So, you like to hike and stay overnight in scenic locations, but you’re not necessarily a fan of schlepping in your own food, bedding, and shelter.
Not a problem! There are three terrific hike-in lodges within about a five-hour drive of Huntsville, and all of them will put you up in (rustic) style.
Hike-in lodges are backcountry lodges that are not accessible by motorized vehicles.
In previous posts, we’ve described our visits to Charit Creek Lodge (in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee/Kentucky), the Len Foote Hike Inn (in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia), and LeConte Lodge (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina).
If you’d like to get our take on any of them, click the appropriate link(s) in the previous sentence.
In this post, I’ll be doing a quick comparison of the three lodges in eight different criteria. I’ll go ahead and spoil the surprise by saying that there’s not one lodge that I would recommend over the others. Each has its strengths, and the perfect choice for one hiker might not be the best choice for another. The only recommendation I can make with confidence is that you should try them all!
Charit Creek is the easiest hike. It’s a total of 1.1 miles one-way, and nearly all of it is downhill. If you want more of a challenge, there are nearby trailheads you can use that will connect to other trails leading to the lodge. You may hike, bicycle, or ride horseback to get to the lodge. Of the lodges in this comparison, I’d say that the standard approach trail to Charit Creek is the least scenic of the three. Still, it’s a nice walk in the woods with some good creek views.
- Hike Inn is a longer and more challenging hike. This one goes five miles one way, starting from a parking lot at the top of Amicalola Falls, and it has a fair amount of elevation change along the route.
There are two pretty good uphill pulls of about half a mile each. However, on our hike we noticed several families with young children who completed the hike with no problems. I’d say the youngest was in kindergarten. This hike has variety in the terrain and several nice views. There is only one trail to get to the lodge, unless you’re planning on starting on the Appalachian Trail and hiking southward to it. Starting your hike with a view from the top of a waterfall is a bonus for this hike, and it also has the cool factor of having the first part of the hike running along the Springer Mountain AT approach trail. This hike is for foot traffic only.
- LeConte Lodge has five different approach trails, with distances spanning from 5.5 to 8 miles. The shortest, Alum Cave Trail, is also the steepest, but it has Arch Rock and Alum Cave Bluff as points of interest along the way (as well as a few places where there are cables to cling onto as you navigate narrow ledges). The Rainbow Falls trail (6.5 miles) and Bullhead Trail (7.2 miles) may be hiked as a loop, and of course Rainbow Falls is a feature certainly worth checking out.
The Trillium Gap Trail (6.5 miles) features Grotto Falls along the way with nice ridgeline views, and there’s a chance you might meet a llama pack train on the way (on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays). The Boulevard Trail is the longest option, starting at the Newfound Gap parking lot, but it has overall less elevation change, ridgetop views, and the glamour of starting your hike by going a short distance on the Appalachian Trail. Of the three lodges, LeConte is the most challenging to hike to. All trails are uphill, often relentlessly so, and are for foot traffic only.
- Well, there is a clear winner here.
Our first dinner at Charit Creek started with a carrot souffle. Meals included such sides as roasted brussels sprouts and asparagus casserole, with roasted pork loin and chicken and dumplings as entrees. Charit Creek has limited road access, so it’s much easier to bring in fresh produce and meats, and the on-site manager’s previous experience as a restaurateur is on full display. And the food is served on antique china too, scavenged from local antique stores. All cooking is done on propane appliances, as there is no onsite electricity.
- Hike Inn has good, hearty food (we had roast beef for dinner and pancakes for breakfast) and a signature dessert (ooey-gooey), cooked in a kitchen with electricity. The emphasis at Hike Inn is on food conservation, as all uneaten food is weighed afterwards to track food waste (and do a little good-natured waste-shaming). It appears that there’s quite a variety in their menus, though I don’t know how they resupply since there are no roads to the lodge. After a five-mile hike, a good hearty meal is much appreciated, and breakfast is more than adequate to fuel you up for the return trip.
- LeConte Lodge also has good food, made even more tasty by the hike you had to take to earn it.
LeConte is the most limited in a culinary sense, given how difficult it is to resupply. Staples are generally stocked once a year via helicopter, with perishables brought up twice a week via the llama pack train. There’s not much variety in the menu, but that’s understandable given the remoteness of the location and the lack of electricity in the kitchen.
- All three lodges can accommodate special diet requests, given enough advance warning. All three lodges have common dining areas, with long tables and food served family-style.
- The bedding arrangement in all three lodges is bunks.
At Charit Creek and LeConte you can sleep two to a bed (four to a bunk). At Hike Inn, the beds are narrower and can only comfortably sleep one person. All three lodges provide bedding, pillows, and blankets, so you’ll be warm wherever you are. All three lodges heat their sleeping spaces. At Charit Creek, it’s via a wood stove in the cabin. At Hike Inn, it’s electric heat (and a fan for cooling, the only lodge of the three to offer it). At LeConte, heat is provided by propane heaters built into the wall, usually set by the staff.
- Since you’re in a bunk, headroom is a vital concern.
Here’s the breakdown.
- At Charit Creek, if you’re on the bottom bunk and sit up during the night, you might bonk your head if you’re around 5-10 or taller. There’s plenty of headroom on the top bunk.
- At Hike Inn, there’s plenty of headroom on top and bottom bunks. There’s also a nice built-in shelf next to the bed.
- At LeConte, climbing into the bottom bunk is like climbing into bed on a submarine. Better make that bathroom run before bed, because once you’ve crawled in there is no getting out. And if you sit up during the night, you will be brained. It doesn’t matter how tall you are. Headroom on the top bunk is OK though.
- Charit Creek has four cabins (two are attached to the main lodge building, and two are free-standing nearby), and each cabin can sleep up to 12 guests.
The cabins are private, in that you never share a cabin with people who aren’t in your party. The cabins are historic, dating back to 1817 or a little later in the nineteenth century. There is no electricity in the cabins, and lighting is provided via propane lanterns. Charit Creek is definitely the best choice if you have a large party. The cabins have front and back porches, with rockers, swings, and a picnic table. Since our visit, they have also added tree tents and a three-person lodging in the former corn crib.
Hike Inn is the most modern of the three, with 20 guest rooms which can each sleep two people. Some of the rooms are connecting, so you can form a four-person “suite.” There is electric lighting in the rooms, but no outlets. All of the rooms are in the same lodge building, and the rooms are small, with shelves, a stool, and a mirror. In keeping with the eco-friendliness of the lodge, most of the buildings onsite use recycled wood.
LeConte has cabins (which sleep four) and two- and three-bedroom lodges, which can sleep larger groups. At full capacity (and it’s almost always at full capacity), LeConte can sleep 60 guests. We’ve only stayed in the cabins, but all of the buildings are rustic wooden structures with porches and rockers. The cabins are very small and are lighted by kerosene lamps. There’s a table, a chair, and a bucket and washbasin in each cabin. There is no electricity at LeConte, except for a smidgeon provided by a solar array for staff use.
- Charit Creek has a bathhouse with flush toilets and sinks. Hot showers (solar water heating) are available in a separate building.
- Hike Inn has a bathhouse with modern composting toilets, sinks, and hot showers (also via solar water heating). Don’t be put off by the composting toilets — they are really odor-free because they have fans that pull air down into them. This does have the side effect of giving you a cold backside if you tarry too long.
- LeConte has flush toilets but no shower facilities. There’s a spigot for filling the bucket for your nice warm sponge bath. There’s also a cold water spigot if you prefer more bracing ablutions.
Things to Do
- Once you get there, all three lodges have other hiking opportunities if you want to stroll about.
Several trails can be reached via Charit Creek, with the most impressive being a short hike to the two natural bridges nearby. It’s a short hike back to your car if you want to explore more of the trails in the Big South Fork.
- You can take a 4.4 mile hike (one way) to Springer Mountain from the Hike Inn to reach the southern terminus of the AT. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to congratulate a through-hiker finishing the hike or encourage another one who’s just starting out. You also have access to multiple trails in the Amicalola Falls State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest.
- LeConte has short hikes to Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops for sunrise and sunset views, and you have the five approach trails to explore. And there are 900+ miles of trails in the national park if you go farther afield.
- Of course, all three lodges have terrific natural settings. Hike Inn and LeConte are mountaintop lodges with amazing views. Though Charit Creek is at a lower elevation, there are two creeks that run by the lodge, and you can hike to the top of some nearby bluffs for sunrise and sunset views.
All three lodges have common areas with games, puzzles, and books. Hike Inn and Charit Creek have tours of the property, and LeConte sometimes has ranger-led programs.
- No TVs anywhere. No computers either. Cell reception is lousy at Charit Creek, and iffy at best at LeConte and Hike Inn. That’s not usually a problem — it’s really the point, to unplug from the pixels and plug into the pines, and backcountry lodges tend to attract people who accept this.
- Charit Creek, generally speaking, has the best availability. It’s the only lodge of the three that offers online reservations, and you can check availability online. Fall and spring are busy seasons, but a quick check shows plenty of mid-week availability, and even some weekend availability (but it’s going fast). Rates are very reasonable — in fact, it’s a steal for large groups. Cabins are a maximum of $100 per night (prices are by cabin, not by person), and food is another $20 for dinner and $10 for breakfast. Get a big group and the per person price is pretty amazing. For an apples to apples comparison, a four-person adult group will pay a total of $220 for a night (at most).
- Hike Inn has very limited availability. You can only book via telephone. Reservations are allowed up to 11 months in advance, and the place stays very full. You’ll need to have some flexibility in dates if you’re planning a visit. Rates vary, but you’re looking at a minimum of $170 for a double occupancy room. That does include dinner and breakfast. Our four-person adult group would drop around $340 for a night there.
- LeConte Lodge is the most difficult to book of the three. Here’s the deal: every year on October 1 they begin taking reservations for the next year. You can book via telephone or via a form on the website (or fax or snail mail), but the written requests are honored via a lottery system. Let’s be frank here — if you don’t call them on October 1 and stay on hold as long as it takes, you aren’t staying at LeConte Lodge on a weekend. If you haven’t called them in the first week of October, you aren’t staying there at all. Remember, LeConte only sleeps 60 people, and fully three-quarters of the people there (by my estimate) on any given night have been going to LeConte for years. I’m serious — they book their entire season in about a week or less. Prices vary, but work out to around $136 a night per adult, which includes lodging, dinner, and breakfast. Our theoretical group of four would spend $544 for a night at LeConte.
Charit Creek’s easy hike in and out, relatively good availability, and very good ease of booking make it a very good option for your first backcountry hike-in lodge experience. If you’re a horse rider or cyclist, it’s your only option. The food is shockingly good. And despite the lower elevation, the night sky is amazing here — better than the frequently clouded-over mountaintop lodges.
Len Foote Hike Inn is the eco-tourism choice, with the most modern facilities. It’s a model of sustainability, and as an added bonus, the inn is operated by an affiliate of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, so your money goes to a non-profit organization that helps maintain the AT in Georgia.
LeConte is the most difficult to reach, so there’s more of a sense of accomplishment when you get there. Sunsets and sunrises (so I’m told) can be magnificent if the clouds cooperate. It’s the most rustic of the three, if that appeals to you. And llamas, three days a week!
For more details, check out their websites.