I set out on a solo backpacking trip to the Southwest quadrant of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October of 2020. This trip took me through 64 miles of Smoky Mountain backcountry where I was able to experience some of the highest and lowest elevation experiences of this national treasure. I was also in time to witness the changing of the foliage as the majestic colors of fall had set in. In total the trip took 6 days and 5 nights and was a truly amazing experience to explore the forest covered mountains of the east.
Distance - 15.5 miles Descent - 4,300 feet
The start of the hike began at the highest point in the park. Clingmans Dome sits at 6,643 feet in elevation and is adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. My route began there and headed west along the ridgeline for approximately 2 miles and stopped at the Double Spring Gap Shelter to take a break. After a quick snack I continued on the ridge for another 2 miles until I ran into the Welch Ridge Trailhead. From there my route turned south and I followed the Welch Ridge Trail for 1.7 miles until I hit the trailhead for the Hazel Creek Trail. I then followed the Hazel Creek Trail and began to descend rapidly through a series of switchbacks as I made my way down the mountain. At the bottom of the switchbacks I ran into Hazel Creek. The trail then followed Hazel Creek South and crossed the creek many times (I lost count – your getting wet, just face it). This continued for 3 to 4 miles until the trail came to a foot bridge that crossed the creek. At this point the trail turned into an old logging road that was easy to follow. The road continued to follow Hazel Creek south until I reached my destination at campsite 83 where the road came to a junction with the Bone Valley Trail.
Distance - 8.8 miles Descent - 628 feet
Day 2 began by continuing my descent from the mountain by again following Hazel Creek south. At this point the creek had grown larger and the water moving faster. The logging road was well maintained and there were foot bridges where the road crossed the creek. Along the way there were signs of a past community that flourished here as there were old and decaying buildings tucked away in the forest. After roughly 5 miles the trail finally ended at its junction with Lakeshore Trail in the area known as Proctor and I was now at the base of the mountain. I then changed my heading east and began following the Lakeshore trail. After 3 miles and a very steep hill to climb I reached my next campsite #81.
Distance - 11.1 miles Ascent - 3,282 feet
The day began by getting back onto the Lakeshore trail and followed the shore of Fontana Lake in a eastwardly direction. The terrain was exceptionally hilly as there were many ups and downs which slowed travel. I could not see much of the lake however as the forest was very dense and blocked my view. I trekked on for nearly 9 miles where I reached campsite #76. At this point the trail had turned into a nice walkable road with very gradual inclines and speed up my travel. The road also was very close to the shore and I was able to get very nice views of the lake. I sat here for a while and had lunch enjoying the view and decided to press on another 3 miles to campsite #98. The trail remained a road for the rest of the hike. I reached the campsite mid afternoon and was situated next to Chambers Creek with access to a beach and swimming in Fontana Lake.
Distance - 10.4 miles Ascent - 3,250 feet
Day 4 began by crossing a foot bridge over Chambers Creek and continuing east on Lakeshore Trail. The trail at this point digressed to a small rocky foot path through the forest. For the next 6.5 miles the trail cascaded over the hills making for strenuous elevation gains with steep gradients. It was a workout. Finally the trail opened up when it came into junction with Forney Creek. Here my path turned north as I left the Lakeshore Trail and began to follow the Forney Creek Trail to my next campsite. This trail was much easier to follow. It was an old logging road similar to that in lower Hazel Creek. I followed this for the next 4 miles having to occasionally take an rerouted foot path due to the road being washed out. I finally came to my destination at Campsite #70 where Forney Creek connected with Jonas Creek. The campsite was situated between the two creeks in a peaceful grass covered meadow.
Distance - 5.18 miles Ascent - 2,202 feet
Day 5 began the climb back to the top of the mountain. My gradient was 2,000 feet over 5 miles so it was not that bad. Plus the trail continued as a logging road so the travel was not that difficult. However there were a series of 4 to 5 creek crossings that were knee deep so be prepared to get wet. I made it to my next campsite at around noon and this last campsite was a reward in its own. Campsite #68 (upper) is situated next to the Forney Creek Cascade followed by a few small rock waterfalls separated by relaxing clear pools. By far one of the best swimming holes in the park.
Distance - 3.03 miles Ascent - 2,002 feet
The final day is the hike out but is also the most challenging climb of the trip. I needed to climb another 2,000 feet in only 3 miles so my gradient was much steeper than the day before. The trail has also now turned into a small and rocky foot path which also slows my travel. All in all I took it one mile at a time keeping myself well nourished and hydrated. I was able to reach the top at Clingmans Dome in a few hours and began take in the views and revel at my accomplishment.