30 miles to Shuckstack: A journey thru the Great Smoky Mountains

Shuckstack Fire tower, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Clay Duda.

The sky opens up with a light rain as we head out out on the Lost Cove Trail around Fontana Lake. This short stretch of dirt will connect us with the Eagle Creek Trail, which we’ll follow into the remote stretches of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was 90-something degrees when we left the valley surrounding Knoxville, but here’s it’s pleasantly hovering in the mid-70s. I can’t complain.

On its face, a 30-mile hike in three days seems like a piece of cake. Equally divided, that’s only 10 miles daily–but as we’re about to find out, legs of this trip aren’t equal, campsites are sporadic, and there’s 5,000-feet of near-vertical mountain between us and the finish line.

The highest point in Knox County, Tennessee

Melissa and Peaches sit on top of House Mountain in Knox County, Tennessee. Photo by Clay Duda.

When January gives you a 60-something-degree weekend (and just a week after snow at that!), you don’t ask questions and you go outside. My wife and I didn’t argue. We grabbed pit bull Peaches and set our sights on House Mountain, a pointy bit of hill just eight miles outside of Knoxville that also happens to be the highest point in Knox County, Tennessee, and off we went.

Into the wild at Slickrock Creek

Slickrock Creek Trail in Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina. Photo by Clay Duda.

We would have made it into the woods before dark, but instead we stopped at the Tapoco Lodge right over the North Carolina border to see an old friend there cooking pizzas. It was Friday night and we ate sandwiches and drank IPA until sundown, then we made for the Slick Rock Creek trailhead and headed in.

By the time my wife and I made it onto the trail it was nearly pitch black. For a few minutes we could see the fog rising thick off the Little Tennessee River, then nothing but the 40 feet of trail lit by our headlamps. The fog eventually made its way to the trail about 50 feet about the river and visibility dropped even more.

Arachnophobia on Sharp’s Ridge

A view of Knoxville's giant disco ball from Sharp's Ridge Memorial Park. Photo by Clay Duda.

Editor’s Note: Have I been slacking? It doesn’t feel like it. Even though I haven’t posted in nearly two months now, I’ve been busy. You may remember in one of my last posts I laid out our month-long itinerary for a trip across Europe. We made the trip, and as soon as we got back to the states we hit the ground running, officially making the move to Knoxville, Tenn. and starting work in a four-day window. At any rate, expect journal-style entries from our European adventure to start popping up soon, and for now there’s this: 

I can’t believe there’s nobody else on this trail. It’s 10 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning in Knoxville, Tenn. and the pooch and I are virtually the only ones out here at Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park just north of downtown. What’s going on here, Knoxville?

This place is a mountain biker’s paradise. The first thing I see after finding my way onto one of the unmarked trails running the south face of the ridge is a sign for the expert-level mountain bike trail that cuts off to the right. “No foot traffic” it warns, so I go left.