Editor's note: LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a rarity in the National Park System in that you can't drive up to it. Instead, you have to hike up Mount LeConte. Danny Bernstein, who has hiked all 900 miles of trail in the park, explains how to reach this revered lodge and what you'll find when you arrive.
I am a social hiker. For me, one of the highlights of hiking is meeting friendly and energetic people on the trail. That’s why I love the camaraderie at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lodge, which can only be reached by foot, is luxurious considering it’s located on top of Mount LeConte at 6,593 feet. Groups come here for family reunions and some people train for weeks before attempting the trip because it’s the only hiking they do all year.
Mount LeConte, the third-highest mountain in the Smokies, rises a mile from its base and can be reached by five different trails. Most day trippers go up and down Alum Cave Trail because it’s the shortest route up the mountain at 5.1 miles, but it’s also very steep, gaining 2,560 feet in elevation. My favorite combination is to take the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap and then the Boulevard Trail up (8.2 miles), with great ridge views and down the Alum Cave Trail. I’ve done it several times as a challenging but reasonable day hike.
The first 2.7 miles on the A.T. can be crowded since it’s also the way to Charlies Bunion, a popular destination, but once you leave the A.T., you’ve lost the herd. On Boulevard Trail, if you’re up for an extra mile, follow the sign pointing right to the Jumpoff, a sheer 1,000-foot vertical cliff. While the route to the lodge takes you across the the top of Mt. Kephart, a 6,000-foot mountain without a view, on a clear day from the Jumpoff you’ll get amazing eastern views of Charlies Bunion and the wilderness gulf.
Boulevard Trail, which stays above 5,500 feet, is always cool. When the trail curves around the eastern side of the mountain and gets steep and rocky, you know you’re getting close to the top. Along the way you'll pass the marker to Myrtle Point, which offers a great sunrise view and is worth a detour anytime of the day. At High Point, LeConte groupies add a rock to a pile so that eventually the mountain will be higher than Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies. Let’s just say that they have a long way to go.
Going down, Alum Cave Trail cuts across a rock face, which may be covered with ice in spring. About half-way down, Alum Cave Bluffs is a bone dry island in one of the wettest places in the country. The soil contains Epsom salt and other minerals and was the start of the Epsom Salt Company in the 1830s. During the Civil War, William Holland Thomas and his band of Cherokee Indians built a road to the Bluffs to protect saltpeter, important for making gunpowder. Further down, you’ll go through Arch Rock, a natural arch caused by water erosion. The trail then follows an easy course along the river to your car.
You can stay at the newly refurbished backcountry shelter or at the comfortable lodge and its cluster of well-weathered and simply furnished cabins. The beds have sheets and three blankets so there is no need for a sleeping bag. There is no electricity, and no running water, however. If you feel the need to wash up before dinner, take a wash bowl from your cabin and fill it with warm water from a faucet outside of the dining hall. The lodge serves a hearty dinner and breakfast, so all you need in addition to your day-hiking gear is a toothbrush, small towel, and flashlight.
The lodge predates the park. In 1924, David Chapman, a national park booster, guided VIPs on a trail ride to convince them to create a national park here. First a tent camp was erected. Later, Jack Huff began building the lodge as a retreat. Ten years later, Huff and his wife, Pauline, were married at sunrise on Myrtle Point, near the lodge. Jack Huff built a special chair to carry his mother up to the lodge. You can see that picture at the library/office on the mountain. The office is also the only place you can buy LeConte T-shirts. LeConte Lodge is now operated as a concession under the supervision of the National Park Service.
After dinner, guests gather for the outstanding sunset at Cliff Top, a wide expanse of rocks a short way from the lodge. In the morning, be prepared to quietly creep out of your cabin in the dark with your flashlight and walk to Myrtle Point to watch the sunrise, an unforgettable and usually more private experience.
Supplies are brought up by helicopter several times a year and via llamas three times a week. Llamas are much gentler on the trail than horses, which used to do the trip. The llamas generally pack on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday using Trillium Gap Trail, north of Gatlinburg. If you’re on top on llama days, you may see these gentle animals from the dining room porch getting saddled with dirty linens and trash to take down.
All this comfort cost $110/person per night plus tax and wine in 2009. You can also buy lunch at the lodge and choose from a bag lunch or a hot lunch – the latter requires reservations.
Getting a reservation
There’s a myth that you can’t get into LeConte Lodge because some people have an “in.” Here are the facts. Reservations open up on October 1 for the next season - end of March to end of November. Remember the lodge is well above 6,000 feet – in November, that means you could encounter full winter conditions. If you call now (865) 429-5704 and can go on a weekday, you’ll probably get a spot for 2010. See www.leconte-lodge.com for all reservation information. (While the lottery for the 2010 season has closed, beginning December 1 the lodge will compile a wait list.)
As you sit around the dining room table, you may hear about groups that have been grandfathered. Groups who came year after year on the same date could count on that date in perpetuity. If they miss a year, they lose their date, so that’s becoming less common. This practice was stopped for new groups years ago. These days everyone is equal. All you need to do is plan ahead and embrace some good luck.
Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoor writer, is the author of Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage. Her website is www.hikertohiker.com.