprisingly simple. You can drop a car at its eastern terminus, drive to its western end near Fontana Village, and walk to your drop car. Or, you can simply arrange a shuttle from the The Hike Inn. Several campsites serve hikers along the way; sites 86 and 98 are ideal for a two-night trip. Always check with the park in advance as many of these sites require prior reservation.

Day Hikes Galore

Gregory Bald is one of the most iconic hikes in the park.
Gregory Bald is one of the most iconic hikes in the park. Bob Carr

The network of trails that weave and wander through this part of the park lead to some classic destinations. Connecting and bisecting at multiple points, these trails form several loop, with options for both casual and ambitious hikers.

Two loops hikes stand out as must-dos while in the area, one of which is the hike to Gregory Bald. Any wall calendar of the Smokies is bound to include at least one shot from atop this iconic summit. Peaking its nearly 5,000-foot-high precipice above the surrounding forest, the photogenic, treeless mountain is worthy of its fame. This is never truer than in mid-to-late June, when Gregory Bald is draped in a stunning display of brilliant flame azaleas.

The trek to the top of Gregory from the south is definitely ambitious that requires either a 14-mile out-and-back or a nearly 16-mile loop hike. Either way, you’ll earn the views more than those summiting from the north. Begin your hike at the misleadingly named Twentymile Trail (it’s only five miles long) and follow The Wolf Ridge Trail all the way to the AT. From there choose to return the same way, or follow the loop created by the Long Hungry Ridge Trail to the east.

As one of only four of its kind left in the park, the Shuckstack Firetower is among a dying breed. Reaching the top of this rickety, rusty relic is a climb-at-your-own risk adventure for sure. Built in 1934 and not currently maintained by the park, the tower has missing railings and rotted wood steps.

But even without the perilous scamper on the fire tower itself, the views from the ridge on which it sits are pretty remarkable. You can access this ridge with a steep, 7-mile out-and-back hike beginning at the trailhead across the dam from Fontana Village. Or continue for a bit and follow the Lost Cove Trail to make a loop trek. Keep in mind that the Lost Cove Trail includes a knee-busting descent before reaching the edge of Fontana Lake and smoothing out somewhat for the final stretch back to the trailhead.

Fontana Village

Fontana Lake is a great home base for exploration.
Fontana Lake is a great home base for exploration. Brian Greer

Initially constructed as a town for the hardworking families that built the Fontana Dam, Fontana Village is now a full-service base camp for any adventure in this neck of the woods.

The cabins, which are cozy and clean if not extravagant, originally served as laborer housing during the dam’s construction. The village had a school, and the lodge—with all its stone and wood beam charm—served as the area hospital.

Today, more modern conveniences such as a casual grill, full-service restaurant, ice cream parlor, and gift shop round out the amenities available on site. Fontana Village also manages a full-service marina. From here you can rent pontoons and kayaks to explore the undeveloped shoreline of the lake. During summer, the marina hosts sunset pontoon cruises and offers a ferry service across the lake for hikers looking for a shortcut to the trails there.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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