Thursday, October 16, 2014
Summiting Mt. LeConte in Great Smokey Mountains
Alum Cave Trail to summit of Mt LeConte, GSMNP
Rounding a bend on New Found Gap Road, we knew we had reached our destination -- the Alum Cave trailhead in the GSMNP. Cars were parked up and down the two-lane parkway as overflow from the trailhead parking lot giving evidence to the popularity of this trail. I found a space on the shoulder of the road for my car and we joined the throng of hikers seeking to summit Mt. LeConte on a beautiful fall Saturday morning.
Mt. LeConte is one of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mtns cresting at 6593-ft above sea level. To reach the summit from Alum Cave Trail, you have to climb 2763-ft and hike 5.5-miles from the trailhead on New Found Gap Road. The Park Service gives this trail its highest difficulty rating of STRENUOUS, and I must say it most definitely earned its rating! Other than the stacked stone summit, there are three major attractions on the trail: Arch Rock, Alum Cave and LeConte Lodge.
Stepping off at the trailhead we were lockstep and Indian-file with some 20 other hikers, soon each small group adjusted to their own stride and the path cleared as if our trail-mates were absorbed into the foliage. This first stretch of trail up to Arch Rock is relatively flat and parallels the shallow Alum Cave Creek. After 1.3-miles we arrived at Arch Rock, located at the junction of Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch, and is a natural arch which you climb up through aided by steps hewn into the stone.
I was impressed with the arch and it reminded me of the Stone Door at South Cumberland State Park. The navigation of the steep steps are aided by a cable railing embedded in the side of the arch. In wet weather these steps can be tricky, especially going down them on the return leg of the hike.
From the arch look forward to gaining approximately 700-ft as you climb the next mile to Alum Cave, actually an overhang that was once a saltpeter mine. On this leg of the hike you start finding cable strung on the cliff faces to assist in your climb. The path becomes rockier and with the knurled tree roots protruding from the ground, makes footing perilous on the narrow cliff hanging paths. Here is where you really breakout of the forest and get the first of many awe inspiring views of the mountains.
From the cave you circle Peregrine Peak and cross the ridgeline, switching the scenery from the left to your right and giving ample views of Huggins Hell, a steep-picturesque gulch. Here you parallel Huggins Hell for a good distance until you come upon a staircase that doubles you back and marks the final climb of over a mile to LeConte Lodge.
This stretch of trail is probably the most impressive as your climb takes you higher than the surrounding peaks and you find yourself in the mist that that is the namesake of the Great Smokies. Here the trail is steep and narrow but the views are breathtaking as you seem to hike in and out of the clouds.
Eventually the trail levels and turns from the cliff face where you enter a path through the forest that ultimately come to a clearing that is LeConte Lodge. Here is how the guide books describe LeConte Lodge, “…is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. It is accessible only by hiking and consists of hand-built roughhewn log cabins with propane heat, kerosene lanterns, clean linens and warm wool blankets. Hearty meals are served family style in the dining room.”
With the fog closing in, the view from the summit was obscured. We made our way to the lodge, grabbed a quick snack, refilled our canteen, and took a quick rest before sticking our head into the “lodge office.” The office consists of two rooms separated by a half door. The large room has some rocking chairs and a pot belly stove and the smaller room is a store room where they sell t-shirts and sign guests into the lodge.
It was getting up into the day and we had the return 5.5-miles of downhill hiking still ahead of us, so we stepped off on the return leg of the hike. Though the trail obstacles were still in place, and our bodies were tired, the back leg proved much easier and we encountered few hikers on the return leg.
The daylight was starting to fade as we completed the eleventh mile of the out-and-back trail. It had been a long day and were definitely tired, but had succeeded in making it to the summit of Mt. LeConte and had experienced some of the wonderment that is the Great Smokey Mountains.