Nestled high up in the Smoky Mountains is Mount LeConte Lodge. Named after the peak that is sits on, the lodge is only accessible by foot. Mount LeConte Lodge offers tremendous panoramic views of the Smoky Mountain National park and since one must hike at least a few hours to access the lodge, it is indeed a an oasis in the wilderness.
Don’t mistake it for one of the cookie cutter tourist traps and sprawl that unfortunately is associated with the area surrounding the national park, LeConte Lodge is a true outdoor experience. The lodge is a throwback to more primitive times in the Smokies albeit with a few modern twists. The only electricity is supplied by solar panels and is used only by the staff. Kerosene lanterns provide the lighting in the guest areas and rooms. Supplies such as food and linens are brought to the lodge three times a week by Llamas. Once a year helicopters bring fresh tanks of propane that the lodge uses for cooking and heating. Otherwise, everything is hiked in to the lodge.
The lodge supplies each guest with room and board. Dinner and breakfast is served family style and in my experience quite delicious. Wine is also available at dinner. Sleeping accommodations are private rooms in one of several cabins. Each room has a washbasin and bucket to take a sponge bath and sheets, blankets, pillows and pillowcases are supplied. There are no showers but modern flush toilets are provided. Other than personal items for the hike up and down, you don’t need to pack much.
Reservations are extremely limited and the lodge books up very quickly. Typically, you need to make requests a year in advance.
Mount LeConte is 6,593 feet in elevation and the third highest in the Smoky Mountains. There are several trails that lead to the summit and there is no wrong choice. The shortest hike to the summit is the Alum Cave Trail. While it is the shortest, it is also the steepest with a 2,700-foot elevation gain. The Trillium Gap Trail is the most gentle with 3,500-foot elevation gain in 6.5 miles.
My trip was planned for the day before Thanksgiving, the very last day that the lodge was open for the season. Late November weather conditions in the Smokys are at best unpredictable. You can have sunny skies and 70-degree days or you can have near blizzard conditions. Hiking in the mountains, this time of year requires that you be prepared for most anything. Just a week earlier the mountain had received over a foot of snow. The day I started out was sunny and in the high sixties. This would however change.
I parked my car at the Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead and started my ascent in shorts mode wearing my Mountain Hardware convertible backpacking pants. I wore a long sleeve REI lightweight wicking top. While cool, the mountain air was humid and I warmed up quite quickly. My backpack carried spare clothing for all weather conditions including crampons as last week’s snowstorm had left patches of ice at higher elevations.
The hike to Alum Cave is fairly easy with gentle trail conditions for the most part. Arch Rock is the most challenging part as you walk up a narrow stone staircase through the arch itself. Soon after you leave the dense forest and begin seeing glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Approaching Alum Cave is far more exposed and the views are rewarding.
Alum Cave not a true cave but rather a large overhanging bluff. It provides shelter from rain and sun but in winter, you must beware of HUGE icicles overhead that can fall without warning. Being struck by one of these could be fatal.
The approach to Alum Cave tends to be busy as it is a popular day hike. The remaining trail to LeConte is however far less travelled especially in the off-season.
In order to avoid the crowds that day, I chose to continue on to Gracie’s Pulpit for lunch. This spot is named for Gracie McNicol who made the ascent to Mt LeConte 244 times over the course of 30 years beginning when she was 62 years young!
Soon after lunch, the weather got colder and a light rain began to fall. The rain would progressively get worse as I went higher.
There are a few places between Gracie’s Pulpit and the summit where the trail is a very narrow ledge and steel cables are attached to the rock walls for safety. While not a via ferrata, it is indeed a place where you need to be mindful of your footing as these ledges are slippery and ice is common in late fall and throughout the winter. A fall here would be painful as the mountain falls away quite steeply. Only a few areas are true cliffs but the terrain is definitely not one you would wish to tumble down.
The rain turned into a downpour and the temperature continued to drop. I stopped to put on my rain shell and gloves. I stayed in shorts as I was perhaps a mile and half from the lodge and I figured that my pants would be soaking wet anyway. By the time that I reached the lodge, the temperature had fallen to 37 degrees and the trail had turned into a small river. Other than chilly legs, I was reasonably comfortable. I was glad that I had brought both my Arc’teryx Gore-Tex shell and my Seattle Sombrero!
After checking in, a cup of hot chocolate was well deserved. My room was small and rustic, as you would expect from the description on the lodge’s website. No surprises, but everything was beyond what I expected. The bunk beds were cozy and comfortable and there was no lack of blankets.
Dinner in the dining room of main lodge was just as the sun was setting. The rain had stopped, the clouds were breaking up and the sunset was stunning. The meal itself was hearty; roast beef, chicken, mashed potatoes, lots of veggies, breads, and pie for dessert.
I spent the rest of the evening on the deck overlooking the valley below with the lights of distant towns mirroring the stars.
Breakfast the next morning was traditional as well, bacon, eggs, sausage, ham, fruit, oatmeal etc. Vegetarian and vegan diets are accommodated as well.
After breakfast, a short hike to the summit was in order. The weather was sunny and no clouds were anywhere to be seen. I did however see bear scat on the trail. Black bears are quite common in the park and the usual backcountry precautions should be taken. Despite fresh evidence of a bear nearby none were seen. One of the lodge staff members told me later that several had been seen near the lodge in previous days.
Back at the lodge, I packed my gear, grabbed my box lunch from the dining room and started back down the mountain.
Going down the trail is less cardiovascular strenuous than ascending but it is far more stressful to the feet and knees. I highly recommend using trekking poles! They really save your knees from undue stress and afford you a more stable surefooted descent.
The hike back to the trailhead was far more enjoyable than the day before given the clear sky. Lunch was at Alum cave and the rest of the hike was a repeat of the day before.
Overall, I highly recommend both Mount LeConte lodge as well as any of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is easily accessible and offers something for everyone. The hike to LeConte Lodge is not difficult and would be a great introductory experience for nearly anyone.