The morning sun rises and reveals misty Watauga Lake.Photograph/Johnny Molloy
Much of the Appalachian Trail in our neck of the woods is high country — 4,000, 5,000 and even 6,000 feet in elevation. During winter, hiking the AT can be brutally cold and snowy — if you can even reach the trailhead. Often the drive to the hike’s beginning can be as much of an adventure as the hike itself. The snow may be flying, or the roads may be icy, perhaps even closed.
However, there is a low elevation stretch of the AT near Hampton, astride Watauga Lake. This lakeside segment makes for an ideal winter walk. That way you can tramp America’s master path in the dead of winter without subjecting yourself to weather reminiscent of New England or Canada.
This highlight-filled lakeside ramble curves along the shore of Watauga Lake, soaking in mountain vistas aplenty. Cruise away from the lake, passing a pair of pre-lake homesites. Next, stop by an AT shelter before visiting Watauga Dam. The dam, a Tennessee Valley Authority legacy, offers wide-ranging panoramas of the surrounding land and waterscape.
Interestingly, from your starting point at the Shook Branch Recreation Area, you can look across Watauga Lake to your destination, Watauga Dam. While hiking to the dam mountain views will be present most of the hike.
Leave the auto turnaround, northbound on the Appalachian Trail (even though you are traveling south at the hike’s origin) and immediately bridge Shook Branch. Just ahead, a set of wooden steps comes in from US 321/TN 67 (this is where you access the trail from the winter trailhead). Continue straight on the AT, circling around the first of two small tributaries feeding Watauga Lake.
Bridge the first tributary at .2 mile. When the lake is drawn down in winter, scan for old roads and such that were inundated after the valley was flooded. Come very near houses and Oliver Hollow Road, in earshot of US 321/TN 67’s rumbling traffic.
At .5 mile, the AT works around an iron gate. Cruise the lakeshore, passing campsites and summertime swimming spots. Pond Mountain rises across the water. The trail wanders away from Watauga Lake, climbing over a richly forested hill, still roughly paralleling the shoreline. At .8 mile, the single-track AT turns sharply left, working into a lake cove.
Now, the shore stays close enough to allow nearly continuous lake views, if not occasional lake accesses. At 1.2 miles, the AT joins a roadbed left over from pre-lake days. Turn into a hollow, passing an old homesite on the left. Note the planted yuccas and escaped periwinkle, both common indicators of former dwelling sites.
The trail gently ascends the roadbed, and comes to a second homesite at 1.3 miles. This area has rock piles, old metal washtubs, cans and other relics — even a rocked-in basement. Ironically, the pine-shaded flat is now used as a campsite by AT hikers. The folks who dwelt here 8 decades ago could not imagine plastic-clad backpackers camping in their erstwhile front yard.
At 1.4 miles, step over the stream that created the homesite hollow, rising along a south-facing ridge, full of oaks and pines. Top out at 1.5 miles, then descend into the rhododendron-heavy valley of Griffith Branch, a perennial stream. Reach the bottom of the hollow, then find the spur trail leading left to the Watauga Lake trail shelter at 1.6 miles. The spur crosses Griffith Branch and finds a clearing, whereupon a three-sided, tin-roofed, wooden shelter stands. A picnic table, fire ring and bear-proof food-hanging pole complement the shelter.
Beyond the trail shelter, the AT crosses Griffith Branch, then climbs 200 feet to a peninsula jutting into Watauga Lake. At this point, you are nearly 300 feet above the impoundment, which at full pool is 1,959 feet in elevation. In winter, much of the lakebed will be exposed. The AT quickly drops to the shore again, reaching an extremely rocky area at 2.3 miles. The slope here is steep, however.
The AT reaches an asphalt road and the greater dam area at 2.5 miles. Open onto Watauga Dam at 2.7 miles. View the contrast between sides of the dam. Upstream stretches a smooth impoundment bordered by majestic wooded mountains. Downstream, the rocky rugged gorge of Iron Mountain testifies to erosive aquatic pulsation of the Watauga River over time. Holston Mountain rises in the distance.
The dam, centered at the upper end of the Watauga River Gorge, stands 318 feet. It is the second highest in the Tennessee Valley Authority system, behind Fontana Dam, down Smoky Mountain way. Construction of Watauga Dam began in 1942, but World War II put it on hold. It was completed in 1948.
The impoundment has 105 miles of shoreline and covers nearly 6,500 acres at full pool. Watauga Lake’s deepest spot is a whopping 281 feet! This dam inundated many a homestead. The most famous community was Butler. These lands were commandeered by the United States government by eminent domain. Much of the surrounding land was already in the hands of the Cherokee National Forest. A significant portion of the shore and surrounding mountains create what many — including me — believe to be East Tennessee’s most scenic lake.
Watauga Dam is a good place to turn around. However, the AT travels another mile north to reach Iron Mountain Gap and Wilbur Dam Road, another popular AT trail access that also has a boat ramp leading into Watauga Lake. Wilbur Dam is a small dam located at the downstream end of the Watauga River Gorge.
To get there from exit 24 on I-26 near Johnson City, follow the signs for Elizabethton, joining US 321 north/TN 67 east. Travel for 8.6 miles to reach US 19E and a traffic light. Turn right here, now joining US 19E south, Veterans Memorial Parkway, toward Roan Mountain, Mountain City and Boone, N.C. Follow US 19E for 5 miles to the left turn for Hampton and Watauga Lake, TN 67/US 321 east.
Follow TN 67/US 321 for 3.2 miles to the Shook Branch Recreation Area on your left. Follow the entrance road to its end at an auto turnaround and the AT. In winter, the recreation area is gated, but there is a small parking area .2 mile west of the Shook Branch entrance road on TN 67/US 321. Steps lead to the AT from this parking area.
For more information: Cherokee National Forest, 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi TN 37692, 423-735-1500, www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee