Smoky Mountains Getaway
By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
There is a placed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park where visitors can spend the night high in the mountains and awake high above a thick blanket of fog.
The hike-in only Le Conte Lodge is a small village of rustic cabins tucked into the mountainside just below the summit of its namesake mountain. It is one of those places, whose beauty is so enchanting that it invokes the descriptions of fairytale landscapes I remember reading about late into the night in my bedroom closet as a little girl.
At 6,593 feet elevation Mount Le Conte is the third highest peak in the park and offers visitors sweeping views of the surrounding mountains as well as the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg and Knoxville.
Le Conte Lodge sits at 6,360 feet and was founded eight years before the area became one of the nation’s most visited national parks. The lodge is the only place in the park where visitors can sleep in an enclosed shelter.
About 60 guests can stay at the summit of the mountain in the small one, two and three bedroom cabins. Cabins are heated with propane and light with kerosene lamps. There are flushing toilets and clean hot and cold water but no showers.
Breakfast and dinner are served hot in the dining hall and sack lunches are available each day along with endless cups of coffee, hot chocolate and lemonade. There is a separate lodge for guests to gather around a large propane fireplace or play games by lamplight.
It is, therefore, a very popular destination and getting an opportunity to visit has been a longtime wish. Le Conte uses a lottery system for reservations. Guests submit requests, which are drawn beginning at 8 a.m. on Oct. 1 each year. (I’ve already submitted a request for next year, so keep your fingers crossed for me.)
After several attempts over many years, my husband Carl and I were finally able to secure a night in late September to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary with a little bit of pure luck. The lodge is only open between late March and late November for overnight guests.
A lot of people might not think hiking 5.5 to 8 miles to spend the night in a cabin without electricity is a romantic way to celebrate their union as man and wife. But for Carl and I, hiking has always been a part of our lives together. Our first date was an 8-mile trek in early October, so each fall we head into the mountains to celebrate and spend time in the greater outdoors during our favorite season.
During our trip, autumnal color was just starting to spread across the forests. Although cool showers soaked us during our ascent to the lodge and a blanket of thick fog blocked the sunset from view that night, were we were not disappointed by Le Conte.
The rains awoke Le Conte creek, which rushed furiously down the mountain and exploded over Rainbow Falls and countless other rock shelves along the mountainside. Salamanders scurried about on the trail, and a thick fog enveloped the forest, blocking views and diffusing the forest light. It gave us the feeling we were walking in the clouds for much of the day.
After a soggy climb, we snuggled into the bottom bed of our cozy cabin’s set of bunks for a nap. We were lulled to sleep by the rain on the tin roof and awoke in time for a hot and hearty dinner and lively conversation with new friends in the dining hall. After a few rounds of poker by lamplight we were greeted with a sky full of twinkling stars as we walked back to the cabin for bed.
In the morning, the sky had cleared significantly, and although we weren’t up in time for sunrise we were treated to a breathtaking morning view of just the tallest green peaks poking out of a the roiling thick fog below. The scent of spruce and firs perfumed the air.
Our walk down was dry and mild and sprinkled with vistas and wildflowers. By the end of the hike, we had descended back below the fog line.
After lunch in Dollywood, we turned to look back at the mountains to see if we could spot Mt. Le Conte in the distance, but the clouds had already hidden it again.
GETTING TO LE CONTE LODGE:
The only way to get to Le Conte Lodge is via foot, along one of five trails that ascends Mount Le Conte. Each one showcases the beauty of the magnificent Great Smoky Mountains in their own way.
The 6.5-mile Rainbow Falls Trail, follows Le Conte Creek as it tumbles down the mountain. The Boulevard Trail crosses a narrow ridge that provides views of the steep forested slopes surrounding the mountain as it makes its way from the Appalachian Trail near Newfound Gap to the lodge.
Alum Creek Trail is a 5.5-mile walk to the summit, which in addition to passing through large spruce and tulip trees passes over a steep narrow cleft in the mountain. Using the Bullhead Trail it is a 7.2 mile walk noted for wildflowers and lookouts.
Using the Trillium Gap Trail, it is a 6.5-mile walk to Le Conte. This is the trail used by llamas who ferry supplies to the mountain and carry down mail and trash. Along the walk, hikers pass under Grotto Falls and can hear water roaring inside the mountain as they approach Trillium Gap.
Once you reach the Lodge views from the summit of the mountain beckon and nearby Myrtle Point is renowned for its sunrises while Clifftops is the only place to see a sunset.
For more information about Le Conte Lodge visit www.LeConteLodge.com