Great Smoky Mountains National Park | LAKESHORE TRAIL TO SEE OLD CARS

Old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

See the Hiking Trails web page for an interactive location map.


Length: 4 miles, round trip
Time: 2 hours
Difficulty:  Easy to moderate, with one short-but-very-steep segment

The Lakeshore Trail runs the length of Fontana Lake, from near the Fontana Dam on the west side to Lakeview Drive on the east side, a distance of around 33 miles. Hiking the entire trail was not my goal. Instead, I only planned to hike two miles to see old Ford cars from the 1930s that had been abandoned and / or disposed of back when the Fontana Dam was completed in 1944, backing up the Little Tennessee River to form Fontana Lake. At the time, the land belonged to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA gave the land north of the lake to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1948. Part of highway NC 288 became the Lakeshore Trail, while the rest of the road ended up at the bottom of the lake. I love old stuff, so I was very excited to see the cars.

To get to the trailhead, take Fontana Dam Road and follow it to the end (it changes names to Lakeview Drive West). The road actually runs across the top of the dam, and since this is the same path as the Appalachian Trail, you can now brag to your friends that you drove a portion of that famous trail. By the time you have finished the hike, you can also claim to have covered part of the Benton MacKaye Trail, for the entire Lakeshore Trail and the Benton MacKaye Trail are one in the same.

Fontana Dam

Fontana Dam

From the parking area at the end of Lakeview Drive, you can pick up the Appalachian or Lakeshore trail. The start of the Lakeshore Trail is at the far end of the parking area, whereas the Appalachian Trail is near the beginning. As is standard within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, signs clearly identify the trails.

Lakeshore Trail trailhead near Fontana Dam

Lakeshore Trail trailhead near Fontana Dam

You can tell that the Lakeshore Trail was once a road because remnants of asphalt still exists for the first tenth of a mile. After that, the trail is littered with what I call rubble rocks—loose, fist-size rocks—and it’s sort of like walking through an old bombed out building, so be careful not to slip and twist an ankle. The trail also proceeds up a slight hill for the first quarter mile.

Rubble rocks at the beginning of the Lakeshore Trail

Rubble rocks at the beginning of the Lakeshore Trail

The other tell-tale sign that this section of the trail was once a road is that it is in a gully, with tall slopes flanking both sides. This either means that so many people traveled the path that they wore a gully into the earth (like the Natchez Trace) or a road was cut through the hills, which is most likely the case here.

Sloping hills flank both sides of the Lakeshore Trail

Sloping hills flank both sides of the Lakeshore Trail

After a quarter mile the trail heads downhill, and there are still a lot of loose rocks. The first three hundred feet is really steep, but after that the terrain levels out for a short stretch and the rubble rocks disappear. At this point, the trail is very high up above Fontana Lake. You can catch glimpses of blue water through the leaves, but there never is a good view of the lake at any time on this hike.

The trail eventually narrows into a more traditional hiking trail. On the lake side is a steep slope, and it’s a long ways down if you trip and end up rolling to the bottom.

Lakeshore Trail follows a ridge above Fontana Lake

Lakeshore Trail follows a ridge above Fontana Lake

After a half mile from the start, the trail once again heads downhill for a quarter mile, but this time the descent is much more gradual. At the bottom you will be 160 feet lower than you were when the Lakeshore Trail first started downhill, but it is still high above the lake. There is also a stream at the bottom, and the Lakeshore Trail actually becomes the stream for a short distance. The water is not deep, and there are plenty of rocks to step on to keep your shoes from getting too wet. There is a second creek crossing another minute later and a muddy section farther down, so be sure to wear either hiking boots or shoes you don’t mind getting wet and muddy.

At 1.1 miles into the hike is a 50-foot stretch of trail that heads straight up (by far the steepest section), and immediately following is a 450-foot segment that heads straight down. The trail levels out at the bottom, and from this point on I hiked at my walking around the neighborhood pace (about 3 miles per hour), so things can’t get much easier. I also got the feeling that this would be a good place to dump an old car.

The first old car shows up 1.3 miles from the start of the hike, just after a mud hole that you must cross on narrow tree branches that former hikers laid down across it. This, and the other cars you will see, is a Ford from the early to mid-1930s. I do not have the knowledge to identify the exact model, for all Fords manufactured from 1928 through 1932 (Model A) and shortly thereafter (Model B, Model 18, and Model 46) look very similar. You’d have to identify key features to tell what year they were manufactured, and from what remains along the Lakeshore Trail, many such features are long gone, and only car experts could identify them. However, for the lay person, if you’ve ever seen the car the band ZZ Top showcased in their videos from the 1980s (a customized 1933 Ford), that’s the type of car that is now rotting on the side of the trail. Here are some photos taken at different angles of the first car.

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

First old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Another oddity along the trail is what appears to be some sort of animal trap. This is for catching wild boars, which are not native to the park and are doing damage to the ecosystem by eating vegetation such as acorns that other native species to Great Smoky Mountains National Park need for survival.

Wild boar trap on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wild boar trap on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The second car is interesting because so much sediment has built up around it over the years that it is now buried in the earth. Its front fender is barely showing.

Second old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Second old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Rear of the second old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Rear of the second old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Once past the second car, the trail is back to being fairly wide. You can see the lake off to the right, though the trail never does get much closer to it.

Lakeshore Trail widens after passing the second old Ford

Lakeshore Trail widens after passing the second old Ford

There’s not much of the third car, plus it’s down in a gully. It is located at the 1.6 mile mark.

Third old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Third old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The fourth car is right around the corner from the third, and it is the most intact of the cars along the Lakeshore Trail. I saw photos of it from 2012, and there used to be doors and other parts laying around, but obviously looters have carried off anything that wasn’t attached. Despite being an old piece of junk, removing anything from a national park is a federal offense.

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Rear view of the fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Rear view of the fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

Fourth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail

The fifth car is on its side, and you can see a complete running board and front fender since it was never touching the ground and thus avoided being buried. The car appears to have rolled down a hill and smashed into a tree.

Fifth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Fifth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Fifth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fifth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Right next to the fifth car is a hunk of metal. I don’t know if it’s a car or some other junk that was disposed of.

Possible sixth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

Possible sixth old Ford on the Lakeshore Trail near Fontana Dam

I continued down the trail until I had hiked my planned two miles, then turned around and headed back. I saw no more cars after the fifth, and in truth, once you’ve seen one old car you’ve seen them all. If you like old stuff, I highly recommend hiking this portion of the Lakeshore Trail. I also recommend hiking the Greenbrier Ridge Trail to see an old Nichols and Shepard steam engine that crashed down a hill and ended up in a creek. There is all sorts of old stuff along the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you know where to look, but these are the only two locations that I know of to find antiques.

If you are interested in another day hike along the Lakeshore Trail, try my Goldmine / Forney Creek / Lakeshore Trail loop hike. This starts on the east side of the trail, and a portion of it does go right down to the lake shore.

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Last updated on February 16, 2021
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