Smoky Mountain Hikes - Shuckstack

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Shuckstack Fire Tower Dayhike

Description & Photo by Jacqueline Lott

Length: 6.8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Medium to Strenuous
Highlights: Excellent views of Fontana Lake and the Smoky Mountains
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.

Hike to Shuckstack Tower

Forest fires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were once spotted by using the park's fire towers in order to gain a bird's eye view of the mountains. Though a number of the towers have since been 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 if you happen to be vacationing or just taking a day trip to the national park. The views alone are by far better than any roadside overlook the park provides.
Located along Twentymile ridge, the Shuckstack fire tower is but a tenth of a mile from the Appalachian Trail and a mere 3.4 miles from the road. To reach the tower, the easiest way is to begin on the north side of Fontana Dam, which is on park's North Carolina side. Currently, vehicles are prohibited from crossing the dam because it is under renovation. However, foot traffic across the dam is allowed. The trailhead can be reached along a nice, level path, but count on adding another mile to the hike's roundtrip.


As you cross the dam, the tower can be seen in the distance by scanning the mountain. The largest dam east of the Rocky Mountains, Fontana Dam is a monumental piece of engineering. At full pool, the lake is over 400 feet deep! Once you cross the dam, hang a right and you'll find yourself on the Appalachian Trail after about a half-mile. Now comes the ascent of Twentymile Ridge and a fairly challenging one at that. Nearly from the start the trail is uphill. Now, just remember slow and steady wins the race. Don't be afraid to take a break, however many you need. The three and a half miles to the tower isn't as daunting as it may seem. Still, there are plenty of short, flat stretches on the trail that allow you to take a breather and plenty of rocks and fallen logs to sit on along the way. Gauguing your progress can be difficult, but there are glimpses of the tower along the trail (especially in winter months). The trail will level considerably around two and a half miles, and the walking will be easy for the next half mile or so. Once you're about a quarter of a mile from the tower the terrain starts to climb upward. In fact, you'll encounter your steepest climb (it's mercifully short, though) here. You'll encounter a three-way intersection once on Twentymile Ridge. The simple white line blazed on the surrounding trees marks the AT, while the tower trail is marked with a white "T". Now you're just a tenth of a mile from the tower.


Composed primarily of wood and metal, the Shuckstack fire tower sits perched atop a winding eighty-foot staircase. From the bottom of the fire tower the view is incredible, but the view from the tower is aw-inspiring. Be sure to prepare yourself accordingly before beginning your climb up the tower as you'll notice that it moves ever so slightly. Now don't be alarmed, wind continuously blows across this ridge, and the tower is made to give just a bit. Once you've reached the top though, you'll be awarded a spectacular 360-degree view of the park, with mountains in all directions. To the west you'll notice the Unicoi Mountains, the Nantahala and Snowbird Mountains to the south, to the southeast lie the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Smokies come into view from the east and the north. Remember as you walked across Fontana Dam looking up at the tower? Now you'll be able to make out the dam from this vantagepoint and all the land you trekked on your way to the tower. In all, you have hiked three and a half miles and climbed over 2,000 feet. What a rewarding feeling.


If your trip to Shuckstack is simply a day-hike, carry a few extra items along with you and a knapsack. Include a snack and some bottled water. Be fore-warned, do not drink the water from a park stream without boiling it first. Though invitingly cool and deceptively clear, the streams contain bacteria that can ruin your trip, as well as a significant time thereafter. You might also want to find a place for your camera in your knapsack too. For overnight stays in the backcountry, a backcountry permit is required. And some campsites are reserved in advance. Permits can be found at visitors centers or by calling (865) 436-1231.


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