Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Five-Star Hike

Appalachian Backpack Weekend – 10/27/08 – Day Four – AT/Boulevard Trail to Mt LeConte/Alum Cave Trail (and Side Trips to the Jumpoff and Myrtle Point) – 14 Miles 

Early this morning I was inspired to search for a disposable camera for today’s hike and found one at the liquor store in Gatlinburg – not digital, but good enough. I met Danny and Lenny at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and followed them to the Alum Cave trailhead to drop off my car. Then they deposited me at the Newfound Gap parking lot for my longest solo hike so far. My chosen route was a five-star hike in the Smokies - the AT/Boulevard Trail/Alum Cave loop for Mt LeConte. The forecast was for clear and cold weather, only in the 40s in Gatlinburg, so I could expect at least 10 degrees colder up at Mt. LeConte. As I got out of the car the wind whipped me around and got my attention. I hurried into the restroom and layered up, then struck out on the Appalachian Trail. I passed two guys also heading north to the Boulevard Trail to LeConte and then passed three section hikers headed south.

After 2.7 miles on the AT I turned left onto the Boulevard Trail, and within a few minutes I came to the spur trail to the Jumpoff. I had never been to this view before so decided to give it a try. It’s an unmaintained (i.e. unofficial) trail but well worn and somewhat rougher than most trails in the Park. At the Jumpoff edge I could see Charlies Bunyon and the ridge that the AT follows along, but as I pulled out my camera a wind gust knocked me off balance and I almost joined the “and she was never seen again” hiker legends. I sat down behind a large rock to eat a quick snack, but my fingers quickly became so cold that I had to put the food away, find an extra pair of gloves and get moving. Once again I was wearing everything I had brought.

The Boulevard is a fantastic trail, many great views to the right and left, and I could see far past the Smokies into the flatlands of Tennessee. (Surpris- ingly, I did not meet any other hikers on the Boulevard.) I walked along protected by spruce and fir trees, then in a gap the wind blew fiercely again. There are several places evident of landslides, one in particular that is quite large and has cables to hold onto as you walk across the bare slope. At the beginning of this area I stopped to shed a couple of layers because I was warmed by the sun and thought I was near the end – not so. Soon I was in the trees again and adding the layers back. Finally I reached the intersection with the spur trail to Myrtle Point and I went to check it out also. Jim and I were here many years ago for an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge and we were totally fogged in. Today there were no clouds, just layers and layers of mountains, and I had it all to myself. (If you are lucky enough to score an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point is where you go to greet the sunrise.)

Back out to the Boulevard and traveling onward, I passed High Top, a pile of stones that the little brown book tells me “were left by Mt. LeConte boosters who want to make Mt. LeConte higher than Clingmans Dome.” Well, they are going to need more rocks! Shortly after that, I walked down into the cluster of small buildings that comprises LeConte Lodge. It was 1:00 PM and the thermometer on the office porch read 31 degrees. Inside the office the wood stove was feeling great, so I chose to hang up some layers to dry and eat my lunch inside. People were coming in and out, looking at the photos and news articles covering the walls. Everyone exclaimed over the cold temperatures, the flawless blue sky, the changing leaves and the perfection of the day.

By 1:30 PM I set out on my way down Alum Cave Trail, hoping to get to my car by 4:00 PM for the long drive back to Charlotte. Alum Cave Trail probably is the singularly most scenic trail in the Park, passing sections with intriguing names such as Arch Rock, Peregrine Peak, Alum Cave Bluffs and Gracie’s Pulpit. Now, I had taken most of my photos on the Boulevard Trail because I plan to hike Alum Cave again during the year. Also, there are websites devoted to hiking Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte with wonderful photos, much better than I could do justice to with my little disposable camera. Click here for an overview of the trail's many points of interest with photos and click here for many great accounts of this hike and photos.

Of course, to prove I was here I got my picture taken by a nice fellow who called himself simply “the bald man from Nashville" (but his thumb is the most prominent object in the picture, I'm sorry to say.) My hat was very popular on this hike, with many compliments and references to my Statue of Liberty shadow. Lots of nice people on the Alum Cave Trail, folks dayhiking and folks headed for the Lodge. Do not do this hike if you are looking for solitutude, because you will not be alone. Choose wisely if you need to take a "trail break".

One mishap while I was walking down Alum Cave Trail: In many, many places there are cables attached to the rock by large bolts because the trail is steep and constantly wet, so it’s very slippery. It stays icy for much of the year and can be treacherous. At one point I was bopping along, loosely holding onto the cable with my left hand, and my index finger slid right into one of the round bolt eyes – and as I was still moving I felt and heard a sickening crunch. Ouch! Well, my finger wasn’t broken (and even if it was, all I could do was keep walking) but it did swell up and turn red, and even as I’m writing this a week later it is still swollen and the big knuckle is quite sore. My stomach still flips when I think about it…

Near the bottom of the trail the crowd thickened, much like at the Chimney Tops. Alum Cave Bluffs is only 2.3 miles from the trailhead and most people just hike up to see that (well worth it, too, if that’s all you have time for). I reached my car by 3:45 PM and was a little sad to see the day end. It was my longest solo hike and I had not felt at all lonely or scared of you-know-whats. I had much to think about from the past four days as I made my way home. Postscript: Here is an account of the Boulevard Trail with better photos than mine.

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