Kleio’s Trip Report
After a family trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) in the Fall of 2014, I started seriously trying to figure out just how to get back there and start hiking some of those magnificent trails. Apparently, there is a running joke amongst most locals that the tourists come and just drive and drive and drive and block traffic without ever seeing the real Smokies. I have been visiting the area since I was a child and, having never really set foot on any trail in the National Park, I knew this “running joke” is all too true. To be fair, it was not lack of a desire to get out and really see the park, at least not on my part. But, every time I have visited, it has been as a child or with a family in tow. Combine having a family that has not yet fully embraced the innumerable joys of the hiking experience with the social stigma of bailing on your family to go solo hike in the back country of the Smokies, and exploring just was not practical for a really long time.
Last Spring presented me with my first opportunity to take on one of the Smokies’ most iconic trails: the hike to LeConte Lodge at 6,593 feet above sea level. It may not be the highest peak in the GSMNP, but it is almost certainly one of the most popular and most accessible. There are five trails that lead to the lodge: Trillium (6.5 miles) , Bullhead (7.2 miles), Boulevard (8 miles) , Alum Cave (5.5 miles) and Rainbow Falls (6.5 miles). The problem for me is that staying at the Lodge is really expensive (check the website – I can’t afford to even look) and reservations must be made months in advance. If you choose a bad weather day for your trip – months in advance – too bad. Because of this, some people choose to stay at the LeConte Shelter located just down the trail. Not a bad option – if you have the right gear. (Note that advance reservations are still required and it is VERY popular with people and sometimes bears). In the Smokies, having the right gear at the very least means a cold weather sleeping bag that you can carry 5.5 miles up the mountain as well as food and water and all other necessities. At the time, I had a hammock and a sleeping bag that weighed about 5 lbs. So, what to do? At home, I had been trail running for about two years so the thought naturally occurred to me: why not do it in a day hike? So long as it did not snow, sleet or hail, I should be able to do that no problem.
The shortest and most scenic of all the trails is Alum Cave. It is also the steepest and most difficult according to most. I had read that it would be an 8 hour hike, not counting the time spent eating lunch at the Lodge or going the extra mile (literally) to see the amazing views from Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point. The famed sunset and sunrise experience may be out of the question with a day hike, but I had also read that certain lodge employees had made it up and down Alum Cave trail in 4 hours or less. To me, that put the trip well within my reach.
After faithfully watching the weather forecast, I chose a day: April 27, 2015. The trip required driving up the day before, camping and starting the hike as early as possible on Monday. Sunday looked like this in Cosby, my absolute favorite campground in all the park, by the way:
Sunday was wet and drippy. Sunday night was the same. I was seriously worried that my stunning views ascending Mount LeConte were going to be of clouds. This is not what you want after driving several hours for a one day chance to get your hike in. Yet, the Smokies are like that and it is always a wild card weather wise. It may SAY “sunny and 47” on your chosen day on the official weather forecast, but like a box of chocolates, you just never REALLY know what you are going to get until you get into it.
Monday morning showed some promise – no more rain but still quite cloudy. It felt as if we were actually in the clouds at the beginning of our hike. That made for an interesting start. I continued to worry that I had chosen a trail famous for its views from the trail and that we would see nothing but clouds. It happens so often here.
Starting out, we had on several layers of non-cotton shirts and warm hiking pants. In my pack, I had emergency gear and more cold weather clothes because I had read just how fickle mountain weather could really be, and I did not want to be one of those eager beaver tourists who make the news. Ranger 2 chose to join me on this adventure, and given that he is less experienced and a bit slower, I packed safety gear, water and snacks for both of us. We planned to have lunch at the lodge.
We followed the beautiful mountain stream for most of the first mile or so, and met several fellow travelers – some heading to the summit and others only half way to Alum Cave Bluff, a stunning architectural bluff area that must be seen to be believed.
After walking through a rhododendron covered portion of the trail at just a bit over two miles, we reached one of the most interesting and memorable parts of the Alum Cave trail: Arch Rock. The trail winds its way inside and through the rock formation!
Shortly after that, the amazing trail views began. I believe the first really special viewing spot is called Inspiration Point. This was a popular spot both going up and coming down. Unfortunately, my photos could never do the true majesty of these mountains justice, but maybe – just maybe you can get a small glimpse of just how stunning these mountains really are.
The next oh look! moment came shortly after we arrived at Alum Cave Bluff.
This area will not even begin to fit into a decent photo – at least not with my equipment! Interestingly, this is where most day hikers spend some time and then head back down. It is easily a full day hike at just over 4 miles round trip and there are plenty of sights to admire and take in at one’s leisure. So this is always an understandable and viable option.
However, on this day, we soldiered on determined to reach the summit and the hopefully spectacular views awaiting us there. The day brightened the higher we climbed (thank you thank you God!), and the scenery was breathtaking! Or maybe it was the climb! No, it was definitely the scenery. While we were constantly ascending, it was rarely ever steep, just steady. Given that there was a view to be taken in around each corner, it was easy to just stop and enjoy. This is why the trip up takes most people much longer than the trip down. The views FROM the trail were magnificent! There is a reason that this hike is considered to be on of the most scenic in the Smokies!
We were treated to such views for the next 2 miles or so until we finally saw the sign that made our spirits soar!!
Moments before, Ranger 2 had actually wondered aloud if there really were a lodge up on the top of this mountain because you literally do not see it until you are there. You may also notice the bear activity sign. I have often heard and read that LeConte is a hotspot area for bears. Sadly, too many visitors fail to follow basic safety rules or worse and, ultimately, the bears become a nuisance and are killed by park management. PLEASE, if you go, remember in whose home you are walking and do not do anything to endanger their lives. Although, we were prepared on this day with a bear horn and spray, we did not see the first sign of a bear. Yet, less than a month later, a bear was killed by park officials in this area after being labeled a “nuisance”.
On a happier note, in less than 30 minutes, we had arrived!!
Ten dollars (each person) got us a bagel with cream cheese, a small summer sausage, homemade cookies, some trail mix and all the hot chocolate and/or lemonade we could drink. Being quite comfortable from our long climb, we chose lemonade and boy was it good! Interestingly, our clothing choices had proven to be just perfect. We did not get too hot or too cold at any time. So, I basically carried quite a few “just in case cold weather items” that never got used. I would happily do so again because it could just as easily have turned out very different. Again, we did not want to make the news as crazy inexperienced tourist hikers who went in unprepared. Mission accomplished :0
After a quick lunch, we made the extra .5 mile trip up to Cliff Tops. Many day hikers choose this as their lunch spot. Next time, it will be ours. It is so amazingly lovely! I can see why it is a huge favorite for lodge guests at sunset. On a clear – or even almost clear- day, the sunset must be heavenly indeed.
Somehow, we had to tear ourselves away from this reverie and make our way back down the mountain. We took the same trail – Alum Cave. Note that many people park a car at one trail head and another at another trail head in order to accomplish two trails in one day. Although, the trail heads are up to an hour apart by car, I would still highly recommend doing the two trail approach if it is possible to do so. There are also shuttle companies in Gatlinburg that will provide this service for a fee.
Our trip down was even more glorious than the trip up because it was all downhill but with the same stellar views!! We had hiking partners from Georgia who had driven in just for the day as company most of the way down. This was their third or fourth time doing this hike. That may give an idea just how special it really is. By the time we arrived back at Arch Rock with two miles still to go, we were all ready to get off our feet. Something about that trail – walking along bare rock in places as well as the constant uphill followed by constant downhill – really can leave the feet in need of some TLC. We did overhear one twenty something asking her companions for Advil as we all made our way down, so I am fairly sure that it was not just us. I have since learned that the quickest and best remedy for sore feet is to remove shoes and socks and stick feet in an ice cold mountain stream. Leave them in for as long as you possibly can – which for me is about 20 seconds – dry thoroughly and be amazed. Even without taking advantage of this simple trick (this time!), by the time we reached our campsite that evening at Cades Cove campground, both of us felt fabulous, including our feet! We logged around 11.5 miles in just over 8.5 hours. For experienced and faster hikers, it could easily be done in far less time. I suspect, however, that the views will definitely slow most people down. I know that is what happened on our trip. Happily, our first, but definitely not last, Smoky Mountain trail adventure was a complete success!