Siler’s Bald Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter, 29.8 mi (AT 2026.3)

May 17th, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee)

I awoke at 6am and was the first one in the shelter to get up. It had been a fairly quiet night, with only occasional snoring from a couple different directions, and no mice. These shelters have two levels and I was on the top. I quietly packed up my sleeping stuff. Then it was a hop down to the lower level and a short step down to the ground. 

As I headed to my pack, I noticed someone had hung their pack over mine on the same hanger. While trying to get them both off the hook my pack fell to the ground with a quiet thud. This sound disturbed one hiker who, in half sleep, said “OKAY WHAT?….oh, it’s just a person… not a bear.” Then he promptly returned to full sleep.

Finally I went out to the bear cables to retrieve my food bag. It was still dark and I had my headlamp. As I reached the cable I heard a noise nearby and turned to see shining eyes maybe 50 feet away through the brush. The creature started huffing and puffing—the warning sounds a bear makes if you’re too close. I warily finished lowering my food bag then quietly retreated to the shelter, now fully awake and alert. As I finished up and ate some breakfast, a couple others started to stir and pack up. I warned them about the grumpy bear then headed out for my day.

I hiked along uneventfully all morning. At mid morning I passed by a shelter and there was a guy there hanging out. I said hello and asked where he was headed. It turns out David was a “Ridge Runner” hired by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to monitor a certain area of the AT, and educate hikers on Leave No Trace practices, among other things. I had heard about these people but had never run into one. I think they are hired for the peak hiking season, and mainly in Georgia and North Carolina, the first two states for most AT thru hikers. 

At mid day I stopped at a shelter for lunch and a water break. There were three others there for the same reason. They were called Rooster, Bear Spray, and Bootlegger from northern Mississippi. This was the second group I have met from Mississippi in the national park. They had come last year to hike through half of the park and returned this year for the other half. We ate lunch together and talked before heading in opposite directions.

Because camping is so controlled and restricted inside the park, I took extra time during lunch to figure out my options for the night. I could reach the last permissible campsite in the park around 4:30pm, which seemed a little early to stop for the night. But the next site, outside the park, was at least 6 miles further, which also seemed like a stretch I would rather avoid tonight. So, I planned to hit the closer site and enjoy the extra time in camp.

As I got near the campsite, around 4pm, I saw a large bear hanging out right along the trail in front of me. I made noise to ensure he noticed me. He didn’t seem to care and just stood there passively, with his head hanging over the trail, staring at me. He wasn’t doing anything but waiting. It was almost like he was a toll collector with his paw out for a treat. 

I backed up slowly but he didn’t seem at all stressed by my presence, unlike the bear at the cables this morning. I made some more loud noise and annoyed him a little. He turned and moved a few feet, like he was deciding what to do. While I stood waiting I took a short video of him after trying to get him to move. Finally, I had to shift gears. I put my phone away and looked around. I was standing on a nice pile of palm-size rocks. I sent a few of these in Lazy Bear’s direction. The third rock came very close to him and he decided to move off. He headed away slowly, like it was his own idea. I threw a couple more stones as he went, just hoping he wouldn’t change his mind.

Not knowing if I would be sleeping alone at the campsite–so close to Lazy Bear–I easily convinced myself to continue the 6 miles downhill and out of the park to Fontana Dam Shelter. This shelter is nicknamed the “Fontana Hilton” because of the unique amenities it offers: bathrooms, trash cans, power outlets, and hot showers. This sounded a lot better than a night in the campsite with Lazy Bear, who at this moment was probably still hanging around there in search of treats.

The trail crossed Fontana Dam on the way, which was an awesome sight–way more awesome than these pictures.

I finally reached “The Hilton” around 7pm and found a nice spot to set up the hammock. I had made good time and finished the Smokies in three days, so I decided to take the next day to rest. Fontana Village, the nearby resort, provides shuttle service from near the shelter, which helped with the decision. Fontana Village has a General Store, a laundromat, and a couple restaurants and seemed like a great place for a rest. There should be time to take this “zero” and still make it to Springer Mountain by May 27th, my scheduled pick up day. 

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