Swiss Family Wright: Tree House Adventures at Historic Banning Mills

Normally, Chet and I post here about a hike we’ve taken, or a float trip, or once or twice about a zip line adventure. The subtitle of our blog is, after all, “Outdoor Adventures in the Tennessee Valley and Beyond.” Emphasis on the outdoor adventures part. Occasionally, though, the place we stay is just as much a part of the adventure as whatever it was we were doing outside. Mount LeConte Lodge, Hike Inn, Charit Creek Lodge and the yurt in Cloudland Canyon were all unique places to stay and we talked about the lodging as well as the trails in those blogs. Our stay at Historic Banning Mills is in the same category, though totally unique in its own right.

After a long afternoon of ziplining fun, it was finally time to check in to our room. They have a number of room options. There is a lodge with rooms like you’d get in a hotel, and a few cabins that I’m sure are lovely, but my wonderful, adventurous husband had booked us in to one of their Tree House Rooms. These are not the tree houses some of you lucky people may have had in your backyards – an open platform or at best a shack made of plywood. Nope, these tree houses are large sturdy rooms with all the modern comforts. They were furnished with a comfy king size bed and a table and chairs. There was electricity so we had lights, a TV, a DVR, a microwave, a mini refrigerator and a Keurig. There was plumbing so we had our own bathroom with shower and also a jetted jacuzzi tub. There was even a gas fireplace, though it was too warm for us to want to try it out. To get to the tree house, you have to walk across a swinging bridge but after all the sky bridges we’d gone across that day, that was a piece of cake. Once inside, except for occasional bit of swaying (which was worst for some reason in the bathroom) it really did sort of feel like any other nice hotel room. The house itself is basically a structure on top of what looks to be, um, more of a ‘”former tree” than an actual living leafy tree. Still, we were high off the ground, and the views off our private back deck were lovely. We looked down on the top of a blooming dogwood tree, had a view of the creek and a couple of the zip line platforms, and had a pair of acrobatic squirrels to entertain us as they scampered up the guy wires of the tree house next to us to lounge on their empty deck.

After some down time in the tree house, it was time for dinner. Banning Mills does not run a public restaurant, but they do provide free breakfast to all overnight guests. You can also make a reservation for dinner onsite, though that  is extra. We decided we wanted to try a local restaurant, though.  There are choices fairly nearby in Carrollton but Chet has a co-worker who lives in Villa Rica and recommended Gabe’s Downtown, a Cajun place with a delicious sounding menu. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Banning Mills. When we arrived we found the restaurant was packed and had a 30 minute waiting list. We put our names on the list, gave them our phone number, and then went across the street to Uncorked On Main. Chet had seen this place when he was looking around for dinner options. It sounded like a bottle shop and since we always like to pick up local beers from places we visit we decided to check it out. It turned out to be more of a bar/meeting space with a brand new restaurant attached. We saw a few bottles of wine, but no displays of beer like we are used to at our local bottle shops like Wish You Were Beer or OTBX. They did, however, have a bar and we had 30 minutes to kill so…. There were “only” 6 taps (we’re so spoiled!) but a Reformation Brewery porter called Stark sounded good so I ordered it. The very personable older gentleman behind the bar told me I had to try something not on their menu board – a mix of the Stark with a Reformation Belgian ale called Cadence. He told me it was actually a mistake that somebody made, but then discovered that it tasted really good together. He called it the R&R. He was right. It did taste really good together! We hadn’t gotten more than 2 sips into our beers, though, when Gabe’s called to tell us our seat was ready. That was a short 30 minutes! While they wouldn’t hold a table long enough for us to finish our beer without guzzling it, they did kindly agree to just moving the folks behind us on the list up one slot. Sure enough, about the time we finished our beer, Gabe’s called again to tell us the next table was ready. What service!

Beer

Gabe’s is a small restaurant in what looks to be an historic building in old downtown Villa Rica. It has exposed brick walls, old wooden floors, and the big shop windows in the front like the old businesses on the courthouse square in Huntsville have. There are 15 tables of various sizes and a bar tucked along one wall. The service was efficient, friendly, and quick and the food was delicious! We split an order of loaded fried green tomatoes and I had an order of shrimp and grits. My only complaint is that it was too much food! It was impossible to eat it all, no matter how delicious it was. I didn’t even have room for dessert. Stuffed but happy, we headed on back to Banning Mills to sleep off the food coma.

The next morning, we went down to the buffet breakfast, which offered eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, fruit, yogurts, and scones along with coffee and a selection of juices. After breakfast, we checked out a very small history museum in the basement, and then took advantage of our access to the resort to explore some of the nature trails on the property. Historic Banning Mills is not a public park and access to the trails is limited to folks who have paid for a zip line adventure or who are staying overnight. While there is a trail map, no distances are marked on it, and trails are mostly just labeled “Hiking Trail” or “Horse and Hiking Trail.” Nevertheless we felt like we could find our way well enough from the maps and the signs and started exploring. We were most interested in checking out the mill ruins marked on the map, so we headed towards Snake Creek and followed the signs. We saw ruins of a dam, ruins of a small mill, ruins of larger paper mill, and finally, an abandoned, but still standing, red brick mill building. This mill was built in the 1830s as a textile mill and supplied Confederate uniforms during the Civil War. A couple we met on the trail told us that they’d heard General Sherman wanted to destroy it, but that it was so well hidden that he never found it and that’s why it is the only mill still standing along the creek. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that that is anything more than a tall tale though.

In any case, it was a lovely day, and we enjoyed our short walk. Early spring wildflowers were blooming along the creek, and the sky was blue overhead. The adventurers were overhead, too, as sky bridges, swinging bridges, and zip lines criss-cross the gorge. It was fun watching them zip along, especially after having done some of that ourselves the day before.

A Comparison of Three Southeastern Hike-in Lodges

Charit Creek Lodge
Charit Creek Lodge

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.

Len Foote Hike Inn
Len Foote Hike Inn

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.

Cabin at LeConte Lodge

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!

Approach hike(s)

  • 24susp_bridge
    Bridge on Charit Creek Trail

    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.
    10overlook
    Overlook on Hike Inn Approach Trail

    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.
    13rainbowfalls
    Rainbow Falls

    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.

Food

  • Well, there is a clear winner here.
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    Dinner at Charit Creek

    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.
    36diningroom
    LeConte Lodge Dining Room

    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.

Beds

  • The bedding arrangement in all three lodges is bunks.
    37cabin_interior
    Bunks at Charit Creek Lodge

    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.
    28-cabinview
    LeConte Lodge cabin. Don’t be fooled by the picture — headroom is scant on the bottom bunk!

    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.

Lodging

  • 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.
    Field cabin at Charit Creek
    Field cabin at Charit Creek

    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.

  • Room at Hike Inn
    Room at Hike Inn

    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.

  • Buildings at LeConte Lodge
    Buildings at LeConte Lodge

    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.

Bathing Facilities

  • 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.
    • North Arch, Charit Creek
      North Arch, Charit Creek

      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.
  • Sunrise room, Hike Inn
    Sunrise room, Hike Inn

    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.

Availability

  • 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.

Overall Experience

  • View from dining room window, Charit Creek
    View from dining room window, Charit Creek

    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.

  • View from top of Amicalola Falls (Hike Inn)
    View from top of Amicalola Falls (Hike Inn)

    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.

  • Alum Cave Trail, Mt. LeConte

    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.

Charit Creek Lodge

Len Foote Hike Inn

LeConte Lodge

 

Mount LeConte: Home Again Home Again

LadyNearTryon_cropped
My grandmother hiking near Tryon, North Carolina.
LelandCamp_1915_cropped
Summer fishing camp in Michigan

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.

cfw3335llamas

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.

cfw01Though 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.

cfw04cfw03cfw09

cfw12 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.

cfw24Above 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.

cfw29cfw28After 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.

cfw31We 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.

cfw35The 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.

cfw37A 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.

cfw41cfw46The 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.

daypackAfter 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.

Sustainable Luxury: Len Foote Hike Inn

This is the second in our series on lodges that are only reachable on foot or horseback. No cars allowed! Check out Chet’s description of Charit Creek Lodge for our first installment. This time around, we’re looking at the Len Foote Hike Inn.

Hike Inn is perched at 3,100 feet on Frosty Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Avid hikers will be familiar with the area because it also is an approach trail to Springer Mountain, which is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it’s known, is a 2,160 mile trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. People hike all of it at once (the thru-hikers), or complete it in multiple trips (the section hikers), or just walk a bit on it occasionally with no thought of hiking the whole thing. Count me in this last group! You don’t need to be a hardened AT thru-hiker to make it up to Hike Inn though. We made the 5 mile hike easily and saw folks of all ages on the trail – one family had a kindergarten-aged child hiking with his parents and grandparents.

44amicalola_fallsThe hike starts in Amicalola Falls State Park in the North Georgia mountains. This is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks, and boasts a spectacular 729 foot waterfall – the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeastern United States. There are several ways to view the falls – you can drive a short ways up from the visitor’s center to the base of the falls, or walk a trail along Little Amicalola Creek and past picnic shelters and cottages to get to the same area. You can also take a trail from the base of the falls up to the top. This trail follows the creek and cascades up a steep slope and lots of stairs. Since we had a 5 mile hike ahead of us, we opted to take the other way to the top of the falls – we drove up the winding road. The trail to Hike Inn actually starts from a parking lot at the top of the falls.

08trailbedFrom the trailhead, the trail rises gently through the trees until it reaches the split to Springer Mountain. You can actually get to Springer Mountain from Hike Inn itself via a spur trail, but for those hikers who aren’t staying at the Inn before they set off on the AT, the approach trail is a more direct route.The trail up to the Inn is a nice one – soft underfoot, not too rocky, mostly not terribly steep. We were taking this hike in the early spring so we were able to see a good number of wildflowers and ferns: birdfoot violet, star chickweed, halberd-leaved violet, bellwort, lady fern, Christmas fern, running cedar fern, common blue violet, trailing arbutus, rattlesnake weed, Canadian dwarf cinquefoil, dwarf iris ( my favorite! ), and shining clubmoss. That’s 13 – so for those of you who remember the rules – that means ice cream with sprinkles, chocolate sauce, and a cherry. Sadly, no pie for this trip.

18rhodo_tunnelThe trail climbs up and down through the forest then crosses over a small creek a little over 2 miles in.  At 3.1 miles, after one of the steeper climbs on the trail, there is a lovely overlook with a thoughtfully placed bench. From the overview the trail heads down to Cochran Creek, where it passes through a rhododendron tunnel before crossing over a sturdy bridge. I just love rhododendron tunnels. They are cool, shady and just a little bit mysterious. I always feel like I’m going through a secret entrance to private world.

22overlook

After the bridge it is up up up for quite a ways, though again, there is a beautiful view near the top. This one is at around 4 miles.

Finally, the Inn appears on a ridge ahead through the trees.

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36lodge_room

Len Foote Hike Inn is different from other hike-in lodges that I’ve stayed in. It is rustic, so don’t be expecting a 5 star hotel, but it is much more luxurious than the others. It has 20 guest rooms, with linens, pillows, blankets and towels provided so you don’t have to lug up your own.  The guest rooms are small – with room enough for bunk beds, hooks to hang your things on and that’s about it. However, there is electricity for lights and a fan, as well as a heater for the winter. We were quite comfortable in our little room.

27sunrise_roomThe lodge is made up of 4 main buildings. As you walk in at the front, there is a large covered stone porch with porch swings and then stairs that lead up to lobby where you check in. Guest rooms are also in this building, to either side of the lobby. Just behind the first building is the bath house. Here you’ll find men’s and women’s hot showers (!!!) and a number of composting toilets. The next building is the kitchen and dining hall, where they serve family-style dinner and breakfast and where you can find coffee, hot chocolate, water, or tea and sometimes cookies between meals. Finally, the last building has the Sunrise Room – a game room with windows all around looking out onto decks with rocking chairs where you can sit and enjoy the view.

33star_baseWe had arrived at the park fairly late, so we made it up to the lodge in the late afternoon – just in time to settle in and then meet in the lobby for the tour. Hike Inn is committed to conservation and environmental stewardship and the tour gives you a behind the scenes view at how that commitment plays out in the day-to-day running of the lodge. Solar panels on the roof of the Sunrise Room provide about 10% of the electricity for the lodge. The hot water for showers and housekeeping are provided courtesy of a solar-thermal water heating system, and the toilets are odor-free composting toilets that use a high-tech ventilation system to save more than 250,000 gallons of valuable drinking water every year.  Recycled barrels collect rainwater used to irrigate the staff vegetable garden as well as the native plants that line the trails that wind around the lodge buildings. Finally, guests are encouraged to clean their plates to reach 0% food waste, but what doesn’t get eaten, as well as office paper trash and other organic waste, is fed to beds of red wriggler worms that turn it all into valuable organic fertilizer. It’s really an impressive setup! They also showed us the “Star Base.” This is a massive granite block formation designed by Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center to channel the light from the rising sun at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes so that it shines into a small cave.

After the tour, we had a bit of time to sit in the rocking chairs outside the sunrise room while we waited on dinner. Dinner was served family-style at long tables, which made it easy to get to know some of the other guests. We were served roast beef, mashed potatoes, rolls, and a dessert called “ooey-gooey” which I have no hope of describing. But it was delicious! After dinner, Chet and I went out and took on some of our fellow-hikers in a game of corn hole. As it got dark, we went back into the Sunrise Room and picked out a jigsaw puzzle to put together, but a full stomach and tired body meant an early bedtime for me. Besides I was hoping to get up early enough to see the sunrise! The staff will sound a drum if the sunrise is a good one, so I went to bed hoping for drumming in the morning.

32sunriseI didn’t get it – I guess they thought it wasn’t a good one, but we got up just in time to see a bit of it anyway and Chet got this fabulous picture – not bad, huh? After the sunrise, it was breakfast – pancakes, syrup, coffee – mmmm – perfect fuel for the hike down. Some folks left from the Inn to hike up to Springer Mountain, but we simply retraced our route of the day before to get back to our car and start the drive home.

Speaking of the drive, it’s only about 3.5 hours from Huntsville so though we actually tagged this onto a longer 4 day mini-holiday, it would be doable as a weekend getaway as well. Reservations are required at the lodge, and they do fill up fast so make sure to call far in advance if you decide to try it out.

Jewel in the Crown: Charit Creek Lodge

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all with a nice overnight hike, but you’re not really into sleeping on the cold hard ground and hauling and cooking your own food?  Well, there’s a hike for that — in fact, there are three of them within about a four hour drive from Huntsville.  You can have a scenic stroll or a more challenging walk, with a warm actual bed and delicious dinner and breakfast waiting for you, with flush toilets and hot showers — and all off the grid.   They are called hike-in lodges, and this is the first in a series of four posts on this special hiking experience.

Charit Creek Lodge isn’t as well known as other hike-in destinations, but this hidden gem is well worth the drive.  The lodge is in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which spans the Tennessee-Kentucky border on the northern part of the Cumberland Plateau.  01bsf_signBig South Fork is a relatively recent addition to the National Park Service, having had its 125,000 acres set aside in 1974.  It’s a big place, with rivers, gorges, waterfalls, and unusual rock formations such as natural bridges and hoodoos.  For comparison, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is around half a million acres, with around 10 million visitors last year.  Big South Fork is a little less than one-third of the size, with only 600,000 visitors.  And there’s plenty to do there, with paddling, hiking, backcountry camping, mountain biking, and trail riding opportunities galore, and with fewer restrictions than are found in a national park.  It’s all more concentrated than the Smokies, but with far fewer people.  I love the Smokies, but the Big South Fork is like its cooler younger brother, that favorite uncle who would occasionally slip you a sip of beer when your Dad wasn’t looking.

Charit Creek Lodge is a concessionaire of the National Park Service, which means it’s a private business allowed to operate within the park under strict conservation guidelines.  The lodge, situated at the confluence of Station Camp Creek and Charit Creek, started out as a hunting camp in the 1800s.  The property went through several transitions since then, becoming a base for logging and mining operations, then a hunting lodge, and eventually a youth hostel in 1989.  The lodge is under relatively new management and seems to be on the upswing, in case you’ve visited here before.

Ruth and I have never been to the BSF, and we were both in need of a break, so we took off on a Saturday morning in June and made our way up to middle Tennessee.  We timed and planned our route to swing us by McMinnville so we could stop by Collins River BBQ for lunch and a craft beer (BBQ sandwich, Cuban black beans, mac and cheese, and onion rings washed down with a couple of pint jars of Ole Shed Brewing Company‘s Pot Belly Porter).  Thus fortified, we finished the five-hour drive (counting the lunch stop) up to the parking lot at the end of Fork Ridge Road in Jamestown, TN.

There are two ways to get to Charit Creek Lodge — on foot and on horseback.  02route_signTechnically, there is also emergency access via a gravel road that is kept gated, which offers some opportunities to the lodge staff that aren’t realistic at other hike-in places, but more about that later.  The last few miles into the twin parking lots (one for equestrians, one for hikers) are on a well-maintained gravel road, with informational kiosks and port-a-potties in both parking lots in case you have any last-minute business before hitting the trail.  There’s easily parking for 20 or more in the hiker’s parking lot.  And before you’ve even gotten out of your car, you have been on a trail in the BSF — this section of the road is also a horse and wagon trail, as this signpost attests.

The first part of the hike is a continuation of the gravel road, which you follow past a bend to the left in the direction of Station Camp Crossing. 06road_start_trailAt 0.3 miles, you come to the Charit Creek trail’s trailhead, which splits to form a 1.5 mile ride for the horsey set and a more direct 0.8 mile descent for hikers only to Charit Creek.  Being equipped with only two legs, we took the trail to the right and entered the woods. This trail is considered a moderate one because it has some steep sections, which are well-engineered with steps and switchbacks.  We didn’t find it that difficult, though of course the hike in is completely downhill or level.  It will seem more moderate on the hike back to the car!

15staircaseThe trail promptly descends into the woods, going down a steep staircase before passing along a rock shelf just about 0.1 miles from the trailhead.  The trail is well-marked — perhaps to a fault, as there are three separate trail marker schemes on it.  The Charit Creek Trail is a short section of the Sheltowee Trace, a 319-mile multiuse National Recreation trail that starts just east of Rugby, TN in the BSF and continues through the Daniel Boone National Forest to end north of Morehead, Ky.  In addition, there are plastic markers that are color-coded to indicate the allowed uses for the trail — in this case, green for hiking.  And you’ll occasionally still see the old arrowhead paint blazes used in the BSF, though they are being phased out.

11sheltowee_trace20green_trailmarker 19bsf_trailmarker

We didn’t see many wildflowers on this part of the hike, though there were plenty of ferns and mosses.  The trail passes between a couple of large rocks, and shortly afterward you parallel a small branch as it winds its way down into the hollow.  24susp_bridgeIn about half an hour we came to the suspension bridge over Station Camp Creek, where the horse trail joins in from the left, and we turned right and followed a gravel road for the last quarter of a mile past some hitching posts and a bear trap to arrive at the lodge.

Architecturally, the place isn’t impressive at first glance — a handful of log buildings scattered in a flat where two creeks meet.  But a closer inspection reveals that you are going to be housed in historic lodging.  The lodge complex consists of the main lodge, which is a saddlebag cabin with the dining room and manager’s quarter’s attached, two free-standing field cabins, a corn crib, smokehouse converted to crew quarters, a barn, bathrooms, a showerhouse, and a stable toward the back of the property.  32lodgeThe right end of the main lodge originated as a cabin built by Jonathan Blevins prior to 1817 — it appears on an 1817 map as an “improved log structure.”  The cabin was enlarged by Blevins to add another cabin on the other side of the fireplace, which was used to house relatives.  The dining room was built to connect the cabin and a cabin from the 1800s moved to the site in the 20th century.  The original Blevins cabin and its annex are used for housing guests, which gives the original cabin the distinction of being the oldest building used to lodge guests in the entire U.S. Park Service.

Gregg the manager gave the guests a history tour of the site after dinner, pointing out many items of interest.  54dovetail_detailFor instance, the Blevins cabin has slopes on the top edge of the dovetails to help water drain, which is a feature found in European architecture of the time but is relatively uncommon over here.  All of the cabins show marks from the hand tools used in shaping the logs, most of which are from the sadly near-extinct American chestnut tree.  The Jonathan Blevins cabin has a particularly interesting feature.  One section of an exterior wall has crude drawings of various buildings on it.  55cabin_pictographGregg explained that this served as a sort of 19th century locator service for people in the community.  For instance, if you were at Jonathan Blevins’ cabin and were planning on popping down to Jake’s Place, you would lean your walking stick against the drawing of Jake’s Place.  So if a bear got into your pigpen, someone could take a look at the cabin wall to see where you were and send someone to find you.  Of course, when you got there you couldn’t beat the bear with your stick since you left it leaning on the cabin wall — maybe everyone carried an extra stick back in the day.

The field cabins are also historic.  The one we stayed in was built from logs from Jake’s Place, the nearby homestead of Jake Blevins from the 1800s. The other field cabin was built from logs from Elijah “Booger” Blevins’ house (son of Jake).  When we arrived, Gregg was in the midst of whipping up dinner for 13 but soon was able to show us to our cabin.  34field_cabinsBoth of the lodge cabins and the field cabins are private accommodations, and can sleep up to 12 people.  There are minimum occupancies for weekends, during peak season, and holiday weekends, but since we were there during the off season the two of us met the minimum and we had the cabin to ourselves.  So you won’t be sharing your sleeping quarters with strangers.

Our cabin was roomy and clean, with three sets of double bunk beds, a picnic table under a propane lantern, a wood stove, and two porches — a front porch with rockers where we could lounge and listen to Station Camp Creek, and a screened back porch with a picnic table and porch swing.  37cabin_interiorThe bed was very comfortable, though headroom on both the top and bottom bunks could be a little tricky if you’re on the taller side and you sit up unexpectedly during the night.  40cabin_frontporchGregg supplied us with a cooler to keep any items that might be of interest to mice, and we can attest that you should use it!  We accidentally left the lid open on our second night and were awakened by a tiny visitor.  By the way, there’s a cat with mousing experience on duty at the lodge and she has some kittens in training.  As is typical in backcountry off the grid lodging, the lighting level in the cabin is relatively dim, even with the propane lantern full on, so if you like to read in bed you’d better bring your headlamp.  On the plus side, the view of the stars and lightning bugs is amazing! 41cabin_backporch

As for other creature comforts, there is a bathroom with flush toilets and a separate showerhouse with solar-heated water.  Guests typically bring their own towels and toiletries, but you can rent a towel from the lodge and use their complimentary soap and shampoo if you wish.  The dining room also has a selection of books, games, and puzzles for your entertainment, and there’s a hammock out near the barn in the shade of a hemlock tree and access to Station Camp Creek if you’d like to play in the water.  thumb_IMG_2134_1024The creek was pretty shallow when we were there.  There’s also a small historic cemetery toward the back of the lodge with a handful of graves.

And now, time to move along to one of Charit Creek’s distinguishing features and a topic of much interest to the guests — the food!  Gregg is a former restaurateur, and the quality and variety of dinner and breakfast dishes is outstanding for a hike-in destination.  Compared to similar backcountry lodges in the east, Charit Creek has the advantage of limited road access so Gregg is able to drive into town for fresh ingredients.  Typically, backcountry lodges have to stock up at the beginning of the season, or make limited supply runs on occasion, and as a result the menus tend to rotate between two or three standard dishes, generally roast beef and chicken, and somewhat bland sides.  Our menu for our first dinner:  roasted pork loin, mashed potatoes, carrot souffle, asparagus casserole, collard greens, and blueberry cobbler with whipped cream — all served on antique china.  Carrot souffle at a hike-in lodge — are you kidding me?  Beverage choices included water, ice tea, and lemonade, with craft beer and wine available for purchase.  Our first breakfast: egg frittata, biscuits, gravy, sausage patties, delicious grits, apple butter, blueberry jam, coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice.  During our second day at the lodge, we purchased a trail lunch to take on our hike, which consisted of a ham and cheese wrap, trail mix, a selection of chips, a candy bar, and an apple — delicious.  67dinner_june7Our second dinner:  chicken and dumplings, roasted Brussels sprouts, wheat yeast rolls, green bean casserole, and chocolate cake with chocolate sauce.  And before we headed out on our final day, a breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, and scrambled eggs with cheese and garlic.  I should note that there is an option to stay at the lodge and opt out of meals and do your own cooking.  To paraphrase that well-known outdoor enthusiast Mr. T, I pity the fool who does this.

In summary, Charit Creek Lodge is an excellent base for exploring the Big South Fork.  There are hiking and horse/bike trails that pass by the lodge, with other trailheads nearby.  If you want to go farther afield, it’s a short hike back to your vehicle.  Summer is the off season due to heat, as the lodge sits at a lower elevation than similar backcountry lodges, but that’s about the only drawback to the place.  You get a lot of solitude for a short walk, terrific food, plenty of things to do, sleeping in a historic log cabin, and good company.  Oh, you can also bring your pets, subject to some reasonable restrictions.  It’s almost a crime that it’s so easy to get reservations, so get yours now before the word gets out.