Goodbye, Watauga Lake Shelter

Built in 1980 by the US Forest Service, the basic three-sided shelter was designed for six people and located 50 yards off the Appalachian Trail south of TVA Watauga Dam not far from the lake.  The original shingled roof was replaced with metal in 1997.  The shelter was further maintained in 2007 by staining the outside and installing a gutter on back.   A BSA Eagle project in 2011 by Seth Douthat provided a bear pole for food protection. 

Former Watauga Lake Shelter (built in 1980)

In 2013, activity by multiple families of bears, and not just a couple of bears, at the TVA campgrounds (Watauga Dam and Little Wilbur) and along the A.T. around Watauga Lake led to the US Forest Service issuing a facility closure notice for the Watauga Lake Shelter.  Instructions were to not stop between US321 to Wilbur Dam Road to eat, rest, or camp overnight to reduce any potential encounters.  TVA successfully implemented strategies to reduce access to food/ waste in the campgrounds with elimination of tent camping, banning (with fines) outside storage of food, improved trash containers, and education signs.   Options for the shelter area were extensively discussed between the partner organizations.

The temporary closure notice for the shelter was lifted in Spring 2016, and unfortunately, bear encounters immediately resumed.  A bear destroyed two tents at the shelter, was scared off, then returned to climb the food pole.  A bear appeared the next night to destroy another tent holding equipment and supplies while hikers slept in the full shelter and another nearby tent.  The bear then came back to successfully acquire food bags hanging from trees.  The ranger district immediately imposed the bear closure again “Until Further Notice”.

Situation with bears at Watauga Lake Shelter was further discussed during 2016-2018 to conclude it was not going to be improved with available administrative and physical controls.  The shelter itself was deemed not suitable for relocation, thus decision made by the partner organizations to take down the building.  In March 2019, the bear pole, steps, and table were removed to discourage use.  Finally, the shelter was disassembled in May with the metal parts and shingles hauled back across the lake by TVA boats (many thanks for the assistance!) for disposal while the wood components were burned in place.  The closure notice for camping between US321 and Wilbur Dam Road remains in force.

While Watauga Lake Shelter provided nearly forty years of service, it is a disappointment that the recreational use on and along the lake could not sufficiently practice Leave No Trace principles to avoid creating an attractive enticement for the bears. 

Bear Activity near McQueen Knob – May 2019

ATC has received multiple reports in early to mid-May of bears taking food in the trail section around McQueen Knob – from south at the old farmstead to the emergency shelter.  This same stretch of trail had bear activity in 2018. 

Several campsites were visited by a bear that was circling around until able to grab insufficiently hung bags or broke the low branch to gain access to the food.  Sometimes the hanging bags were just torn in place to drop the contents. 

Please take necessary precautions to limit risk of encountering a bear,  Hikers should camp 200 feet away from where their food and “smellables” are stored for their own safety. For most adults, 200 feet is about 80 steps.  Bear canisters should be sealed correctly and not stored in shelters. (Certified list)  Proper use for Ursacks are to tie securely to the trunk of a tree.  (Link to their How to Use page)  Hanging bear bags should employ a very high branch away from your campsite. (Instructions – practice at home first!)

Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands reopened to dispersed camping (10/2), but be aware of possible bear activity

As of 10/2/2018, the National Forest lands, including section of the Appalachian Trail, temporarily closed in the Mount Rogers NRA and Grayson Highlands SP are now available for dispersed camping; however, maintain caution.

Since closure on August 30, the Forest Service and partner agencies have monitored the area with no further issues regarding black bear activity and human encounters. Habituated bears may still be active in the area, so visitors should remain alert. Campers should be extremely vigilant about storing their food according to recommended guidelines. Dogs should remain on leashes to avoid surprise encounters.

The prior notice involved the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests prohibiting overnight camping in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, and surrounding National Forest lands. This order impacted 17 miles of the Appalachian Trail between Elk Garden/VA-600 and Fox Creek/VA-603, including the three A.T. shelters: Thomas Knob Shelter, Wise Shelter and Old Orchard Shelter. Backcountry camping within Grayson Highlands SP was also closed, not just along the A.T., which changed the plans for other groups such as BSA Troop 48.

Watauga Lake Shelter still closed due to bear activity

March 2018:  The bear pole, picnic table, and the steps to the shelter platform have been removed from the shelter to discourage eating or staying at this site with it being under a bear closure.

October 2017:  The A.T. section between US321 (NB Mile 427) and Wilbur Dam Road (NB Mile 431.4), including Watauga Lake Shelter, is still closed to camping due to bear activity. A temporary campsite (no water) has been set up at coordinates N36.29847, W82.12701 (NB Mile 426.5) just outside the Pond Mountain Wilderness. Also nearby is Boots Off Hostel along Bear Branch Road on the south side of the closed section. Vandeventer Shelter is open to the north of the restricted section.

April 2016: Two nights of bear encounters have been recently reported at the Watauga Lake Shelter. The bears were seeking food, thus destroyed a pair of tents, able to shake a bag off the bear pole, and climbed trees for hanged bags.

The US Forest Service has reinstated a Closure Order similar to the previous one which now covers Oliver Hollow Rd./Hwy 321 to Wilbur Dam Rd. – approximately four miles of the Appalachian Trail along the west side of Watauga Lake. No picnicking, lingering, or overnight camping. Hiking, only, allowed on the named four mile Appalachian Trail section. BEARS ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. Help us protect you and the bears. Please hike through the area without stopping. Closure Order: April 15, 2016- Until Further notice.

For TEHCC members, the best recommendation is to avoid this “Oliver Hollow” area and enjoy another section of the Appalachian Trail. For thru-hikers, the word is being gotten out so that they can properly plan their distances. The temporary campsite located south of Hwy 321 above Shook Branch is available for use.

Oliver Hollow Use Restriction Due to Bear Activity

The National Forest Service lands are closed to most recreation from north of Shook Branch to a half mile north of Wilbur Dam Rd.  Bears are active in this area.  Individuals are only permitted to hike through this area.  Please continue hiking through this area without stopping.  Watauga Lake Shelter is closed.  No preparation or consumption of food or overnight stays allowed.  This closure is effective until December 1, 2015.

Oliver Hollow bear closure map