by Danny Bernstein
A large Friends of the Smokies group spent the night at LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in May.
In my research, I found a LeConte Lodge brochure of the 1980s, which said in part: Only special people ever spend a night at LeConte Lodge…
“Only special people ever spend a night at LeConte Lodge…people with the zest to climb one of the five trails, the shortest a climb of over five miles. Only special people get to catch a filtered sunset from Cliff Tops or get to drink the icy-cold water from a 6,300-foot-high spring or get to develop a hiking appetite so sharp that simple, hearty food tastes like it was prepared in the kettles of the gods.”
The brochure shows a mama bear and two cubs strolling in front of the cabins. The present lodge website does not talk about “special people” or show bears in such a positive way.
If you know Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), you know that LeConte Lodge is the only place where you stay overnight without bringing your own tent or RV. No need for a sleeping bag either. The lodge staff provides everything for a comfortable night’s sleep. In addition, they serve dinner, breakfast and sell bagged lunches.
LeConte Lodge started in 1925
How did the park allow LeConte Lodge to be established?
LeConte Lodge started in 1925 before the Smokies became a park. First there were just tents up on the mountain. Then cabins were built. LeConte Lodge was and still is a commercial enterprise, operated by one of the several concessionaires in GSMNP that provide services to the pubic.
In the old days, dignitaries came to LeConte Lodge by horseback. Now you need to walk one of the five trails to get up there.
Mt. Le Conte is at 6,593 ft., the third highest mountain in the park. You may know that Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in GSMNP. So what is the second highest?
Organizing the FOTS group trip
Friends of the Smokies — specifically Haley Stevenson and Marielle DeJong — worked very diligently to get the whole lodge for our group.
My role is to lead the group – Hah – or at least be out in front. Of course, anyone is free to get ahead of me.
Haley and Marielle have the difficult job of being toward the back and encouraging us all to keep moving.
Krista Heilmeier is the runner, who reaches the lodge before anyone else and lays out a personalized note and chocolate on every bed.
Packing for the trip
We’ve been given a packing list. Keep it light and simple. It’s only one night.
Do I really have to do all my usual ablutions? But what to wear for camp shoes is usually my biggest problem. I cannot wear flip-flops around camp; that’s just a recipe for a strained ankle. And no bare toes. I thought I would wear light socks with whatever I choose. I carried sandals on the Camino for 30 days.
At the end, I chose to not take any camp shoes for LeConte Lodge. I thought about all the rocks and roots around the cabins and certainly on any trail I might take while I was there. No, boots are just fine.
Starting out on Alum Cave Trail
We park at the Rainbow Falls parking area on Cherokee Orchard Road and are whisked away by bus to the Alum Cave Trailhead.
The sides of Newfound Gap Road are lined with cars and parking at the end of the line would have been a walk in itself. But we just get out of the bus like chauffeured royalty and start on the trail.
Alum Cave Trail must be the most popular of the five trails up to the lodge. Because it’s the shortest (5.5 miles), it’s the busiest. Alum Cave Trail may be the shortest but not the easiest. The trail is full of rocks, roots and precarious in places.
In 2016, the Trails Forever program funded by Friends of the Smokies rehabilitated Alum Cave Trail. The Trails Forever crew put in stone and locust log steps, water bars and a heavy wire to use as a banister in some sections. This makes hiking the trail easier, not easy.
At LeConte Lodge
I get up to the lodge before 1 p.m. I’m shown to my cabin and finish my lunch. I go to the camp store to buy a T-shirt and bandannas that you can only get on top of the mountain.
Then, with Rob Howard, I scout Myrtle Point, the sunrise point for the next morning. The group is going to meet at 6 a.m. – yes, you read it right – and I want to make sure I knew exactly where I’m going at this early morning hour.
Socializing, happy hour and dinner all happen outside at the picnic tables in front of the dining room. Because of staffing problems, the lodge was not opening its dining room for meals. But the weather cooperates beautifully.
We walk up to Cliff Tops for the sunset view, only 0.2 miles from the lodge. By then, I was tired. We all retire at 9 p.m. Not much night life at LeConte Lodge after the sunset walk.
Sunrise at Myrtle Point
My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. I would have been very unpopular in the cabin except that nearly all the hikers are going up to Myrtle Point, the sunrise point.
Myrtle Point is 0.7 mile from the lodge but almost everyone shows up. We start walking at 6 a.m. The sun rises slowly and we encourage it on. And, oh yes, there really are myrtle bushes at Myrtle Point.
Hiking down from Mt. Le Conte
After breakfast, we had a choice of two trails for our way down this morning: Rainbow Falls and Bullhead.
I had only been on Bullhead once, when I walked it for the Smokies 900M — hiking all the trails in the park. That was a long time ago and well before the 2016 Gatlinburg Fire. I found that lots had changed on Bullhead Trail since the 2016 fire.
For some background on the Gatlinburg Fire, here’s a paraphrase from the description of the Bullhead Trail on the Hiking in the Smokys website:
On October 25, 2018, Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened the Bullhead Trail after being closed for almost two years due to the November 2016 wildfire. On November 23, 2016 two teenage boys started a wildfire near the summit of Chimney Tops. By November 28th the fire grew to 500 acres. After several months of exceptional dry conditions, and winds gusts reaching more than 80 mph that afternoon, the fire literally exploded. Over the next several hours it burned almost 18,000 acres, including 11,410 acres within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From Chimney Tops the fire raced north, passing around the edges of downtown Gatlinburg and reaching the outskirts of Pigeon Forge. Before it was brought under control the fire killed 14 people, injured more than 176 people, and damaged or destroyed at least 2,460 structures at a cost of more than $500 million.
Views from Bullhead Trail
Because of the trees destroyed in the fire, the trail has amazing views into the valley. As I go down the trail, the signs of the 2016 fire become more evident. Where towards the top, I saw open views and small, scrawny trees beginning to grow, by the middle of the 6.5-mile trail, there are blackened tree stumps.
The array of exceptional flowers includes sweet white trillium, painted trillium, rose twisted stalk, huge umbrella plants and many more. I don’t think I have seen white clintonia lilies in bloom and in such profusions before. If I had taken photos of every flower that intrigued me, I would still be up on the trail.
Bullhead is the least popular of the five trails up to LeConte Lodge, and I only see one or two groups hiking up the trail. However, I have a better appreciation of this varied trail.
I reach my car at about 1:30 p.m. Some people had already gone home, some headed to the lunch picnic that the Friends of the Smokies folks had arranged. Many are still on the trail, and Haley of FOTS waits for them.
The weather has been outstanding, the people so friendly and talkative (and that’s a compliment), and the LeConte Lodge staff so much fun. It will be difficult to top this event.
And oh yes, let’s not forget that the hike to Alum Cave is #23 of the 100 Favorite Hikes. Thank you all for a great couple of days.
Outdoor writer and avid hiker Danny Bernstein is a member of the FOTS Hike Advisory team and brings more than 40 years of trail experience, having previously completed every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Trail, the Mountains to Sea Trail, South Beyond 6,000 Challenge, and three Caminos de Santiago. She is the author of five books related to hiking. Her blog is Hiker to Hiker.
Trails Forever improves GSMNP trails
Friends of the Smokies established the Trails Forever endowment in 2012, thanks to a matching gift from the Aslan Foundation in Knoxville.
Today, the endowment has grown to more than $6 million and funds a full-time trail crew in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to reconstruct and rehabilitate some of the park’s most impacted trails.
The FOTS Trails Forever crew has restored Forney Ridge Trail, Chimney Tops Trail, Alum Cave Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, and Abrams Falls Trail.
This year, the Trails Forever crew will be restoring Ramsey Cascades Trail.
Learn more about contributing to the Trails Forever endowment.