We were fortunate to be able to get an overnight spot at LeConte Lodge, a hike-in, no frills, place to stay in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are a few places like this in the National Parks across the country and they usually require reservations months in advance. However, I've been lucky enough to get in by calling at the last minute to see if there have been cancellations. On this two-day hike, we hiked up the Alum Cave Trail, and then down the Rainbow Falls Trail the next day.
Hang on. This is a very long entry with lots and lots of photos.
We were up at 5:30 this morning just to be sure we were all packed and ready to leave at 6:30. Our packs were much heavier as we had to bring extra layers of clothes for different weather conditions at the top of Mt. LeConte.
We drove through Gatlinburg and made our way to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead parking area on Cherokee Orchard Road.
We will be hiking down the Rainbow Falls Trail tomorrow, so we'll leave our Jeep here. We were supposed to meet our shuttle from "A Walk In The Woods" at 7:15.
Around 7:20, I turned my phone on just to see if they had left any messages. Erik had left two messages about being stuck in traffic due to an accident, but he arrived five minutes later.
Since this whole deal was last minute, they already had other shuttles to run for the day, and they were doing us a favor meeting us this early. So, they dictated the early start, but we also wanted to get up the mountain before the arrival of the poor weather predicted for the afternoon.
Erik then drove us the 14.5 miles to the Alum Cave Trailhead.
Fortunately, the road paving on U.S. 441 had not yet started this morning, so the drive only took about a half an hour.
Sidenote: There are restrooms at both the Rainbow Falls and Alum Cave Trailheads.
We were on the trail right at 8:00 a.m. There are five different trails you can choose from to get to Mt. LeConte - Alum Cave, Rainbow Falls, Bullhead, Trillium Gap, and the Appalachian Trail/Boulevard Trail combination from Newfound Gap.
The Alum Cave Trail is the shortest at 5 miles to LeConte Lodge and 5.5 miles to the summit of Mt. LeConte.
Google's estimate of a 2 hour, 13 minute hike is a bit ambitious. Every source I read, said it would take about four hours to climb the approximate 2,800 feet.
The Alum Cave Trail is also one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we noted before that the parking lot overflows and cars eventually park on the side of the busy highway far from the trailhead.
However, with our early start, there was plenty of parkng (although we didn't need it), and there was only one group of four at the trailhead when we began.
It was overcast and dark as we crossed a bridge to begin our hike.
Photography was a little difficult in the low light, but the first part of the trail along Alum Cave Creek was beautiful.
It was a quiet walk through the woods ....
with only the sounds of the rushing water.
We hiked through some Rhododendron "tunnels" ....
and across log bridges ....
as we eventually left Alum Cave Creek and hiked along Styx Branch.
At about 1.3 miles, we came to another bridge.
This bridge leads right to the steps that go up through Arch Rock.
Yep, the trail goes under/through the hole in the rock. Pretty cool.
Soon, we were crossing another bridge and we then left the water features behind.
The gradual climb continued and we started to get more distant views, although they were limited by the fog.
But the more we climbed, the closer we got to the "smoke".
We went past a place known as Inspiration Point and then we came to an area where Duck Hawk Ridge and the "Eye Of The Needle" was visible.
We contined on up along several rocky ledges.
The ledges weren't particularly narrow, and I never felt any fear. But there are cables along the walls in most places. Linda surmised that they were more for the times when the trail is icy.
A little later, we came to some huge rock walls ....
and that meant we were close to Alum Cave at about 2.2 miles.
We walked up a series of steps ...
as we approached Alum Cave which isn't a cave at all, but rather a large rock shelter.
I took the next shot from the upper end of the rock shelter, and you can barely see Linda at the bottom center of the photo.
We assume the view from there was pretty good, but today it was limited.
Alum Cave was nice, but we've been fortunate enough to have visited other, more impressive rock shelters in our travels.
Still, it was part of the great variety of the Alum Cave Trail. And the sign leaving the cave showed that we were already half way to the top.
From there, we encountered several more rock ledges with cables along the wall for support.
Small streams dripped through areas of pretty, moss-covered rock.
The fog lifted and the views got better.
Not long after that, about two hours into our hike, we started seeing hikers coming down that had stayed at LeConte Lodge last night. Until then, we hadn't encountered anyone else - a major benefit of hitting the heavily traveled Alum Cave Trail early on a weekday.
At that point, Linda was still setting a brisk pace (for us, anyway), and she said "This is nothin' .....". Even with our heavier packs and the uphill climb, it wasn't really steep anywhere, and this hike wasn't anywhere near as hard as several others we've done over the years.
Of course, we still had to get to the top of these rocks.
We were happy to see the sky turn bright blue as we climbed along another rock ledge.
We paused briefly to enjoy more views.
We were almost to the lodge. The trail flattened out for the last little bit.
I looked behind us and caught a glimpse of some movement. Two deer crossed the path and as I backtracked with the camera, a couple more startled me. I got just a quick shot of one of 'em in the center of the photos below.
Yeah, it's hard to see, but it was the only wildlife we saw, so I had to post the pics even if they aren't very good.
Then we came to a junction where the Alum Trail ended at the Rainbow Falls Trail. We'll go to the left tomorrow, but we went to the right today where the LeConte Lodge was only a tenth of a mile away.
At the junction, two young ladies caught up with us. Linda noticed one of them had on a "Bellarmine College" shirt - there is a Bellarmine in Louisville. Sure enough, they were both from Louisville.
We followed them in and saw some of the smaller, rustic cabins on our left ....
before we came to the main step-down path into the lodge area.
We knew we were early for check-in, but we followed the sign to the office anyway.
We were surprised to find that it was only 11:30. We made really good time (for us). Of course, we still had another half-mile to the summit of Mt. LeConte.
There were rocking chairs on the porch of the office ....
and a swing underneath near one of the potable water spigots.
Linda was perfectly content to just relax and wait until check-in at 12:30. She took her hiking boots off and just wanted to take about an hour before we hiked the additional half mile to the summit anyway.
I wandered around and took some pics.
View from the office deck.
Flush toilets were in this little building.
All the overnight guests are given a key to the flush toilets, and then there are pit toilets available for the day hikers.
I didn't know it at the time, but this would be our cabin for the night.
The office had tables and chairs and games and puzzles and books and a stove.
There are also two galvanized trash cans for food storage. Everyone is supposed to store all their food in these cans to keep the food safe from rodents and to help keep rodents out of the cabins.
While I was wandering, one of the staff members decided to go ahead and check us in. By "check-in" I mean he showed us our cabin, allowed us to choose from two of the rooms, told us about the bathrooms, the food storage, cold and hot water sources, and meal times and that was it. Again, we were perfectly fine waiting, but it was nice of him to go ahead and get us taken care of.
There are three rooms in our cabin and all were spoken for tonight. All had double bunk beds and one had an extra twin bed. There are no keys to the rooms or cabins - keys for the flush toilets, but not for the rooms.
Each room is equipped with pillows and bedding, a propane wall heater (very nice), a table, a chair, a kerosene lantern, matches, cups for beverages, a tiny bar of soap, and a bucket for fetching hot water for sponge baths. There is an on-demand hot water spigot under a window on the main dining room kitchen.
They told us to bring a hand towel and a wash cloth.
In the common area of our cabin was a rack for toilet keys, a fire extinguisher, more lanterns, and another propane heater.
And the front porch has rocking chairs - not much of a view, but at least a place to sit and relax.
After we got settled we walked down a few steps to the "Lodge/Dining Room".
We brought our lunch, but they have sack lunches for guests and day hikers for $10. Coffee, hot chocolate, and lemonade are complimentary for overnight guests, and $3 for a bottomless cup for day hikers.
We ate our lunch out on the back deck, ....
and chatted with another early arriving couple from Jacksonville.
We could see the clouds rolling in from the north, so we thought we'd better head to the summit of Mt. LeConte and the other two viewpoints we wanted to visit. It was so nice in the sun, and we didn't really want to move, but it was a good thing we did.
I took a photo of a group of ladies and they returned the favor, before we started our little hike.
We went back up the entry steps and turned left. It was a short distance to a juncton where the Rainbow Falls Trail ended and the Boulevard Trail began.
We passed the Mt. LeConte Shelter where the foursome we met at the Alum Cave Trailhead were spending the night.
Though everything I read said it was a half-mile from the Lodge to the summit, it certainy didn't seem that far. The summit itself has no sign indicating its 6,593 feet (third highest peak in the national park) and there are no views. The only indication we had reached the summit was this big pile of rocks.
We continued on past the summit and down the Boulevard Trail ....
for another quarter-mile to the Myrtle Point side trail.
Myrtle Point is known for being the spot on Mt. LeConte to watch the sunrise. However, the weather forecast didn't look good for tomorrow morning, so we decided we'd better get a look today.
We made our way out to the point where there is a nice, open, rocky area to sit and enjoy the views.
Clouds were moving in from the north, but we still had some views to the east and south.
After hanging out there and enjoying the vistas for a little while, we headed back. We were going to cross back over the Mt. LeConte summit (on the left in the photo below), ....
and go to Cliff Tops, the viewpoint known as the best place to watch a sunset. After we passed the Shelter, there was a side trail to Cliff Tops.
This view from Cliff Tops is to the west.
And Linda stood and looked more to the southwest.
The Cliff Tops Trail is a little half-mile loop, so we finished the loop where one end comes out right at the LeConte Lodge. That little two tenths of a mile section is a bit steeper and more rugged than coming in from the other end.
So, our afternoon hiking on top of the mountain added another couple of miles to today's total. We hiked about seven miles altogether.
It wasn't long before it started getting cooler and the clouds/fog arrived obstructing all the views. Look back at the photo of our arrival at LeConte Lodge and notice the clear blue skies. Well, by the late afternoon, it looked a lot different
With the lack of sunshine, the fog, and the cooler temperatures, it was time for a nap. It was still a long way until dinner time at 6:00.
We retired to our room, fetched some hot water, took our sponge bath, changed into clean clothes, turned on the propane heater, got under the covers, and read until we fell asleep. Nice.
We woke up in plenty of time for dinner, and walked down. The staff members were setting the tables, ....
while Linda & I stepped out on the back porch and talked with a group of folks from Savannah.
This was now the view from the porch.
When it was time for dinner, we were assigned a table. We were the only rookies at our table, and one of the couples had been to the Lodge 22 times.
They were telling us that the only change to the meals in all those years was the flavor of soup.
Cornbread, soup, and a peach half were waiting for us. Then the rest of the meal of roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cooked apples was served family style. And then we had chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert.
The veterans, Bobbi & Phil from Hickory, NC, told us that guests at the Lodge could reserve their same spot at the same time year after year after year. They always had first right of refusal. However, they said that program ends for good after two more years.
It seems that is easier now to get last minute reservations, and in two more years more spots will be opened up for advanced reservations. We just called on Monday and got in today (Thursday) - some have told us we were incredibily lucky, but this morning's shuttle driver, Erik, said it's more and more common to be able to get a spot at the last minute if you are flexible.
Dinner was pretty good, not great, but it was certainly filling and we could have plenty of whatever we liked best.
After dinner, a ranger was giving a talk at Cliff Tops and then they hoped there would be a sunset. That didn't look promising, and Bobbi & Phil told us they'd only seen a sunset twice in their twenty-two visits. The mountain is usually fogged in.
After dinner, I grabbed a couple of books from the office and took another foggy photo.
The Lodge can handle about 60 overnight guests, and there were two groups that included a lot of teenagers. They took over the office, so we went back to our room where we read. There wasn't going to be a sunset, so we just had a relaxing night and went to sleep at a reasonable hour.
So, there you have it. It was a great day, and we were so glad we got an early start and arrived at the top while the weather was good and the skies were clear.
Tomorrow, we have the alarm set for a sunrise walk, but if it's still foggy, we'll just roll over and go back to sleep. Breakfast is at 8:00, and then we'll take our time getting ready before our 6.5-mile hike down the Rainbow Falls Trail.
Stay tuned for day two.