When I was seven years old, my family moved to a small town just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My father came from a family of outdoorsy people. I have photo albums of camping trips in the early 1900s, complete with old style canvas tents, strings of fish drying and women out there in the woods in long dresses. Crazy! As a geologist he spent the happiest part of his working life outside and even in retirement rode his 10-speed bicycle up into the mountains almost every day until he was in his early 80s. I was his only child, and a girl more interested at the time in ballet and baton and that sort of thing, but he still managed to instill in me a love of the outdoors. He would take me hiking with him in the nearby mountains and one of his favorite hikes was Alum Cave Bluff Trail, one of the five trails up to the top of Mount LeConte. We didn’t usually go past the bluffs themselves and up to the top, but we’d pack water in his old army canteen, put peanut butter sandwiches and an apple in brown paper lunch bags that went in an old rucksack he carried, and off we’d go – just the two of us – to a picnic lunch at a rocky spot just before Alum Cave. He’d teach me the geology of the mountains as we hiked, or try to anyway. To this day my eyes still are drawn to interesting rocks when I hike. I’m sure it drives Chet nuts.
Mount LeConte is the sort of place that seems to draw people in, then take hold in their hearts and never quite let go. I don’t know if there are any stats out there that look at how many of the 9.4 million people who visited the Park in 2013 hiked one of the trails on the flanks of Mount LeConte, but my conservative estimate is a lot. I also don’t know how many of the ones who did visit were returnees, but the stories of two people might illustrate my point.
After being introduced to Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Bluff trail in 1982, Ed Wright set a goal to hike the trail as many times as he possibly could in one calendar year. In 1991, the year he retired, he hiked it 230 times. All told, he hiked to the top of Mt. LeConte 1310 times and documented many of those hikes and the hikers he met in his book “1001 Hikes to Mount LeConte and Counting.” If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Wright didn’t even live nearby, but made the drive up from Florida for many of those last hikes. Pretty impressive.
After struggling with ill health for a number of years, Margaret Stevenson decided to transform her life and took up hiking at the age of 45. On Oct 13, 1960, when she was 48 years old, she hiked up Mount LeConte for the first time. She kept coming back, often many times a week, until she made her final trip up on May 21, 1997. She was just about to turn 85. She’d hiked up to LeConte 718 times, but she didn’t limit herself to just that set of trails. She was also reported to be the first female member of the “900 Miler Club” – meaning she’d hiked all 900 (more or less) miles of trails in the Park. She was a wonderful woman – full of joy and happy to share her love of the trail with everybody she met. She was also my Sunday School teacher.
So I have a history with the trails on Mount Leconte, but Chet, despite having grown up nearby as well, had never made the trip all the way up to the top, so in 2005 we decided to remedy that. Mount LeConte is more than just a set trails, though. At the top there is the venerable LeConte Lodge. Sitting at 6,593 feet it is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States and can only be reached by foot. Supplies are brought in once at the beginning of the season by helicopter and then after that by llama train. It was actually first established there as a hiker’s camp in 1925 – predating the creation of the Park. It’s a rustic place – cabins are lit by kerosene lanterns and you have to fill a washbasin with hot water from the tap near the kitchen if you want to take a sponge bath – but the cabins are cozy, the meals are hot and tasty, there are flush toilets in a separate privy building, and watching the sun set from Cliff Tops can be breathtaking. Apparently, you can also watch the sunrise from Myrtle Point, but I have to confess I’ve never yet woken up in time to see it.
Though you can make the trip to the top and back in one day, the chance to stay at the lodge was just something we didn’t want to pass up. Yeah, us and lots and lots of other people. It’s a very popular thing to do so getting a reservation is something you have to do way in advance – particularly if you want to get a prime weekend reservation! Chet got on the phone on October 1 (the day they open up reservations for the next year) and just kept hitting redial until he got through in order to snag a reservation at the lodge for May. If I remember right, even at that there were no weekends available so we ended up booking a cabin on a Monday night.
There are five trails that lead up to LeConte Lodge. Alum Cave Bluff Trail is the most popular and the one I most associate with Margaret Stevenson as I think it was her favorite. It’s the shortest, at 5.5 miles, but also the steepest. This trail winds along beside Alum Cave Creek, goes through Arch Rock, and passes under Alum Cave Bluff before getting fairly steep on its way up below Cliff Tops. This trail of my childhood is a lovely one, but we decided to take a different way up this time.
Though Chet and I by this time were living in Alabama, my mother still lived near the Park so we were able to drop our car off at Newfound Gap, then have Mom drop us off at the Rainbow Falls trailhead off the Motor Nature Trail in Gatlinburg. Our daughter Katie was able to join us for this trip so here we are ready to head out.
Rainbow Falls Trail starts out along LeConte Creek as a lovely wide trail. We were lucky to be there right at the end of May when the mountain laurel was blooming everywhere.
At 2.7 miles, we came to the reason most folks hike this trail – the 80 foot Rainbow Falls. It was popular that day, too, even though it wasn’t a weekend. It’s a great spot to stop and eat lunch and just soak in the beauty. On a hot summer day, it would also be nice and cool. We ate lunch and chatted with folks from Sussex, England and New Orleans before heading on up the trail towards the lodge. Nobody we met at the falls continued on up the trail and we did not see another soul until we got all the way to the lodge.
Above the falls, the trail narrows and gets pretty rocky. As I recall, Chet grumbled a lot about how we were basically just walking up a creek/waterfall. Not his favorite kind of hiking, but we had lots of wildflowers to take his mind off the rocks – catawba rhododendron, foamflower, violets, umbrella leaf, and sweet white trillium. There are also often good views towards Gatlinburg from this trail, but this day it was overcast so the visibility wasn’t great.
After awhile, the steep rocky trail evens out a bit, goes through this beautiful tree tunnel, and soon ends up at the lodge. Katie had a lot more energy than her old parents, and was waiting for us on the steps down to the dining hall.
We checked in and then rested up a bit before heading to the dining hall for dinner. Dinner at LeConte is served family style so you get to sit with other hikers and share stories. We sat with a couple from Asheville and a family group from Pennsylvania and Nashville. After a dinner of creamy chicken soup, pot roast, mashed potatoes, biscuits and cookies, we lumbered up to the game room/office building. Here they have lots of articles tacked up on the walls about the park, the lodge, and the trails and someplace in there are a bronzed pair of Margaret Stevenson’s boots displayed with stories about her hiking. There are also games, puzzles, a guitar, and rockers around a wood stove for cold evenings. Chet and Katie soon headed back to the cabin, while I walked up to Cliff Tops with a group who wanted to see if we could see any kind of sunset. The answer to that was “no”. Too cloudy. I did get a nice picture of sand myrtle buds, though.
The next morning, we fueled up on pancakes, eggs, ham, biscuits and coffee before heading down Boulevard Trail towards Newfound Gap where we had left the van. Boulevard Trail is the longest of the 5 trails at 8 miles, but it is also the least steep. And as a bonus, you get to walk on the Appalachian Trail for the last 2.5 miles. But I’m getting ahead of myself. From the lodge, we headed back the way we had come up until we got to the end of the Rainbow Falls Trail and the beginning of the Boulevard Trail. Not too far down Boulevard, we passed the Mount LeConte shelter, which is a backcountry shelter run by the park. If you thought the lodge was rustic, THIS is rustic. It’s a 3 sided shed with a couple of wooden platforms to spread out sleeping bags. Like all backcountry campgrounds and shelters in the park, you must make a reservation ahead of time to use it.
A little ways further down the trail, we arrived at High Point, the highest point on Mount LeConte. Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the park, and here at High Point there is a large cairn of rocks to mark the highest point. There is a tradition of adding a rock to build that cairn up just a little higher — so that maybe someday LeConte will be the highest peak in the park. Well, it’s a fun story anyway. People have been putting rocks on the cairn for years, but it doesn’t seem much higher than the last time I saw it. None the less, we did our part, then headed on down the trail.
The upper part of Boulevard Trail does have its challenges. Some places are steep enough to warrant having cables to hold on to, and in one spot there was a long-ago landslide that took out a large swath of the trail. After the washout though, the trail narrows and leads gently downhill. This trail is on a more exposed side of the mountain, but we still saw plenty of trilliums and a nice stand of bluebead lilies. Because the visibility was so bad, we skipped the side trail to the Jump Off, which on a nicer day would have given us views to Charlie’s Bunion, Mount Guyot, and the AT ridge towards the east.
Instead, at 5.3 miles, we reached the Appalachian Trail. I was pretty cold, wet, and hungry at this point so instead of heading right towards the van, I decided to head left for .2 miles to get to the Icewater Springs shelter so that we could maybe warm up and heat up lunch. We met up with a small group of day hikers from Oxford who were in thin jackets and shorts and decided they were not dressed for the elements and headed back to the parking lot. There were also a couple of wet, cold, and miserable AT hikers. One of them was trying to start a fire while the other one huddled in his sleeping bag trying desperately to warm up after getting pretty wet. We had packed in our hiking stove and so we heated up packets of lasagna and black bean tamale pie which we shared with them. It was the first hot food they’d had in two weeks. We tried to help them with the fire before we left, but the wind was just so vicious that any time we got a flame started in the fireplace, it would get snuffed out almost immediately. Hopefully the hot food helped anyway.
After lunch we retraced our steps back to the Boulevard intersection, then finished the last 2.7 miles to Newfound Gap and the van. From there we headed down to Sugarlands visitor center to pick up trail tags for the pack, a few books and some apple butter. We got some funny looks in the parking lot there as it was crowded with lots of folks who probably experience the mountains mostly from a car and here we were wet, dirty, and stiff from our 15.1 mile round trip hike. I’m sure we looked a sight. Final stop on the trip was Mom’s house and a nice long hot shower!
We enjoyed ourselves so much on that trip, that we decided to try it again the next year, but that’s a story for another time.