I’ve been reading and re-reading the journals of Harvey Broome (Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies). They were written more than 60 years ago….and he has a profound way of describing the awe of the mountains. He writes over and over about Mount Le Conte but it was just another name to me. A “someday” hike.
But then…a few days ago we had the opportunity to stay at the Le Conte Lodge thanks to a new friend we met at the Hemlock Inn (Hi Joe!!!). It takes almost a year to get reservations so this was an amazing opening for our family. We didn’t even hesitate to say yes…even though we knew we’d have to hike a steep ascent to the top of Mt. LeConte to get to our destination. (Hike 5.5 miles uphill? No problem, right?)
LeConte Lodge Facts:
It was built around 1926, before the national park was established.
It’s only accessible by foot (i.e. a long steep hike).
A helicopter brings in the bulk of supplies each spring.
Llamas bring up supplies 3 times a week (linens, perishable food, mail!)
(watch this video to see the adorable llamas in action)
First, we had to figure out how to get up to the lodge. There are a few different trails that will take you to the top of Mount LeConte and we researched them all. We picked the steepest and most strenuous, but also the shortest: Alum Cave Trail. It’s one of the most beautiful and scenic trails by far. I had purchased a Scavenger Hike Adventures (GSMNP) that has scavenger hunts for many trails in the Smokies…the last trail in the book was the Alum Cave Trail…and it’s labeled “EXTREMELY EXTREME.”
The great part about the book was that it got Boo really into the hike right off….and it was as if the book was being written as we hiked….especially when it said to find the huge rock formation called Arch Rock and look for a salamander: we immediately found a salamander.
The first 1.5 miles of the hike follows the Alum Cave creek….a beautiful flow of water that twists and turns and churns over and around boulders of every size imaginable. At about 4,500 feet is a clearing (or heath bald) called Inspiration Point. There aren’t many trees at this location which makes the views extra breathtaking. The vegetation is a mix of rhododendron, mountain laurel and sand myrtle (nature is an amazing landscape artist).
Alum Cave Bluffs is halfway to the top. Many people hike up to this enormous rock overhang (it’s pretty amazing) as their final destination before turning back. It takes about 4 hours roundtrip to just this point:
After a brief stop at the bluff, we continued on to the top of Mt. LeConte. It’s a pretty steep and strenuous climb after the halfway point with steep overlooks but there are plenty of cable handrails:
We knew there was rain in the forecast but mostly the thick mist just left us damp, but refreshed:
(umm….that kink might be why it was harder than usual to drink water)
The top of the mountain is where Alum Cave Creek starts. The mist begins to condense onto the vegetation and then it begins to drip and then a trickle turns into a stream. As it’s filtered through moss and rock it gets funneled into tiny waterfalls across the trail…which eventually compound into the larger streams below. Broome writes about it better than I ever could:
Water trickles from mossy overhangs. Here one finds the moisture and greenness of high mountains, great pillows of moss, flat carpets of oxalis leaves studded with modest blooms, glistening heart-shaped leaves of the rare Grass of Parnassus, the white blooms of thornless blackberries, and the lovely pink of the punctatums springing sparingly into being in these high woods. -H.B. July 1962
Almost to the top of Le Conte, with the thick cloudy mist, it was eerie. The thousands of dead Fraser fir trees that were infested by a small insect from Europe years ago give a slight Chernobyl-like feel but you feel a quickening in your step… as if you’ve arrived somewhere mystical. (Note: It IS mystical.)
We arrived at Le Conte lodge mid afternoon…it appeared out of nowhere….almost as if an elusive monastery.
After checking in we were given a quick tour on where to get cold water for drinking and hot water for the wash basins. There is no electricity at the lodge so daily activities run by the sunrise and sunset. Our cabin had a kerosene lamp for light and a small propane heater in case the temperature dropped too low. (Note: the temperature dropped to 38 degrees…but we were snug in our comfy beds!)
Before dinner we hiked up to Cliff Top. There are no words for it. It was like entering a another world.
There was an encompassing witchery to it, as of high far places. -H.B. 1962
“There was no sight of man except the cramped trail leading through the north woods and the sand myrtle to the cliffs. There was no sound of man other than our own quiet conversation. What leisured sanity! No entertainment – except soft-voiced exchanges of experience, and this haze dimmed world of mountains. I have never gone to that cliff without exhilaration. I have never left it without regret.
The calm, the immensity, the forest with a million components – healing, covering, vitalizing every foot of the scene below, and before us! I have no fear for life. I fear only for man, who with his works and numbers is shutting himself away from life. -H.B. at Cliff Top in 1962
I took my time as Boo and Brett headed back to camp…lost in my own thoughts. I still have a bruised arm, hip and leg to show for that…slipping on a huge rock and not thinking fast enough to catch myself. I fell with a huge thud and only the trees heard me utter a pathetic whiny “owwwwwww.”
Then I saw a perfect little toadstool:
Back at the lodge we ate dinner with the other guests in the dining hall. The food was much better than I expected considering they don’t have electricity. Boo loved the beef stew but declared that the green beans were not the same as the Hemlock Inn’s because they “left out the seasons.” After some hot chocolate and cookies, and great conversation with new friends, we turned in for bed around 8pm.
I woke up in the middle of the night (or what I thought was the middle of the night….it was actually only 10pm). As I opened the door to our cabin I took a headlamp with me. The cloud and fog was so thick I wasn’t able to see more than a foot in any direction. I followed the stone path in the direction of the bathrooms sure that I would run straight into a bear. I’ve always been scared of the dark but for some reason I wasn’t this time. There was no light except my own. There were no sounds except for the rain and my own heavy breathing of the thin air.
No sound at all. I listened and listened. After minutes of this game, surely there would be something. But I heard no stir. Silence, stillness, and peace. – H.B. at Myrtle Point, 1962
We woke up early the next morning to hike to Myrtle Point (about 7/10 of a mile) to see the sunrise. At the top we were standing unsheltered on large rocks that have been there for millions of years. The wind whipped around us and as I spoke loudly the sound was blown right back into my mouth. There are no words to describe this view except: wow.
The mist dissolved and re-formed. Vague shapes of mounting appeared and vanished. There were stupendous, formless depths around us. [...] Looking out again, we saw slivers of color forming above the maw of mist. [...] The awesomeness of the universe and the awful loneliness of man smote me. -H.B. at Myrtle Point, 1962
The morning view from the third highest peak in the Smokies:
We emerged into the openness of the cliff and gazed down into an undulant world of blue mountains. This beauty, this mastery of environment, was what we had come for; and when we retreated to the lodge is was with mingled feelings of humility and of self-respect. -H.B. on Cliff Top in 1961
Then we headed back to the lodge…and ate the best pancakes ever. And biscuits and apple butter. And eggs brought by llama.
And Boo played with new friends.
And then it was time to leave this mysterious, beautiful place.
I have never wanted to leave the top of a mountain. -H.B.
After 60 or more trips to Le Conte, I sensed again, as though for the first time, the exhilaration which goes with the thin air a mile and a quarter up and the grand mystery of the wind ripping through a concealing fog on top of the mountain. I have never wanted to leave Mt. Le Conte. There is a pointedness to every experience. The world of business and of tense endeavor is absent. The mountains are dominant. -H.B. June 1960
We made it down the mountain in a little over 2 hours. All three of us exhilirated. I used to wonder why people would give up everything just to be able to spend time in the outdoors…now I get it. On the top of Mt. Le Conte a few days ago, 6,593 feet above sea level, I felt that adrenaline. It’s mixed with a kind of homesickness or “mystic stirring” and “a feeling of foreverness” as Harvey Broome would say.
I wish I could bottle up that feeling and share it with people who I know need it. Like with the woman at the lodge who insisted that her husband had dragged her up the mountain against her will. As she complained about the hike, the rain, the lodging and everything else I felt a profound sadness about her. I suggested she walk up the 1/10 of a mile to the top…through a portal to another world…but she wouldn’t. And there was once a time where I wouldn’t have ventured up either. But despite what they say: people can change. And then that change compounds. And everything has a point. And there is no fear of life.