I’ve tried for three years to climb Mt. LeConte, “tallest” (not highest) mountain in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with the tallest “face from base” east of the Mississippi. In this case, it wasn’t just about the journey. My destination was the remote, rustic Mt. LeConte Lodge.
The first year, I waited too late past opening day for reservations, which opens the first Monday of each October for the following mid-March through November season. The second year, I hit the redial for four hours before I finally got through, then had to make the difficult choice to cancel when the two month house sitting gig came up in San Miguel de Allende, MX. This past October, the first Monday fell on a bright blue weather day while my brother Don and I were visiting friends in Manhattan. Two hours of dueling cell phones finally netted out a highly sought after Saturday night stay on the mountain come May.
This red letter day circled on the calendar has been a goalpost of sorts in getting my nomadic life on the road. I wanted to make it to the park on my own six wheels rather than those of a 727 jetliner. Every decision from returning from Mexico for dental work, to planning out the month in Austin was made with this date in mind for my reservation at Mount LeConte Lodge.
There are five different trails leading to the hiking lodge, only accessible on foot. All supplies are brought in on the backs of a llama train. I chose the Alum Caves Trail, although considered the steepest of the trails, it is actually the least difficult due to the shortest length at 5.5 miles. I chose it because it offered the most scenic diversity, not only in geological formations, but also in scenic vistas overlooking the valley below.
I let this climb psych me out for some reason. Too much information is not a good thing when one has apprehension. Tales of lost toenails. Knee braces available for purchase at the lodge for the walk down. Steel cables and cautionary tales not to look down along the steep drop-offs. A nervous stomach the night before, awaking to pouring rain was almost enough to make me wait another year, maybe when I had been more focused on getting into shape rather than packing, moving, and repositioning halfway across the country. It didn’t help that my alarm failed to go off, putting me an hour late on the mountain. Was it an omen?
It was almost another hour before I schlogged through the Pigeon Forge traffic to the Gatlinburg Bypass, into the National Park, and up and over the loop-de-loop to the Alum Caves trail head. Thankfully, the trail starts out gradually in the rhododendron thicket alongside the Little Pigeon River.
At about a mile and a half in, “Arch Rock” appears where steps cut into stone lead away from the river, up through the arch.
Another mile brings me almost to the halfway point, a popular stopping place for lunch at Alum Caves Bluffs. This also served as the perfect place to wait out the rainstorm on my way back down the mountain.
The area near the bluffs, as well as the last mile are the steepest parts of the trail, with foot holes and steel cables along the rocky path. I love hiking in the rain, but wet rocks chiseled alongside a cliff-side drop-off tend to slow me down to a snails pace.
The last hour was the toughest, not just physically, but I was “sick of ‘UP!” The constant 30% incline, along with the white wall of fog that had now rolled in was making me a bit mental. I typically prefer the silence of the woods when I hike, but I was now into my fourth hour and realized I had looked at my watch three times in eight minutes, it was time to pull out the ipod for a little musical motivation.
But oh, the sweet reward as that first image of the lodge comes into view. I love the feeling of hiking until I am spent, the sound of heavy hiking boots shuffling up the wooden steps of the lodge, opening the squeaky front door, and feeling the warmth of the fire hitting my cold, red cheeks. The relaxation overcomes. “I have arrived. There is no other place to go….”
I am given a bucket, pointed toward the hot water spigot, and shown to my Cabin #4, where I will clean up a bit, light the kerosene lantern, dry off to the propane heater and try to stave off the urge for a nap before the 6:00pm dinner bell.
Meals are family style – Roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a cookie for dessert. All good considering it is prepared in a kitchen without electricity. I have opted for the $10 “glass” of wine with my dinner, which is a bottomless glass until all the tables are cleared. After a few conversations with fellow hikers relaxing in the porch-side rocking chairs, I am in bed before twilight is overtaken by darkness.
The sound of rain lulls me back to sleep the next morning. We are socked in. There will be a sunrise from Myrtle Point, but no chance of seeing it. I go back to sleep and wait for the 8:00am triangle bell to be rung from the dining hall for my “guilt free” breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon. The kitchen staff holds no shame in posting “Tang” on the menu as their breakfast beverage, but no question, their huge, flaky biscuits, steaming hot from the oven are from scratch.
Soon, I hear the sound of the river echoing up the canyon, and a sense of melancholy comes over me. I had looked forward to this home stretch to enjoy the beauty of the river, feeling satisfied at having made it up and down without a misstep. But also sad to have my long awaited “bucket list” adventure now behind me….