Despite the half a dozen hiking clubs blazing through the mountains these days, the new Fontana Hiking Club is actually filling a void â€” geographically speaking. The club will explore trails in the vast southwest corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area â€” taking in the remote far west territories.
The club leader, Jerry Span, is the director of outdoor programs for Fontana Village, a wilderness resort in Graham County.
â€śFrom my experience the trails are underused in our area,â€ť said Span, 27. â€śPeople donâ€™t know about that side of the Smokies.â€ť
Itâ€™s a tricky area of the park to hike. Most of the trails take a day or two to reach by foot â€” or require a boat ride across Fontana Lake. Thanks to the hook-up through Fontana Village, which runs a boat shuttle out of Fontana Marina for hikers, hikers with the club will scoot across the lake on a pontoon boat and get a jump start on trails that otherwise would take an overnight trip to reach.
Fontana Hiking Club will also trek the wilds of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area, one of the most remote sections of the Nantahala National Forest.
Spanâ€™s weekly hikes will run the gamut from short, low-elevation jaunts to long, strenuous climbs. Hikers can count on Span to be a sympathetic hiking partner. His first big trekking adventure in the mountains of WNC didnâ€™t get off on the right foot. After hiking the 70-mile section of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he emerged at Fontana Dam fed up and exhausted.
â€śI threw my walking stick over the dam and swore I would never backpack again,â€ť Span said.
In retrospect, he realized the culprit of his misery was the wrong-gear: a pack twice as heavy as it should have been and bad boots. Now, four years later, heâ€™s blazing the way for other hikers.
Hikers can come every week, or show up only when the hike of the week strikes their fancy. After 10 hikes, you get a patch. After 15 hikes you get a T-shirt, and after 20 you get a free night at Fontana Village.
Or, watch the Outdoors section of the Smoky Mountain News calendar for the weekly hike line-up.
Other hiking clubs in WNC
â€˘ Nantahala Hiking Club tromps mostly in Macon County.
â€˘ The Haywood Hikers and Leisure Hikers both trek through Haywood County.
â€˘ Mountain High Hikers traipse around Clay and Cherokee counties and North Georgia.
â€˘ High Country Hikers do their trotting in the Pisgah area north of Brevard.
â€˘ Carolina Mountain Club, centered in Asheville, hikes all over WNC.