Length: 6.8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Medium to Strenuous
Highlights: Excellent views of Fontana Lake and the Smokies
Caution: Steep terrain can be slick in snow or rain, or on fallen leaves
Note: Best hiked on a clear day to enjoy the view.
Directions: Shuckstack is on the North Carolina side of the Park. From Bryson, take NC 28 to Fontana Dam. Start your hike from the north side of the dam.
The historic fire towers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were once used to gain a bird’s eye view of the mountains in order to spot forest fires. Though many of the towers were removed as more modern methods for fire detection were developed, Shuckstack and three other towers remain. These out of the way destinations are well worth the extra effort, and the vistas they provide are by far better than any view available from any roadside overlook.
Located on Twentymile ridge, the Shuckstack fire tower is just a tenth of a mile from the Appalachian Trail and a mere 3.4 miles from the road. The quickest and easiest way to access the tower is to begin on the north side of Fontana Dam, which is on the North Carolina side of the Park. Please note that the dam is under renovation at this time, and vehicles are prohibited from crossing the dam. Foot traffic across the dam is allowed, however. The section of road you have to walk to reach the trailhead is nice and level, but it will add a little over a mile to the roundtrip distance of the hike.
As you cross the dam, scan the mountains to the north and you’ll be able to make out the tower in the distance. Fontana Dam is a monumental piece of engineering, and is the largest dam east of the Rocky Mountains; the lake is over 400 feet deep at full pool! Continue across the dam, take a right, and you’ll find yourself at the Appalachian Trail in a little over half a mile. Now begins the fairly challenging ascent of Twentymile Ridge. The trail is uphill nearly from the start – just remember that slow and steady wins the race. Take breaks as you need them, and you’ll find that the three and a half miles to the tower isn’t as daunting as most make it out to be. You’ll notice that there are plenty of short but flat stretches on the trail that allow you to catch your breath, and plenty of fallen logs and rocks to sit on and rest along the way. Though it’s often difficult to gauge your progress, you will have glimpses of the tower from time to time (especially in winter months). At around two and a half miles the trail will level considerably, and the walking will be easy for the next half mile or so. Then, about a quarter of a mile from the tower you’ll encounter your steepest climb (it’s mercifully short, though). Once on Twentymile Ridge, you’ll encounter a three-way intersection. The AT is marked with simple white line blazed on the trees, while the path the tower is marked with a white “T”. From here, the tower is just a tenth of a mile.
The Shuckstack fire tower is actually a small wood and metal building perched atop a winding eighty-foot staircase. You’ll no doubt see that the view from the rocks at the bottom of the fire tower is incredible, but the view from the tower is much better. As you begin to climb the tower, you’ll notice that it moves ever so slightly, but don’t be alarmed. Wind continuously blows across this ridge, and the tower is made to give a little. From the top of the tower, you’ll be awarded a spectacular 360-degree view, with mountains in all directions. The Unicoi Mountains can be seen to the west, the Snowbird and Nantahala Mountains to the south, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the southeast, and the Smokies to the east and north. Remember looking up at the tower as you walked across Fontana Dam? From this vantage point, you’ll be able to make out the dam and all of the land you covered on your way to the tower. You’ve covered about three and a half miles and climbed over two thousand feet. It’s a rewarding feeling indeed. To return to your car, simply descend from the tower and return the way you came.
If your trek to Shuckstack is a day-hike, take a knapsack and carry a few extra items. Include some bottled water and a snack. Never drink the water from a Park stream without boiling it first. Though the streams in the park are invitingly cool and deceptively clear, they contain bacteria that can wreck your trip and a substantial period thereafter, if you succumb to the temptation to drink from them. You might even include a camera in your knapsack too. A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Certain campsites are reserved in advance. Permits are available at visitors centers or by calling (865) 436-1231.