So at the beginning of the day, Mom and I weren’t sure if we were going to continue on the trail 3.3-mi (one-way) to Mt. LeConte after reaching Alum Cave. We packed enough food/water/supplies in our packs and left early enough in case we eventually continued onward and upward, but left the ultimate decision until the last-minute since we knew it would be a strenuous undertaking and that we should reevaluate how we felt at that moment. After our food break in the shade of Alum Cave, Mom and I looked at each other and confirmed we would keep going to the top…
Mt. LeConte is the most iconic mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Literally everywhere you look, you see things named after it (i.e. motels, streets, welcome centers, etc.) and locations claiming they have the best view of its imposing face. While Clingman’s Dome may be the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,643-ft, Mt. LeConte is actually the tallest mountain (5,301-ft) from base to summit. It’s also the third highest peak elevation-wise in the National Park at 6,593-ft. Atop Mt. LeConte is the LeConte Lodge, which can house 50 guests at a time and, in terms of elevation, is the highest inn providing lodging in the entire Eastern United States.
Leaving Alum Cave, the trail immediately became much steeper and strenuous than before. Thankfully, unlike our trip to Mt. Cammerer last year, I wasn’t recovering from an illness, so we didn’t have to stop on every switchback for me to cough my lungs out, but we did soon stop to peel off our outer layers when we began to work up a sweat. Thankfully the majority of the remainder of trail stayed in the shade, though, so we never got too warm.
There are five trails that hikers can take to reach Mt. LeConte: Alum Cave, Rainbow Falls, Boulevard Trail, Trillium Gap, and Bullhead Trail. Alum Cave is not the easiest of the five, but it is the shortest in length and is one of the more popular routes because it’s known as the most scenic. All I can say is that “scenic” is an understatement! Just about everywhere you look, there are exquisite views of the surrounding mountains. Of course in order to see all of the dazzling scenery, there’s a lot of very narrow paths with steep drop-offs, but thankfully there are a lot more of the cable handrails, like on the first trail to Alum Cave, to help hikers keep their balance.
For first-time hikers taking the Alum Cave route, you know you’re almost there when the trail finally begins leveling off through a group of young evergreens. Finally about the time we were getting pretty tired and needing a break, Mom and I reached the junction with Rainbow Falls Trail and all that remained was the last 0.1-mi to the LeConte Lodge.
The famous LeConte Lodge consists of several cabins of different sizes, the Dining Hall (outside of which, the date is updated daily), and the Office/Gift Shop (where you can purchase things like the yearly “I hiked LeConte” shirts available nowhere else in the park or online). We shared a picnic table with other day hikers and scarfed down some food before checking out the gift shop and spending some quality relaxation time on some of the many rocking chairs.
The coolest part (by far) of the LeConte Lodge is llamas! The only way to bring supplies and food up the mountain is by llama train three days a week via the Trillium Gap Trail, weather permitting. Once upon a time, the Lodge actually used horses instead, but the incidental damage they did to the trail was too great, forcing the Park to come up with an alternative mode of transport. We were fortunate to be at the Lodge while the llamas were eating to prepare for their trip back down the mountain. Some other hikers were helping feed them, and Mom actually got to touch one! If you have the opportunity to see the llamas while on Mt. LeConte, I highly recommend it as it’s a completely unique experience.
Eventually Mom and I knew we needed to head back down so we could get back before dark. The hike down was a much faster endeavor (we shaved an hour and a half off of our time climbing up Mt. LeConte), but we still made sure to use all of the cable handrails to keep from slipping and sliding off the side of the mountain. What amazed me were the number of day hikers we saw heading up to the LeConte Lodge when we were on our way down. Some of them still had plenty of time to complete their roundtrip, but others I can guarantee were going to hike back down that narrow trail in the dark, which would make it exponentially treacherous without a headlamp and night hiking experience. Side Note: some novice hikers just look at the official sunset time when they plan their hike. They don’t think about the fact that if they’re on the Eastern side of a mountain, it’s going to get darker before the official sunset time.
By the time we finally got back to the car, we were super tired and our feet were definitely ready to be done, but at the same time, we felt incredibly epic. We had climbed a mountain! And in good time, at that. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating, at least for me 🙂