If you seek high mountain wilderness, clean sheets, significant hiking challenge and llama poop, you should consider LeConte Lodge.
LeConte Lodge is located on the peak of the same name within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lodge, a collection of rough-hewn log buildings, has been sitting just below the summit of 6593’-high Mount LeConte since 1925. The first lodge was a tent, later followed by a small compound of buildings that now house approximately 50 guests a night in the highest overnight accommodations in the eastern U.S.
The kicker to LeConte Lodge is the fact that it can only be reached by trail. The shortest route, the Alum Cave Trail, is a ‘mere’ 4.9 mile jaunt up the side of LeConte. The other four paths that reach the summit range vary in length with the Bullhead Trail being the longest at 6.9 miles.
LeConte Lodge is among a handful of commercial lodging destinations in the country that don’t have electricity, roadway access or a direct line of resupply. As Mount LeConte is also the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi River, it is also the undisputed winner for highest bedrooms in eastern U.S.
Water comes from a spring just below the summit to a couple of spigots within the compound and the four flush toilets, while food, clean linen, mail and other supplies arrive by llama train (along with removal of unburnable garbage) three times a week. Light is provided by kerosene lantern and battery headlamps while heat against the Canadian temperatures is by propane heaters supplied from bulk tanks transported to the summit by helicopter on the single day in early spring when the National Park Service allows such operations.
Though it is remote and rustic by cruise ship standards, the waiting list for reservations is long. In our case, various members of our group have been, at most, an overnight guest four times in nine years of trying.
Because the Alum Cave Trail was closed for overhaul, we chose the 6.4 mile Trillium Gap Trail for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is considered to be the least steep of all the trails. Along the way is Grotto Falls, a popular destination in itself, along with Trillium Gap proper. Perhaps best of all, we were ascending on a day when we would see the llama train in action.
Our trip started with a stay at the night before in Gatlinburg, the French Riviera for the culturally-challenged. Our hotel was low-budget but clean and quite acceptable for the price if your ignored the large dumpster sitting outside our window.
Early Monday morning, we all crammed into the WildIndiana Command Vehicle and ascended the oxymoronically-named Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Arriving at the Grotto Falls trailhead, we parked and full of vim, vigor, enthusiasm and optimism, hit the woods.
Fortunately, we dropped all the excess vim, vigor, enthusiasm and optimism within the first few hundred yards of trail. And, in keep with Leave No Trace principals, it is biodegradable.
Actually, the 1.2 mile hike to Grotto Falls was a good warm-up for the day. The trail is wide, hard-packed dirt and quite a gentle ascent, making it a good way to shake off the lingering shards of civilization and get blood pumping to your legs and heart.
Our first stop, Grotto Falls, is unique as the only place within the park where a trail walks behind a waterfall. We rested briefly, did the obligatory photos and then headed onward and upward.
The next stop in two miles was Trillium Gap. Here the Trillium Gap Trail and Brushy Mountain Trail meet in a backcountry four-way intersection. It also makes for a good lunch break and we joined several other ascending and descending hikers for a brief sit-down conversation involving electrolyte drinks, tuna, crackers, meat sticks, power bars and other sub-human foodstuff.
Nourished and somewhat rested, we headed upwards. The trail turned serious but never aggressive, staying faithful to a relentless upward climb that almost never waivered yet didn’t seem quite so punishing as the other trails on the same mountain.
However, the hike was long. Long, as in ‘Looooooong’. Perhaps those who are younger than our 50+ crew or in better shape might find it only moderately strenuous but for us typical suburban professional-types, it was a challenge. The trail is quite doable for anyone within reasonable health but it will certainly challenge everyone’s ‘grit.’
There was only one mishap on the rocky path. About half-way up, one of our group took a moderate spill on knife-edged rocks and found herself with a bloody knee and elbow. Considering that our group is nothing if not prepared, she was nearly mobbed by medical supplies and helping hands. It was later decided that we might attempt trailside hip replacement surgery on the next victim if we could only built a fire to sterilize the instruments.
That is probably why no one else has a accident for the remainder of the trip.
One highlight, approximately a mile from the summit, was passing the group of supply llamas with their longtime wrangler Alan. Near the top, the group appeared out of the fog on their downward trek, each animal bearing a custom llama saddlebag of waterproof vinyl containing who-knows-what, and passed without much commotion. In fact, the whole unusual scene was much like passing a group of co-workers in the hallway: “Hi. Howya doing? Howdy. Have a good one. See ya’ later. How’s the family? Great weather, huh?”
On the whole, llamas seem to define the concept of nonchalance.
One can only image a scene where the llama wranger accidentally falls off the trail and horribly plummets down the mountain. The lead llama would stop, look down, look back at his friends and then say, “Unfortunate…Let’s go.”
But, while stopped, they would poop. In fact, if you hike the Trillium Gap Trail, you will become intimately acquainted with the delicate, coffee-bean-shaped droppings of the llama. Actually, llama turds will become a central focus of your joke-telling efforts for a few sweaty, panting hours, especially if you are male. Fortunately, the llamas and their droppings aren’t nearly so destructive or messy to the trail as horses or mules so you will just discretely avoid the poo and soldier onward.
Arriving at the top after an eight-hour grind, the lodge-provided bucket of warm water was nearly as luxurious as a shower at the Trump Plaza in Vegas. We then hung around on the porch of our cabin, sharing stories and listening to our ligaments audibly throb while waiting for dinner.
Promptly at 6 p.m, LeConte worker Kate rang the triangle dinner bell. Like a horde of sore-kneed zombies, we stiffly descended the native stone steps to the dining room. The food is served family-style and strangers quickly become friends in the communal setting.
The food is always the same but in such a lofty place it is incredibly, impeccably delicious. Dinner starts with hot soup and fresh cornbread, followed by roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, baked apples and a peach half for dessert. For post-dessert, there is a basked of chocolate chip cookie bars. Coffee, hot chocolate and ice-cold spring water kept in metal pitchers on the table help wash down the grub. There is also the ‘bottomless’ wine glass option for $10 but the wine drinkers in our party had already carried up a supply of vino in their own packs and thus didn’t partake.
Dinner is served early enough that sunset watchers can scramble out to Cliff Top to partake the setting of the sun in the rarefied vantage. Then, as dusk slowly settles into night, people retire to the porch of their cabins for well-deserved rest or walk up to the lodge office where board games, guitars, rocking chairs and a central heater make for a lively evening of song, competition and discussion circa 1900.
The office is also where you check in and purchase a limited-edition t-shirt or other merchandise that is only available at the lodge. If you happen to see someone wearing a LeConte Lodge shirt, it is highly likely that they earned it the hard way.
Below, on a clear night, you can see the stop lights of Gatlinburg blinking. During a typical day or whenever clouds crash into the summit, you might see the cabin next door. However, on nearly every trip, the clouds will lift enough, even briefly, to see north past Douglas Lake and even Kentucky in the purple distance.
The one, two or three-bedroom log cabins have a propane heater, kerosene lanterns, enameled-steel wash basin, wood clothes drying rack and hard beds that are covered in fresh white sheets and wool “trade” blankets. The whole thing creaks and pops when the wind blows and smells of wood smoke, balsam, kerosene and history.
The night will include complementary snoring from your cabin mates and at least one grudging middle-of-the-night bathroom trip. You probably won’t sleep well due to the combination of muscle fatigue, residual adrenaline and unusual surroundings but finding yourself outside alone on a mountaintop at 3 a.m. during the potty run is something your can’t describe to anyone else who hasn’t likewise experienced it.
The fact you might run into a bear in the darkness only adds spice to the adventure.
In the morning, things slowly start to come alive before dawn. Some intrepid souls head out to Myrtle Point to catch what is arguably one of the greatest sunrises in North America, while others stumble around searching for coffee or hunker under the wool blankets for another few minutes of shuteye.
Once the sun is up, Kate again rings breakfast and everyone files to ‘their’ table. In the morning, you are greeted by pancakes, grits swimming in butter, scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, homemade biscuits, honey, apple butter and caffeine-enhancing beverages along with the spring water.
There is also a small glass of Tang, that “Orange Flavor” “Space Age Breakfast Drink” favorite from our childhood. If you actually like the stuff, you might find several glasses setting in front of your plate. We do, and did.
After the carbo-rich breakfast, everyone slowly adjourns to their respective corners to repack, reset and begin the long trek down the mountain.
Our trip down only took 6 hours but was arguably more challenging due to the rocky conditions and constant downward angle. There is no cardiovascular challenge but the toll on feet, ankles and knees is considerable. The key is to take it slow and use hiking poles.
Once we reached Grotto Falls, it was packed with day hikers and ‘tourists.’ Though we had only been gone 24 hours, we were salty and tough and entirely overdressed for the flip-flop-wearing crowd at the falls.
In fact, just after the falls, one up-bound lady saw our staggering crew and gasped, “Oh my God, am I dressed properly for this hike?!?!”
We assured her that she would be fine if she stayed on the trail, paced herself and drank plenty of water.
And watched out for the llama poop.
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