Shuckstack Lookout Tower (12-22-18)
Shuckstack is a Smoky Mountain peak I’ve had on my radar for a long, long time. Rumors of the incredible vista to be seen from the historic fire lookout at its summit made Shuckstack sound like a destination equal in grandeur to many of the more well-known Smoky Mountain peaks. I knew I had to go, and I had to guarantee a perfect day to do this hike to maximize the beauty. Initially I considered fall color season or perhaps leaf-out in spring to be prime times to go. Waking up on this crystal-clear morning, however, and hearing that the mountains along the Tennessee line had been treated to a healthy high-elevation snowfall the night before I quickly determined that a winter hike might fit the “perfect-day” bill also. As far as Smoky Mountain peaks go Shuckstack is quite middling in elevation. At barely over 4,000-feet you’d expect it to be thickly forested, and you’d be right. What makes Shuckstack stand out it the aforementioned fire tower built atop it in the 1930’s. At 60-feet tall the old tower is one of the highest in the region and allows those who dare to climb it a vantage point which reaches high above the surrounding forest canopy. From the old cab which tops it (a rare one that is actually kept open for hikers) the entirety of the western Smoky Mountain Range can be seen as well as many of the major mountain ranges in the western Nantahala National Forest as well. I’ve stood atop many higher summits in the Great Smoky Mountains and, believe me, Shuckstack offers scenery to compete or exceed any one of them…and on top of it all I would get to play in some snow to boot!
So it was that on this morning I made the drive to the access point for the Appalachian Trail at the end of Lakeshore Drive on the far side of the historic Fontana Dam. The dam actually offers an interesting bonus stop for this hike. The highest in the Eastern United States and famous for making an appearance in the movie “The Fugitive”, the Fontana Dam is a wonder of human ingenuity. I personally am not a fan of dams due to their destructive nature on the environment but, I have to admit, it is still an intriguing place to visit. Back to the hike though. Th Appalchian Trail leaves the small parking area at the end of the road and immediately sets out attacking the ridge above. There’s no warm-up period on this hike. The grade is moderately steep from the get go and, over the course of its ascent to Shuckstack, this is more the rule than the exception. About ¾-mile in the trail crests the ridge and a few nice views of Fontana Lake, now far below, can be had through the trees. The trail will continue to follow the ridge all the way to Shuckstack, alternating between a few more level stretches and moderate grades like what has come before. On the day I visited the snow also started to appear as I approached and crossed the 3,000-foot mark. The otherwise drab winter forest quickly transformed around me into a magical landscape where every tree, branch, and bush was blanketed in a fresh white coat of snow. The ground was bare when I started out, by the time I reached the summit I would be breaking trail through a good six inches of the white stuff. The transition was amazing to experience as was the ever-increasing beauty of the winter woods as I climbed.
About 2.5-miles into the hike the Appalachian Trail reaches the shallow gap separating Shuckstack from its smaller sibling, Little Shuckstack, to the east. The grade here eases up some as the trail begins a long loop around to the western side of Shuckstack’s summit cone. A half mile past the gap the first open views are seen, where the trail crosses an old landslide which provides a break in the canopy looking south. It’s an amazing place to take a quick breather and get excited for what views must be awaiting from the top. Not long after the slide the trail turns to follow the high ridge which leads the final short ways up to the west side of the summit. The spur trail to the top is obvious, it continues straight ahead at a point where the Appalachian Trail makes a hard left. The spur is short, perhaps a quarter-mile, and zig-zags the last 100 vertical feet to the summit. Two structures are located at the summit. One, of course, is the lookout tower which erupts from the forest floor reaching high above the canopy overhead. The other is what is left of the old lookout cabin which once stood alongside the tower. There’s not much left now. A foundation and tall stone chimney are all that remain. Still, it evokes the imagination as to what it must have been like to call this summit home for those that worked here. Now obviously I had hiked all this way to climb the tower. On a warm, dry day the climb up to the cab is pretty easy as the tower remains in remarkably good condition. On this day, however, a bit extra care had to be taken. Every railing and step was covered in snow and rime ice, the wind was kicking up, and occasionally huge chunks of ice would break off and fall from above. My acrophobia did not like this at all. Even so, taking great care, I willed myself up to the cab. Boy…am I glad I did. The view…I can’t really put it into words. I’ll let my pictures speak for me. All the western half of Great Smoky Mountains lay before me, the high ridges and summits all cloaked in white. Lake Fontana could be seen glistening calm and blue far below. To the south the Snowbird and Unicoi Ranges also sported frosted heights. It was incredible. I was immediately grateful to have made the decision to come this day…the experience, I know, will stick with me for years to come. Shuckstack was everything I had been told it was and more.
Gingerly climbing back down the tower I was soon on my way back down under a shower of ice being broken loose from the treetops by the warming afternoon sun. My route back simply retraced the route up so it was all downhill from the summit. Utilizing tracks I made in the snow earlier also made the going easier. By the time I had lost a thousand feet of elevation I had also once again lost my white surroundings for the most part. It was remarkable to see how quickly the warm sun was eating into the snowpack. Equally remarkable was the experience of seeming to walk back so suddenly from winter to spring. What a day it had been. In short, then, Shuckstack makes for an incredible hike. If you find yourself in the Fontana area at any time of year the peak is surely a worthy destination, snow or not. The climb is a bit strenuous, so you should take that into consideration, but the Appalachian Trail is well-travelled and easy-to-follow. This hike easily ranks as one of the best I’ve made in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you haven’t been…go! Without further adieu I now present a winter hike up to the Shuckstack Lookout Tower…as always, please ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.460542, -83.811126
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: HARD (EXTREME in conditions shown)
Hike Length: 6.8 miles Hike Duration: 3:30
Trailhead Temp: 35'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 1,900' Max. Elevation: 4,020'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,200' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 647' (ascent)
Trails Used (blaze color): Appalachian (white), Shuckstack Spur (unblazed)