Clingman's Dome to Fontana Dam hike

1:29 p.m. on October 9, 2009 (EDT)
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Hey guys,

I am planning a Backpacking Merit Badge program for the Boy Scouts. The qualifications is that it has to be 5 days, 30 miles and they have to camp in 3 different locations in order for them to earn their badge. I was looking on the net and found a trip plan on the AT for Clingman's Dome to Fontana Dam and that hike is 31.3 miles which works out. My question is has anyone done this hike and how hard is it?? The age range for the scouts are 14-17. Also I was told that i needed to get shelter reservations and that 8 people is the max, is it hard to get reservations?

I should be scouting this trip in Nov or early Dec.

thanks

12:06 p.m. on October 10, 2009 (EDT)
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I have done parts of that route. It would make a very nice trip. If the boys are in good shape, and you have done shakedown hikes with them to make sure they are up to it, ages 14 and up should be able to do it. But it will not be a gentle stroll. The trail in this section is far from flat. You will gain (and lose) far more elevation than you would guess. So be firm in your cutoff requirements as to who can go.

You have to reserve space in the shelters. You can call up to 30 calendar days ahead of time to make the reservation (865-436-1231 reservation office, 865-436-1297 permit office). But the maximum group size is 8. They will not let you reserve more space than this. And if they catch you without a permit it will result in a hefty fine. And you must use designated sites, so no stealth camping. In November/December you should not have problems getting reservations as long as you do it 30 days ahead, with the possible exception of Double Spring Gap and Russell Field/Spence Field. You can only stay one night at a shelter.

One possible glitch in this, depending on your schedule, is that the Clingmans Dome road closes for the winter on December 1. And this year they plan to repave the road, so it will remain closed through May (it normally opens early April). A possible way around this is to start at Newfound Gap instead of Clingmans Dome, adding another 7 miles to the trip, but still quite doable over a 5 day period. I am a Scoutmaster, and for the last 7 years I have taken my 14+ yr old boys to the Smokies for 3 day trips covering 25-30 miles. 5 days should not be an issue over this distance. Another issue is that the Russell Field shelter is currently closed, and has been for months, I believe due to bear activity. I don't know if that will be lifted by the time you go.

If you take this route, don't forget to do the short spur to the lookout tower at Shuckstack.

Another option is to go on the eastern side of the park instead of the western side. It is higher, with less up and down, in a spruce/fir forest pretty much the whole way (there is a demarcation line at Double Spring Gap on the west side where the spruce/fir changes, literally on a line, to Beech and other hardwoods). I like the views better on the east side. A possible 5 day trip would be to start at Alum Cave and spend the first night on LeConte (a big uphill), and then from there take the Boulevard trail to the AT and head towards Davenport Gap. Finish at Cosby Campground (Snake Den Ridge trail), making about 32 miles total. That would be a VERY nice one. The thing to watch for, however, is that during the winter some parts of this section get icy, depending on the weather.

If you do this one, make sure you take the spur from the Boulevard to the Jumpoff for some incredible views. This spur is not on the maps.

In any case, plan for cold weather. It can get pretty nippy up there in the winter. If you are from the south, you will be surprised at how cold. 3 yrs ago I was on parts of both of these routes in October and saw 10-15 degrees at night. And in my annual spring break trips I have had snow on several occasions (March). There are a number of routes you can do that are not as high if you want other options.

Map here:

http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/upload/GSMNP%20Backcountry%20Map.pdf

11:19 p.m. on October 10, 2009 (EDT)
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To back Chumango up, I did part of the AT to Icewater Springs with a friend on a conditioning hike, it was towards the end of March, and it was blizzard-like conditions at night. Thank god some folks put a tarp up and we had some dry wood for a fire.

 

there are lots of loop trails you can do in the Smokies... while the AT sounds all nice and wonderful, its anything but. Muddy, busy, slippery, did I mention muddy?

Lately I've been seeing a lot of folks go from Newfound down Goshen Prong, to Elkmont (can you camp in the campground there & have it count? LOL), and you could aways go back up the Little River and over to Sugarlands and back up to the AT ;)

11:45 p.m. on October 10, 2009 (EDT)
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I have not seen the mud issue on the AT in the park, maybe just due to timing when I have been on it (but I have seen slush after snowfalls). This is especially true of the eastern half. I have been on other trails in the park, however, that were muddy. it depends on the weather. The much more common trail condition I have seen in the cold months is ice in certain sections where water seeps over the trail on north facing areas, and it freezes there.

1:15 p.m. on October 15, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks for the feedback guys it is a big help!

4:51 p.m. on October 15, 2009 (EDT)
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Tell your Scouts that there are 800 miles of trails in the Park and some people try to hike them all.
Here is a very nice "new" shelter on your route:

http://outdoors.webshots.com/photo/2851381680045831896PiPsQP

A book called 100 hikes in the GSNP by Russ Manning, The mountaineers Press, might be helpful

1:45 p.m. on October 18, 2009 (EDT)
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Hey Rambler are all the shelters that nice?

9:52 p.m. on October 18, 2009 (EDT)
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ha, i wish they were.

Make sure to bring a tarp if you do this in the winter, the winds can really become untolerable if they're blowing right into the shelter.

6:26 p.m. on October 19, 2009 (EDT)
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Yes travelnate is correct! This is one reason I just carry a tent, you have more protection from the wind.

A lot of the shelters are basically rectangular boxes with one side missing.

9:55 a.m. on October 22, 2009 (EDT)
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I'm bringing a bivy to protect me from the wind, rain or snow. Do think that is acceptable? I have a backpackers tent that weighs about 4 1/2 pounds.

2:41 p.m. on October 25, 2009 (EDT)
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If you will be in the shelter a bivy would be more than sufficient. You can't use a tent at the shelter sites in any case.

Whenever I have been at shelters during the winter there have always been tarps up over the openings. I don't know who puts them there, but they had not been installed by any occupants that were there when I was. My guess is that some park volunteers do it. In good weather they are just rolled up and tied and in bad weather they are lowered.

Almost all the shelters in the park have been upgraded like the Spence Field shelter in the link above. All are nice, although some are nicer than others. The last few that needed to be upgraded were Mollies Ridge, Derrick Knob, Mt Collins, and Laurel Gap. But I think at least one of these underwent major repairs/upgrades this year.

3:28 p.m. on October 25, 2009 (EDT)
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That good to hear Chumango, I'm glad the shelters have been upgraded. I hope they do Laurel Gap esp.

Poly tarps tent to last a while under the tree canopy out of direct sunlight, those exposed last about 6-8 weeks or so I've found. Last shelter I stayed in had remnants of both plastic sheeting and poly tarp attached to it.

8:36 p.m. on October 27, 2009 (EDT)
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The latest I have been able to find - bear in mind this may not be compeletly correct - is that all but Laurel Gap and Russel Field have been renovated.

9:12 a.m. on November 18, 2009 (EST)
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Can you camp at Shuckstack Mountain?

10:33 p.m. on November 19, 2009 (EST)
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The closest place you can camp to Shuckstack on the AT is at site 113, Birch Spring Gap, about 1.2 miles from the Shuckstack tower. This is a tent site, no shelter. This site also requires a reservation. If you don't mind going downhill off the AT you can go to site 91 along the Lost Cove Trail, not far from Shuckstack, but it is 1500 ft down.

Another option on this stretch is to leave the AT at Doe Knob and head across to Gregory Bald and spend the night at Sheep Pen Gap, site 13. It is a nice area and a nice camp site (also reservation, a tent site). The original AT went this route until after Fontana Dam was built in 1944/45. There was once a shelter along this stretch near Rich Gap. Then drop down Wolf Ridge to Twenty Mile. The original AT followed the ridge from Parson Bald to Deals Gap, but there is no trail there now. The AT crosses the Little Tennessee River at Fontana Dam now; prior to the dam it crossed at Cheoah Dam, which as a side bar, was the dam used in the movie The Fugitive, where Harrison Ford jumped.

9:04 a.m. on December 4, 2009 (EST)
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Thanks Chumango.

I called last saturday and got my shelter reservations and also reserved a campsite at Birch Spring Gap.

I reserved Double Spring, Derrick knob, Mollies ridge and Birch Sprig Gap campsite.

12:00 a.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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stay warm, and safe travels!

at least there won't be many varmints running around this time of year!

9:50 p.m. on December 5, 2009 (EST)
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The mice don't care about cold weather.

The one time I spent the night at Derrick Knob my son, daughter, and I had it to ourselves. I left some food out on the sleeping platform and went out and sat down outside for a few minutes. When I went back into the shelter the mice had already been into it.

With that schedule you will have spare time each day. Plan activities for your scouts to keep them busy.

8:36 a.m. on December 8, 2009 (EST)
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Hey Chumango, how did you put together your emergency logistics? Here are some example questions.

1. Do you have the emergency access point located? How long is the longest emergency evacuation point from trail?

2. Do you have phone reception at all times along trail? If not where are the gaps?
3. Do we need a person near by for emergencies?

6:01 p.m. on December 18, 2009 (EST)
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Emergency logistics? Hmmmm....I knew where access trails were to get off the AT to the nearest trailhead. The longest point depends on where along the route you are. The farthest will not be more than 5-7 miles IIRC.

Cell phone reception is spotty at best, depending on your carrier.

10:28 p.m. on December 20, 2009 (EST)
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Sprint seems to have the best overall coverage. Nextel is NIL. Verizon works on the summits & peaks. I got coverage at Icewater Springs w/ sprint.

12:54 a.m. on January 6, 2010 (EST)
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How did the hike go?

August 21, 2014
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