The Great Smokey Mountains National Park hosts 10 million visitors each year, making it the most visited National Park in the country. Of those 10 million annual visitors, less than 2/10ths of 1 percent get the opportunity to spend the night in a rustic lodge inside the park on top of the third highest peak in the Appalachian Mountain Range. LeConte Lodge, built in 1925 and upgraded to present times, accommodates about 60 overnight guests per night in its rustic cabins
and is open from mid-March to mid-November. The lodge is accessible only on public hiking trails leading up the sides of the mountain, with the shortest being nearly 5 miles in length and climbing more than 2500 feet. We have a group of friends who make this trek twice a year, spring and fall, some of whom have done so for over twenty years. Here is how we do it.
Mount LeConte sits beside US 441 inside the Great Smokey Mountains National Park between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina. Our core group has seven people in it. Years ago we agreed that we would rent a cabin or chalet from one of the commercial vendors in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for the night before our hike, the night we were on the mountain and the night after the hike. Sharing the cost of the chalet is as economical as a motel room and adds the convienence of not having to load all your non-hiking gear into the cars. Of course, at one time we simply drove to the trail head from our respective homes and went up the mountain. Now, we meet at the chalet or a restaurant in Gatlinburg the evening before the hike, reaquaint our selves and catch up a bit over a good meal. Sometimes the dinner adds to the adventure, like the time we were leaving the parking lot for Calhoun’ Steakhouse when a black bear crossed in front of the car. The morning of the hike we’ll usually have breakfast at the Log Cabin Pancake house and then head to the trailhead.
Although there are 5 trails to the top, we usually take Alum Cave Trail up and then take another of the trails down. It’s important to have your tailgating supplies in the vehicles at the end of the hike.This requires a consensus at breakfast because we have to take part of the vehicles to the trailhead we will come down at and drive the party to the Alum Cave trailhead to start the hikc. The trailhead for the Alum Cave Trail is directly on US 441 inside the Great Smokey Mountains National Park about 8 miles south of the park welcome center. There are two parking lots and during the fall and spring they fill up with day hkers’ cars as well as car’s of those staying at the top. Leaving the trailhead you cross over a bridge and hike along a mountain stream for the first hour or so. This part of the trail is green with ample foliage and if the has been plenty of water, so you will pass through a Rhodadendram Tunnel as you move along the stream
crossing a couple of footbridges until the trail goes up through a hole in the mountain and climbs above the stream. Take your time along here before you reach the vista’s at the higher elevations. Along here, every thing there is to see is close at hand.
Alum Cave Trail gets its name not from a cave but from a distinctive over hang about 2.5 miles up the trail. A yellowish alum like powder flakes off the walls and covers the ground near the outcrop. The trail gets decidedly steeper as you near Alum Cave, causing many to stop and rest. Some day hikers turn around at the cave and many others stop there for a snack, but the
area is so powdery that you are better of moving on up the trail to Inspiration point. There a rocky outcrop where the trail crosses a ridgeline that provides ample seating and a great view of the valley below. As you climb up the mountain the trail gets steeper and crosses the ridges with a series of lengthy switchbacks. At a number of locations you are moving across exposed rocks and cables have been installed to give you a hand hold since there can be a drop off immediately adjacent the trail. The footing can be treacherous when there is rain or ice on the mountan. Even in dry weather you can lose you footing and easily stumble on the uneven rocks.
The hike will take most hikers more than four hours, so remember that the weather can change drastically and that as you go up the mountain the conditions will not be the same. We’ve encountered people suffering from hypothermia because the left the parking lot in shorts and a tee shirt and got caught in a rainstrom a couple of hours up the trail. If you don’t have raingear, fold up a large trash can bag and stick it in your pocket. Tie a fleece around your waist or neck, just in case. You’ll be much better off carrying a few extra ounces than having your lips and fingers turn blue. The rangers have to recover hikers from the Great Smokey Mountain trails every year for the lack of such simple precaustions.
The trails leading up to the Lodge and beyond are public and you can make a day hike to the top and back down if you are in generally good condition. However, If you want to overnight at the LeConte Lodge you need a reservation. The Lodge is a privately operated facility so you need to make reservations directly with them. Typically, reservations for the following calendar year are opened up on October 1. At that time, a sort of lottery takes place to see who gets which dates. We always submit our requested dates by October 1. Some years we have been shut out on the initial requests and have had to scramble for dates the came open later. If you don’t want to stay at the lodge, you can camp between the Lodge and the through hikers shelter up near Myrtle Point. Boulevard Trail leads from Mt. LeConte to the Appalachian Trail about 3 miles east of where the AT crosses 441 at Newfound Gap. Although there are a number of other shelters along the AT in the area you will still find some through hikers who come over to this shelter.
The Lodge has no electricity, outdoor community toilets, no showers, a dining hall, crew quarters, a small souvenier store and community room, and cabins that can sleep from 4 to 13 people per night. The cabins are heated by butane space heaters and contain full size bunk beds. That is to say, two hikers top and two hikers on the bottom. Most cabins also have at least one single cot. When you get to the top, you can get hot chocolate to hold you over until dinner at 6:00pm. If you include it in your reservation you can have a glass of wine with dinner. Usually, we’ve been able to get to the cliff tops to the west of the Lodge in time for sunset.
When the weather is right its gorgeous. The cliffs are only a quarter mile from the Lodge so it only takes a few minutes to get there. The picture above doesn’t do it justice. If you dont’t make it to sunset, climb out of bed in the morning and go to Myrtle point, which is half a mile to the east and along toward the Boulevard Trail. Don’t foget to eat breakfast though. Its the same every time I go there and I eat it with gusto. If you don’f feel like walking to Myrtle, sit on your porch and watch the dawn.
It takes much less time going down than up so we don’t usually rush leaving LeConte Lodge. We vary the trail going down and have done Bullhead, Rainbow Falls, Trillium, and Boulevard, which is probably the most scenic, but is the longest. Each is worth the walk in its own right. You may or may not see much wildlife. We’ve seen snakes, chipmunks, deer and almost evry trip at least one black bear.
Although these creatures are under a lot of pressure from the number of visitors to the park, they are still wild so keep your distance. Head back down the trail and look at the faces of the people near the bottom who will turn back before they reach the summit and enjoy your accomplishment. Happy trails.