Backpack to Spence Field

Rate this Adventure 13.8 miles 3100 ft gain  - Loop Trail

Added by John Sides

Ascend from Cade’s Cove to Spence Field, a very scenic bald at the top of the ridge. Hike a beautiful section of the Appalachian Trail, and immerse yourself for a couple days in the incredible backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Start your hike at Anthony Creek Trailhead (elevation 1,800 ft), in the Cade’s Cove area. The trailhead is located at the far end of the day-use picnic area near Cade’s Cove campground. There are a few parking spots right at the trailhead, but note that the picnic area closes at dusk (a gate closes the road), so be prepared to park .5 miles away at the main campground parking lot if you arrive late or the spots right at the trailhead are taken.

Hike Anthony Creek Trail for 1.6 miles until the trail splits, and then stay left towards Bote Mountain Trail. The trail continues alongside Anthony Creek and slowly gains elevation until you hit backcountry campsite #9. This is a great spot to spend the night if you don’t start your hike till late afternoon. Campsite #9 (like all backcountry sites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park) has an easy-to-use bear cable system to store your food/toiletries high off the ground away from your tent. This site is angled on a hill and has 3 different spots where you could comfortably put a couple tents, so get there early to choose one of the better spots. You can filter water easily from Anthony Creek at the back end of the campsite. From here the trail climbs until you reach the junction of Bote Mountain Trail (3.5 miles in from the trailhead). Turn right at the junction and push on towards the AT. You’ll gain about 1,000 feet of elevation in this strenuous 1.7 mile section.

As you reach the top of the ridge, you’ll see another sign at the junction with the AT. You’ll eventually head to the right towards Spence Field shelter and Russell Field, but to get to Spence Field, go left and hike another .25 miles until the trees clear out at the top of the bald and you’ve got awesome panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ve arrived at Spence Field! (elevation 4,900 ft) Look south to spot Fontana Lake, and see if you can find Shuckstack Fire Tower (Hike to Shuckstack Fire Tower) at the top of one of the ridge lines near the lake. If you continue on past Spence Field, you’ll eventually reach Rock Top (Hike to Rocky Top), which is definitely worth the views if you’ve got time.

Once you’ve enjoyed the views from Spence Field, backtrack down the trail towards Spence Field shelter and Russell Field. The shelter makes a great spot to take a break, and rehydrate (most of the time there is a spring near the shelter with running water but it occasionally runs dry), and there’s also a privy. From the shelter, hop back on the AT and hike another 2.9 miles, mostly level or even downhill to Russell Field shelter, and then take a right to descend off the ridge via Russell Field Trail. There’s another water source just off the ridge along Russell Field Trail. Hike about 2 miles downhill and you’ll hit campsite #10, which is another nice campsite right alongside a stream, with a few spots to choose from to put up tents. If the stream just behind the site is low or dry, continue hiking about 200 yards down trail until Left Prong Anthony Creek crosses the trail, which is an easy place to filter water. From campsite #10, you’ve got just under a mile till you hit the Anthony Creek Trail junction, and you’ll stay straight for the final 1.6 miles back to Anthony Creek trailhead.    

Whether you choose to stay at campsites #9, #10, or the Spence Field shelter, you’ll need to book backcountry permits in advance. You can do that here (Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry permits).

After you hike out, head over to the Cade’s Cove campground store for ice cream, snacks, or a cold drink. If you have a couple hours, drive the scenic Cade’s Cove loop and look for wildlife including deer, turkeys, coyotes, and black bears.  

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