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BMT-AT Loop: The Wilds, Fontana to Tellico

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

FS251C: Mile 101.6

A slow rainy start out of Fontana, we got the Smokies blog up and then made our way out.

We were surprised to find the trail here blazed. In the Smokies blazes were few and far between, usually just a logo and arrow on the junction signs and we knew getting into wilderness areas there wouldn't be any. I suppose it was technically still resort property? Regardless of the nuances of land ownership, there were blazes!

We had a steep, sweaty climb out of town. I had cursed up and down the Smoky switchbacks and apparently someone heard me! But, be careful what you wish for.

Once we started up our ridge we walked by a small lookout back toward Fontana, an odd old "microflector" tower in disuse along with our first big patches of brush.

By brush I mean a conglomerate of briars, poision ivy, shrubbery and weeds of all sorts and breeds covering over the trail at eye-line or higher. We had read, watched hiker videos, and generally expected to deal with these kind of conditions hiking this trail in the summer. But study is no substitute for the real thing.

J-Dub was leading through this part and getting frustrated and a bit freaked out by the brush. I was guiding from behind with the GPS to make sure we were staying on trail and also working to keep a level head, it was definitely a bit perturbing to not only have the trail and any blazes or landmarks covered, but also knowing that the brush could very easily have snakes, ground hives (again) and, of course, our old friend ticks.

We made our way to the camp site just after the intersection with FS251C where water was .3 down. We decided to leave that for the morning, ate a quick no-cook dinner and then settled in for bed.

Nichols Cove campsite: Mile 109.7

In the morning we took the walk down to water which wasn't too bad and flowing well for us out of a drainage pipe in mid-July. Water acquired we hacked through some more brush, with a few nice rocky views every now again, to Tapoco Lodge.

We got into Tapoco Lodge right before their breakfast closed, so we waited around until lunch. The staff was really kind and courteous, even though we were hungry, smelly hikers. They let us hang out on their river balcony, charge our tech up, use wifi, and help ourselves to some complimentary coffee.

The lunch was yummy and definitely worth the wait, though only a day out of Fontana we joked that we were resort hopping and, in a way, were.

After lunch we took the trail through the Tapoco grounds and up into the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness.

Named in memorial for Joyce Kilmer, an American poet and solider killed in action in World War 1.

I really love hiking in wilderness areas. While seemingly not too different from backcountry or regular (so to speak) national forests trails, wilderness areas have such a distinct quality, in part I'm sure because of the strict management practices involved with them. In wilderness areas there are no electric powered vehicles or electric tools for trail maintenance allowed, so, for example, loppers and sythes take the place of weedwackers.

While definitely a part of the Nantahala National Forest in character, in detail Joyce Kilmer was all it's own. Rocky streams scattered between old growth trees and blow downs checked out with axe work, a lovely trail to wander through.

We made camp .01 off the Nichols Cove Trail. A nice space to tent with water close by and flowing well for us during the summer. There were also some well spaced trees for hammocks, but they had poisom ivy growing up them so we took a pass on hanging.

Naked Ground Intersection: Mile 116.2

We camped at Nichols Cove both because of it's proximity to a good water source and because it gave us a base camp to climb up to "the Hangover" off Haoe Bald. This would be our biggest climb since the Smokies. While not as high or arguably as grueling as the Mount Sterling climb we began with, we'd be climbing roughly 3000 feet, up to 5,216 feet, over 5.5 miles.

The ascent up was actually quite lovely. Hitting it early we had mist and cloud in the forest on the way up. J-Dub mentioned that the Nantahala is one of his favorite forests to hike in North Carolina and from the couple times I've joined him for the treks in the area it's clear why.

The climb up was steep with a few switchbacks thrown in along with small flatter ridge walks where we could catch our breath and take some morning snack and coffee breaks.

Towards the last mile the ascent became surprisingly technical. While there were no exposed scrambles or anything like that, there were slick rocky ups that required some careful steps, planning, and skilled maneuvering to not go rolling down the slope.

This was a fun surprise for a trail that's been, well, mainly trail. Despite the fun, I also had to monitor my hip after an injury last year. Having to grip and balance on the rock tires out those muscles quickly for me.

Once at the top, we took a break at the trail junction and contemplated skipping "the Hangover" itself since the viewpoint is .2 off trail and it was starting to get hot in the late morning.

I'm glad we didn't skip though as the view was incredible. Even half clouded in we could see down the valley and watch as clouds rolled over and around the the 5000 footers on the ridge.

On a clear day, you'd have an absolutely panaromic view, definitely worth the weekend hike or possibly day hike from the Big Fat Gap parking lot if you're in the area.

We decided to grab water at the campsite by "the Hangover." It proved pretty difficult to find, but we managed to navigate to it using the Guthook map for this trail. As a note, I've been really impressed with Guthook and it's proven very, very useful on the BMT so far. This is our first time using it, but the GPS feature has been spot on when we needed and I prefer the elevation profile for the trail they provide to the one in the guide. Though, to be fair, the guide has some campsites and water sources Guthook's map misses. Still, would definitely reccomend the app to anyone hiking the Benton MacKaye.

We left our packs by the junction to make quick work of the view and just had our shoulder packs with us. On the way down to water J-Dub took a bad fall. He was trying to hand me his phone to show me where we were on Guthook and slipped on a rock, landing on his back on that same rock. It was a pretty scary ten seconds or so as I watched the whole thing unfold. I was relieved when he stood up, sore, but with full range of motion.

We got water and started heading on. The hike over the bald itself, labeled simply "(no longer bald)" in the guide was our brushiest section yet. The brush (again defined as: a conglomerate of briars, poision ivy, and shrubbery and weeds of all sorts and breeds) was over eye level and above in some sections and we pushed on to the intersection with Naked Ground and Slickrock Creek trails.

The intersection has a campsite with a lovely Southeast view toward Santeetlah Lake. Since my hip was feeling the climb and J-Dub was still assessing his back we decided to stop here for the day, beat the heat and catch sunrise off this view the next morning. We got a weather report on my GPS with a miraculous 0% chance of rain which cemented our descion to stay despite being at a high elevation.

A note regarding this campsite via a comment from "Squish" on Guthooks which was really helpful for us:

"SoBos take a friggin' right at the campsite. The marker is on the opposite side of the tree that you CANNOT SEE from this direction (mad face). Do NOT go straight."

We thought we'd post our own reminder too:

The day passed pretty slowly and we had some service to post, text, and also set up our stop into the Tellico area. We had a maildrop at the Green Cove Lodge and Store to pick-up and were curious whether they had reservations. They did! We next needed to deicde if we actually wanted to stay, but by the time we did, service had kind of become spotty. I managed to call the reservation line later, leave a message and hope for the best.

The day passed into night and we got a lot of nice blues on the backend of the sunset along with a lovely moonrise and later a few stars before some clouds rollled in. Also, the water here is down the Slickrock Creek Trail, a bit of a brushy adventure, but we only needed to make the trek once.

Sycamore Falls Campsite: Mile 128.7

Sunrise was predictably gorgeous and we took our time making a slow out to catch it in full.

Then up the Stratton Bald Trail and over Stratton Bald, again anti-climaticly written in the guide as "(no longer bald)" and Bob's Bald. I was leading this time and the brush was intense. Way over our heads and so thick that even looking down to follow the trail was difficult, a lot of it was trusting my footing and feeling the slight height change between trail and non-trail.

Taking the lead here I began to fully grasp J-Dub's feelings leaving Fontana. The brush creates an eerie, disorienting feeling, what we've been calling a "Green Wall Effect." This when you can't see what's ahead except towers of brush, you can't find trail, but you also can't look left or right for landmarks to guide you out, even behind you the crumpled brush is beginning to spring back into place.

It was honestly kind of terrifying, and some of the most stressful hiking I've done, wouldn't reccomend it which is ashame because the actual bald ontop Bob's Bald is a beautiful, pastoral meadow filled with small purple wildflowers.

Down through the brush we started our descent which, like our inital ascent, was clear, lovely trail. It seems just the balds themselves had gotten, well, no longer bald

The descent soon changed into forest service road which leads out to a gate. We thought we had a road walk, but a man there who seemed to be letting off some hikers pointed out that the trail turns into the forest. We mentioned that the balds were very brushy and he, and the hikers he was dropping off, seemed relativly unphased by the news. Which, I suppose is fair. "Brushy" is the expectation in the summer, so perhaps we should have been more specific and said, "there are behemoths of brush that will swallow you whole and leave you wondering if this is where you end," but that might have been too much.

The trail carries on along the Cherohala Skyway and is really well maintained throughout here with some nice views and on open "man made bald" by a quarry space.

Before heading up Whigg Meadow I was able to get service and call the Green Cove again, but the call dropped halfway through and I couldn't get service back (I have AT&T for those planning and curious). I hoped between this and the message we'd have a space saved.

Up Whigg Meadow, we took a short walk to the overlook which was quite lovely and J-Dub pointed out on a clear night would probably have amazing stars.

The trail leads down a gravel road before turning on the Sycamore Trail. We followed it further down to a campsite by some falls. The location was lovely with good space to hammock hang too, though the soil proved a bit rough and rocky for staking and took some finagling.

This spot set us up for a fairly easy morning into town and we relaxed and let the sounds of Sycamore Creek lull us to sleep.


Green Cove Motel and Lodge off Tellico River Road: Mile 133.2

The creek cooled the night down dramatically and we woke up to a surprisingly brisk morning, which honestly felt nice.

Up and out of camp early we strolled along the beautiful sycamore creek until it ran into the Tellico River.

The trail let's out at the Pheasant Field Picnic area of Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. The site has bear safe trash and a bathroom that's really quite nice for a Forest Service pit style one.

Our next stop, the Green Cove Lodge was 1.4 down the road, but if you're planning to just mosey through, the picnic area would definitely be a good spot for a pit stop.

The road walk, on Telico River Road or Forest Service 210 was another pretty river walk as well. This whole area was proving incredibly scenic.

At the Green Cove, J-Dub was greeted right away by Jim who was working the camp store and is one of the owners. He said he heard the message I left and saved the room right away for us. He also had our resupply box mailed via FedEx.

We stayed in their "Trail Lodge" which gave us a shower, sink, fan and two twin beds, there were also space heaters but we didn't need those. The room itself was small, but comfortable for the two of us and the real allure is porch with a pinic table overlooking the river. There's no laundry or wifi "wifi when you can fish?" and rooms with AC are in their other lodges. (Though when we had a 97 degree day forecasted they installed window AC units to all the Trail Lodge rooms) The view off the porch was unreal though and we passed the afternoon chilling at our pinic table.

Though, not just chilling, there were some chores to be done, top most priority being gear repair. J-Dub bought some weather sealent from the general store in Fontana to repair his tarp. We didn't have a chance to get to it on trail, but now we could. We also bought a sewing kit in Fontana to patch some rips in our packs and some big rips in my shoulder pack.

The next day was a big fishing day and the lodge and store were hype! Apparently it was a restocking day for the streams. Pick-up trucks full of families were rolling in and out all day to grab licenses, supplies, snacks, and the like or to use the pay phone since there was no cell service there. On the note of the store, it's definitely a fishing store, but has a lot that hikers can use to resupply including a nice little grocery aisle with ramen, pasta, and a strong single item sweets game like, for example, fruit loop poptarts. They also have a good section for a medical and hygine resupply along.

The hot food they make on site is good too! I definitely reccomend the breakfast biscuits.

Like the store the lodge is definitely a fishing lodge. Jim had said people caught fish off our porch and I thought it was just a bit of a fish tale, but one of our neighbors was having quite the day just casting up and down the porch, as were others on the property and in the river. While we were the only hikers there, the staff and guests were all friendly and we didn't feel out of place.

Watching fishermen as we enjoyed our zero, J-Dub and I talked about the similarities with the BMT and Long Trail (LT) in Vermont. How the BMT feels a bit like the Long Trail with a distinctly Southern flavor: While the Long Trail took us up and over famed ski slopes and into distinctly New England ski towns, the BMT has us stop at iconic fishing destinations and ford backcountry creeks where it's easy to imagine someone wading out with a fly rode.

They both share history and some actual trail with the Appalachian Trail.

They both have their rough, brushy section. The Long Trail has the Breadloaf Wilderness and the BMT has Joyce Kilmer Slickrock, or, at least, I hope.

And they're both a pretty similar distance with the LT clocking in at roughly 273 miles and the BMT at 287.6 miles


Sunday morning we were up and out!

Jim took my old jetboil fuel can, which is always a boon since those need to be specially disposed and I'd been carrying it since the end of the Smokies.

Saying our goodbyes to the Green Cove we set off into the Boarlands.

Note: unlike the Smokies, the campsite names are my own based on their relative location to landmarks.

Mileage estimated using the 2021 Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hiker's Guide by The Engmans AKA SGT Rock & Kanga

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