View Full Version : 7 Day Hike from US-321/Watauga Lake to Damascus, VA

05-13-2015, 15:46
Hey Folks,

This is my first post on here, as well as, my first section of the AT! I have done all of my backpacking in the Sierras in Northern California-mainly the Dardanelles. I am going with a few friends and one is not the most physically fit, but he is determined to make the hike.

We are doing 4 days at 15+ miles to get from Watauga Lake to Damascus, VA, so we can have 3 days to do some day hiking, exploration, fishing, rock climbing, or whatever we can find/do. (We have 9 days for the trip in case we can't keep up the pace.)

My question is that I have not found a map or book that shows any trails coming off the AT in that section. I have maps of Pisgah and GSMNP which have a plethora of intersecting trails. What maps should I get for this hike?

Also, does anyone know of any nice spots or trails off the AT that would be worth checking out? Streams, rivers, falls?

We wanted a section that was less populated and regulated than the GSMNP (we all live in NC), so we landed on Cherokee. If anyone has a suggested section that would be more scenic, remote, etc. feel free to share.

Thanks all!

05-13-2015, 18:32
Section north of Damascus is much more scenic.....imo

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05-15-2015, 10:16
This is basically my backyard and I am fixing to do almost the exact same hike myself with my oldest son. We are starting at Wilbur Dam though.

You will be starting at Shook Branch swimming area on Watauga Lake. Just so you know, from there until you get to Watauga Dam is currently closed for everything except hiking due to bears in the area. This only about a 5 mile section though so shouldn't be an issue. There are some decent scenic views through there overlooking the lake and a little fishing if you want to although TWRA really lays into out of state folks on cost of fishing license. Once you get past Watauga Dam, you start up Iron Mountain. Aside from some nice scenic views and the old Uncle Nick Grindstaff monument on top of Iron Mountain, there really isn't much up there. Once you traverse the length of Iron Mountain, you get to cross over to Holston Mountain. When at the Double Spring shelter on top of Holston Mountain, if you turn left you can go down Holston Mountain Trail and there are some decent scenic spots out there, mainly Flint Mill Rock but this will be taking you off of the At and add maybe 8 or 10 miles round trip for you. There are plenty of side trails off of Holston Mountain trail that lead down to Holston Lake. Coutinuing down the AT from Double Springs Shelter, you travel down the ridge of Holston Mountain until you hit 421 in Johnson County. Not much on that section aside from a few nice views. I have never done the section from 421 to Damascus but there really isn't much there until you get to the side trail leading down to Backbone Rock. This is a very nice park that sets on Beaverdam Creek and offers some awesome trout fishing. There is also a 75 foot waterfall located at Backbone Rock.

Not knocking the hike because as I said, I am fixing to do this hike myself, but if you are wanting side trails and waterfalls, etc then this is probably not the section for you. I would probably recommend Carvers Gap in Roan Mountain to 321 in Hampton instead. There are some nice views and several waterfalls that you will have access to along the Elk River and Laurel Fork River along with the balds up on Roan Mountain. Mileage wise should be roughly about the same I think.

Good luck with where ever you choose and if you have any other questions about the area don't hesitate to ask.

05-15-2015, 10:19
Forgot to add, if you fish Watauga Lake you will only need your fishing license. For Elk River, Laurel Fork River, and Beaverdam Creek you will need fishing license and trout stamp.

05-15-2015, 13:18
This is mostly a ridgeline hike, so decent views and good breezes along the way. It was one of the easier hikes I have done. This is the only hike I have been on, where I had a bear come into my camp late on evening.

05-18-2015, 08:09
This is my first post on here, as well as, my first section of the AT!

We are doing 4 days at 15+ miles to get from Watauga Lake to Damascus, VA, so we can have 3 days to do some day hiking, exploration, fishing, rock climbing, or whatever we can find/do. (We have 9 days for the trip in case we can't keep up the pace.)


321 to Damascus is only 42 miles on the AT, so I don't understand how you are planning for 4 days at 15+ mpd.

I did this section last year and don't remember seeing many side trails intersecting the AT. It's a fairly quiet section, mainly because it's not very exciting and the views are few and far between. Aside from the first few miles north of 321 the AT stays high above the lake, so getting down there for fishing will likely be a chore.

My recommendation would be to hike this section in 3-4 days, resupply in Damascus, then continue north thru Grayson Highlands.

Tennessee Viking
05-18-2015, 09:55
Smokie I am in the Raleigh area, and used to live and maintain around the NE Tennessee trail. Go to REI or GOPC, and look at a NatGeo (Holston/Watauga) map, or TN/NC AT guide.

First off, US321 to Damascus (except for Watauga Lake views) is probably the longest section of minimal scenery in the area. The entire section pretty much consists of wooded ridgeline trail. Very little in side trails or extras. The only side trails would be Holston Mountain Trail (@Double Springs Shelter) which is a barely maintained trail to an antenna farm a few miles west, and Backbone Blue Blaze Trail which only climbs from the below highway to the trail about 4 or so miles south of Damascus. The only sites of interests would be the lake, Nick Grindstaff's grave, the Osbourne Tract, views of Holston Lake/Shady Valley, and the old McQueens shelter.

And to inform you, the section between US 321 to Wilbur Dam Road is hike-thru only. Watauga Lake shelter and all campsites in that area are closed due to prolonged bear activity.

The section is not difficult. Its more of a steady rolling grade. Once you climb to the ridgelines (which isn't hard) and get up to speed, it won't take long for you to pick up miles. Even for the non-fit. I have hiked from TN91 to Iron Mtn Shelter and backout in less than a 4hr day hike.

The section only gets difficult during the warmer months due to sources drying up and humidity zapping your energy.

Really, any side trails starting from the Allen Gap area going north on the TN/NC sections are minimal. They are mapped but are barely maintained or not well travelled/blazed. Or are just quick accesses to the AT for tourists.