At the beginning of this year as we looked over our hikes from last year, we realized a horrible truth. We had not once managed to get up to our beloved Smoky Mountains for a hike of any sort! We were determined to correct that oversight this year, but to be honest, had made absolutely no concrete plans. We have a list of hikes we’d like to do, and sure enough “Smokies hike” is on there, but that’s about as far as we’d gotten. Then something wonderful happened. A co-worker of mine sent me an email asking if Chet and I had plans for June 29-July 2. It turns out that they were part of a lucky group that had recurring reservations at LeConte Lodge for the Friday before July 4th. I should explain – it used to be that the lodge would let folks set up recurring reservations for the same date every year. In 1998 the rules changed and they no longer accept new recurring reservations. If you already had one set up, though, you were allowed to keep it for 20 years, which makes next year the last year for this group. In any case, my co-worker and his wife were not going to be able to make the hike this year due to injury and offered their two spots to us. We thought about it for about a nanosecond before we jumped at the chance.
We drove up after work Thursday night so that we could meet the group for breakfast early Friday morning. Breakfast was where we coordinated who’d be in what cabin and got an idea about what trails folks were going to take. We had a lot of folks hiking up Alum Cave Trail, a family going up Rainbow Falls Trail, a group running up Boulevard Trail, and another couple taking Brushy Mountain Trail until it joined up with Trillium Gap Trail. Chet and I had thought about Brushy Mountain, but in the end chose to start at the Grotto Falls parking lot and hike up Trillium Gap Trail. This meant we had somebody in the group on every open trail (Bullhead Trail is closed for the season due to fire damage from the 17,000 acre fire that burned into Gatlinburg in November 2016). It turned out three other folks in our group wanted to hike up from Grotto Falls as well, so after a quick group picture, the five of us hopped in a car and headed to the trailhead.
Trillium Gap Trail is the one the llamas use to get supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To be honest, since we were hiking on a Friday that’s a lot of the reason I picked it. I love llamas! Sure enough we parked just a few spots down from the llama trailer. They’d beaten us to the trail, probably by a long time, so we saw no sign of them in the parking lot. It’s a nice trailhead. There’s plenty of parking and even a building that looked like it might be a restroom. The trail headed out of the far end of the parking lot and with that we were on the trail and heading up.
The first part of the trail was pretty rooty, but not difficult footing. I was impressed once again by the sense of age that I get on these trails. The trees seem bigger and more ancient, the trails like footpaths that have been used since prehistory. I don’t know – maybe it’s all in my head, but it just feels different in the Smokies in a way that I can’t quite explain. My favorite thing about hiking in the Smokies at this time of year, though, is all the rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Nine species of rhododendron (or rhododendron family) shrubs bloom in the park, and from May into July the mountains are just covered in blooms. On the lower part of the trail, we saw lots of rosebay rhododendron, as well as black cohosh and wild hydrangea.
The trail winds through eastern hemlock groves and crosses several little streams before the feature that makes Trillium Gap Trail one of the most popular trails in the park comes into view. Grotto Falls, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, is formed when Roaring Fork drops 30 feet over the falls. The trail actually goes behind the falls, which is always fun. It would have been more fun if it hadn’t started raining, though. It always rains on us when we hike in the Smokies so we were prepared with raincoats and pack covers, but we were hoping to get at least a few miles of rain-free hiking in. It was not to be. The rain started at the falls, and kept up pretty much the whole way up. It made for a very misty hike with no views down into the valleys. Chet was able to get a few good shots of the falls in before we raincoated-up and started slogging our way up the trail.
The trail after the falls is steeper and rockier. It was raining pretty hard at first so sometimes it felt a little like we were walking up a creek. That was just how the salamanders like it, I guess, because we saw several clinging onto rocks and scampering along the trail. There was one small creek crossing, and then at the 2.9 mile mark we arrived at Trillium Gap. This is a gap or pass between Mount LeConte and Brushy Mountain and in fact there is a short spur trail that leads to Brushy Mountain where there normally are great views up to LeConte and even as far as Sevierville. This day was so misty and rainy that we debated whether we wanted to check it out or not. As we sat on a wet log eating trail mix and discussing our options, a couple come down the spur trail. When we asked if there was any view, they said they could see LeConte peeking through the clouds a bit. Just after they said that, though, the skies opened up again so we decided to skip it and just keep heading up to the lodge. My “raincoat” was more of a windbreaker apparently, since it seemed to keep very little of me dry, and my boots either aren’t waterproof or have lost their waterproofing because my feet were damp too. I was ready to get off the trail and into something dry!
From the gap, Brushy Mountain trail leads straight ahead for 5.5 miles to the trailhead at Porters Creek. Trillium Gap Trail makes a sharp right turn at the gap and heads uphill steeply towards the peak of Mount LeConte, 3.6 miles away. Trillium is not the steepest trail to LeConte – Alum Cave is steeper – but I will say that particularly after the gap it climbs pretty relentlessly uphill with only a few level sections. This section was rocky again, and we saw tall meadow rue, small purple fringed orchid, mountain laurel, wood sorrel, catawba rhododendron, and umbrella leaf.
My least favorite things were the erosion control steps (or whatever they’re called). There were many of these, and I found them hard to climb up. My knees and thighs were sore the next day and I’m blaming these evil things! We started passing people headed down from the lodge, which got my hopes up that we were getting close. Towards the top the trail does have a couple of almost level sections, the last of which cuts through a stand of balsam firs. Finally, finally, we came to a sign about “No Horses Beyond this Point,” then a bridge, then staff cabins or outbuildings, and then on the left – the llamas!
They were penned behind the dining hall, munching on leftover pancakes from breakfast, while being saddled up for the trip back down the mountain. We admired them for a few minutes before we went on to find our cabin to drop our packs, change out of wet socks and boots, and then head straight to the dining hall for the all you can drink hot chocolate that comes along with your room. Next order of business was a trip up to the office to officially check in and buy our “only available if you hike to the top” 2017 LeConte T-shirt. This year’s design is a nice one! Warmed a bit by hot chocolate and now with a dry shirt to put on, my next activity was a good nap.
We were staying in one of the three bedroom lodges. These buildings have a large porch with rocking chairs, a common room with a small table and a couple of chairs, and three small bedrooms. There is no electricity or running water in the cabins or lodges, though kerosene lanterns and propane heaters are provided. There are flush toilets in a separate building, and you get a bucket at check in to go collect hot water from a spigot if you want to take a sponge bath. I believe each bedroom has a double bunk bed in it, similar to the beds in the individual cabins. We claimed the top bunk, not knowing anything about our roommates. We knew the couple we were staying with had planned on leaving Huntsville in the early morning and driving straight to the trailhead. These are the folks who planned on hiking up Brushy Mountain, which is a 9.1 mile hike. We’d been told they are super hikers, but still we figured after a long drive and a long hike the last thing they’d want is to have to climb up to the top bunk. As it turned out, they ran into a two hour traffic snarl in Chattanooga caused by a wreck so they changed plans and hiked up Trillium Gap Trail instead since it was “only” 6.7 miles. They arrived in time for dinner though, which is the important thing. If you’re not checked in by 6:00, you’re out of luck!
I’m pretty sure that the dinner served at the Mount LeConte Lodge hasn’t changed in decades, but it is delicious. We had potato soup, some sort of roast and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples, a peach half, and chocolate chip cookies. Water, hot chocolate and coffee come with the meal, though you can also order wine with dinner for a flat rate of $11, which gets you as many refills as you’d like of red, white, or rose wines. They also can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free guests, though those meals must be requested a week in advance. Dinner is served family style so when Chet and I have been up here before we were seated at a table with people we’d never met. This time, because we were such a large group, we ended up sitting with folks in our group, though since we were “fill ins” we really didn’t know them either. This year, we got a bit of entertainment at dinner. A young woman got up and played us something classical on a violin. I didn’t hear the introduction so I don’t know what that was all about, but it was very well done and everybody seemed to enjoy it.
After dinner, we went back to the cabin for a bit, then heard there were deer wandering among the cabins so we went to find them. Deer have gotten much bolder in the years since I’ve been here. It’s apparently not uncommon to see them wandering among the cabins, totally unfazed by all the humans. After that, most of us headed up to the office, which is the hangout area. There is a large propane heater surrounded by rocking chairs, several tables, and stacks of games and puzzles to keep us entertained. Some folks worked on a puzzle, one group played monopoly, another group was trying to teach a couple of people Euchre, and the rest of us just hung out and chatted. We met a guy who has a YouTube channel about hiking. He and a buddy were on a several day hiking trip, carting some pretty impressive video equipment along with them. We met another couple of guys who had hiked 19 miles that day to get to Mount LeConte from Clingman’s Dome. Needless to say these were some fit young guys – at least one of whom was a Marine. I felt a bit like a wimp for only hiking 6.7 and doing it pretty slowly at that! There was much discussion about whether it made any sense at all to hike up to Cliff Tops for the sunset. The mountain top was shrouded in clouds so we opted to skip it. A little while after official sunset, though, the clouds parted and we got a bit of sunset after all! We all streamed out onto the deck to look at the sky, and then someone noticed that the nightly Dollywood fireworks were starting up. It was a bit strange to be looking down on fireworks!
Soon enough folks were starting to wind down and we headed off to bed. It had been a rain soaked hike on a day with few views and no spectacular sunset but still, the magic of LeConte meant that I went to bed a happy woman. I was back in “my” mountains and even better, I got to see llamas! It was a great day.