The 480-foot Fontana Dam, built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1940s and the highest dam east of the Mississippi River, backs up the Little Tennessee River into the 29-mile Fontana Lake.

Two miles west of the dam is the small resort village of the same name, a favorite wayside for hikers that offers lodging, a grocery store, a laundromat, a post office and several restaurants.

I walked into Fontana Lodge forgetting entirely that it was Easter Sunday. My room wasn’t yet ready, so a hiker friend and I were directed to the dining room, where the only menu available was a lavish Easter buffet. And there we sat, dirty and smelly amongst the well-dressed holiday diners, polishing off as only ravenous thru-hikers can, six plates each of ham, turkey, roast beef and all the fixings, plus salad and desserts.

For northbound AT hikers, Fontana Dam is a milestone that marks the entrance to the 522,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the country. More than 70 miles of trails traverse the park, following a magnificent mountain crest over some of the highest elevations along the AT, including 6,625-foot Clingman’s Dome, Charlie’s Bunion, and my favorite, the craggy Rocky Top, immortalized in song by the Osbourne Brothers in 1967.

A rather odd flying saucer-like observation tower with a long spiraling access ramp adorns the heavily wooded summit of Clingman’s Dome. Pack and all, I joined the throngs of tourists and climbed the tower to get a view over the park, feeling much like an alien myself among the fresh-smelling visitors in their fancy vacation clothes just out of their air-contained cars.

A series of three-sided stone shelters, most above 5,000 feet, serve as home for the night for hikers crossing the Smokies. The shelters thankfully no longer have the chain-link fencing that kept hikers in and bears out, a silly arrangement in my view. Hikers now hang food bags from bear cables outside, and some folks, nervous about Ursus americanus, sleep with one eye open. I could only hope to see a bear or two (no luck) and never lost a wink.

I’ve observed that few thru-hikers carry a small plastic trowel, which makes it near impossible to dig a proper cat hole for disposing of human waste. Just as disturbing to me, most Smokies shelters had no privy. Instead, hikers were directed to a nearby “toilet area,” which more often than not was a disgusting minefield of scuffed soil and used toilet paper.

From Doe Knob in the Smokies north to the heights of Hump Mountain, a distance of some 200 miles, the trail closely follows the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, and at many points along the rather arduous and often circuitous route, hikers can literally stand astride the boundary. One of my favorite spots through this stretch was Max Patch Bald, an open, grassy expanse topping out at 4,600 feet.

I reached the summit of Max Patch at 8 p.m. at the end of a difficult 17-mile hike from the northern edge of the Smokies, a day that featured 4,000 feet of strenuous climbing. The mountain was my carrot and I kept pushing on even as my energy waned and water bladder ran dry. But the effort was worth it, as I was rewarded with the best campsite of the trip, right there on top of the peak. And I had the place all to myself, enjoying an uncommon measure of glorious solitude.

Ahead, Hot Springs, North Carolina, is the first real trail town reached by northbound hikers. In fact, the trail runs right through the main street, along which can be found all the essentials needed by weary walkers like myself, from plentiful food and drink to comfy accommodations and an outfitter, just the ticket for a good rest stop.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast. Follow Carey’s AT thru-hike in his Maineiac Outdoors blog at: