Photo Essay: Late Fall Hike to Shuckstack Fire Tower

First posted in December, 1999

One crisp day in October of 1999, I decided to make the trek to the Shuckstack fire tower in the Twentymile area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though there were predictions of snow in the high country for that night, the leaves still contained a substantial amount of color and I simply could not resist being in the woods.

Crim, Cathy, and Jacqueline

My friends Cathy and Crim met me at the Fontana Dam boat dock, and we made the cold and windy boat trip across Fontana Lake to the mouth of Eagle Creek. It took a little searching, but we located the winter path that leads to campsite 90, the Lakeshore Trail, and, ultimately, to the Lost Cove trailhead. It had been some time since I had walked the trail, and I had forgotten how pleasant it was. Though traveling to Shuckstack via Lost Cove is slightly out-of-the-way, the beautiful streams, lack of hikers, and abundant wildlife make it worth the effort.

We met a little spadefoot toad
who thoughtfully "volunteered"
to have his photo taken.

After the last steep ascent into Sassafrass Gap, we followed the Appalachian Trail a short distance south and located the trail to the tower. In another tenth of a mile we stood at its base.

After catching my breath, I began to climb the half a dozen flights of metal and wood stairs to the top of the fire tower. The photo at left gives you a feel for the height of the tower. I believe it's about eighty feet tall, but climbing the rickety staircase provides you with an excellent vantage point. If you ever get the opportunity to climb the tower, be sure to pick a clear day and bring your camera to capture the majestic views. Wind blows almost constantly across the ridge, rocking the tower ever so gently back and forth, so it never hurts to bring a coat as well. On this particular day, with winds blowing in excess of twenty miles per hour and a temperature of 39 according to my thermometer, it was cold indeed.

Once perched within the warmer confines of the tower, protected somewhat from the wind by metal and glass, I fished my camera out of my pack and began to snap photos of the landscape. From the tower, you can see the mountains to the west give way to the foothills and eventually to the flatter country of Knoxville, Tennessee. You also have a wonderful view of Fontana Dam and Lake.

A photo taken from within the tower

I spent a few moments in the tower, making conversation with Crim and some other folks who had climbed the stairs, then reluctantly donned my pack and made my way back down. I thought for a moment and realized that I did not know when I would next be back in this wonderful place where I have spent so many delightful moments. I reflected on my other visits to the tower, the way the landscape appears from the tower's height during different seasons, the wildlife that visits when there are fewer folks around. Though I may be moving far from this place soon, I doubt it will be my last visit to Shuckstack.

I paused during my descent from the tower
to look at Fontana Lake once more

After a brief lunch of canned chicken among the rocks at the base of the tower, the three of us made our way back down the spur trail to the AT and back to Sassafrass Gap. We had routed a vehicle to the Twentymile ranger station earlier that day, so instead of walking back down into Lost Cove, we instead turned left and headed down along the old railroad grade to Twentymile.

A peaceful little cascade
on the Twentymile Trail

It had been a fine day to take this walk, with clean, crisp air and a carpet of dried leaves underfoot for much of the ten mile stroll. The Twentymile trail is always a treat (especially when you're walking downhill), and its lower stretches follow Twentymile Creek. We made many stops along the way to admire the abundant cascades and stream views, looking for trout in the clear water.