Smokies 900 Round 2: Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte – 8/4/17 – 8 Miles
Sometime back in the ‘90s Jim and I spent a night at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an experience that everyone should try. The views, the feeling of accomplishment after the strenuous uphill trek, the camaraderie of fellow pilgrims, the rocking chairs, the welcome chilly evening whilst the folks below are stifling in the heat – yes, unique in our part of the world. No electricity, no running water in the cabins, but flushing toilets in a separate building, comfortable beds and lantern-lit family style meals in the dining room. The downsides: It is not cheap, it is hard to get a reservation, and the algorithm for the wait list for cancellations is beyond my math pay grade. Knowing someone who has standing yearly reservations is key. Or knowing somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.
Since the ‘90s I have dayhiked up Mount LeConte half a dozen times via all its trails and in all seasons, rested on the lodge porch eating my lunch, then hiked back down. This summer a friend expressed an interest in spending the night, so I put the word out that I wouldn’t mind a couple of overnight spots, no matter what the date, and the universe responded. Turned out my friend couldn’t go after all, so who do I know to call on short notice? Cathy.
The shortest route to the summit of LeConte is via Alum Cave Trail, one of the most popular trails in the park. It was undergoing an extensive rehab by the Trails Forever program, closed Mondays through Thursdays each week, so the number of weekend hikers was amplified, even in poor weather. On a toasty Friday morning forecasting rain, Cathy and I joined the uphill flow alongside Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch.
A great general hike description is here. Imma just give you the photos and fun from our day.
Alum Cave is not really a cave, rather a ledge of black slate jutting out to give the impression of a cave. Re-read that trail description to learn about Alum Cave.
Cables for hanging on for dear life (Note: if you are nervous about heights, do not hike this trail!) Cathy and I think this is great fun.
The requisite “I was here” photo
We checked in, located our cabin and chose our bunks. Through my connection with a church friend, we were part of a “grandfathered” group who had standing reservations for this date. If any of the beds are not filled, the group loses those beds forever, so the net gets cast far and wide to make sure every space is taken. Truly we were friends of friends of friends.
Reaching the lodge is Goal 1 of an overnight hike to LeConte. Seeing the sunset from Cliff Tops is Goal 2. Seeing the sunrise from Myrtle Point is Goal 3. It was mid-afternoon and the weather was fine, but who knows what it will be at sunset? Cathy and I walked out to Cliff Tops (glad we did).
Jagged slate rock outcroppings at Cliff Tops
Still feeling the energy, we walked along the Boulevard Trail toward Myrtle Point, but turned around at the backcountry shelter (not associated with the lodge) and returned to the main cabins. Flowers were busting all over.
More lodgers of our cabin were arriving and we met two women from coastal South Carolina. One was itching to hike more and one was ready to relax – perfect timing for Cathy and me to switch partners! My new friend and I plunked down in rocking chairs and propped our feet on the porch railing while Cathy and her new friend happily turned back to the trails, not deterred at all by the little drizzle that had begun.
My friends who had scored the cabin spaces for me arrived before suppertime. The meal at LeConte Lodge is simple food served family style, seated with cabin mates. You can bring your own alcohol or pay a set amount for wine at dinner (red or white). FYI, if you bring food with you, it must be stored in a sealed barrel in the lodge office – do not feed the mice that inhabit your cabin!
A teensy bit of fog began creeping around the cabins as we made our way with other lodgers out to Cliff Tops for sunset. A delicious chill had set in. The thickening clouds were pushed around a bit by the wind, but not enough for that "ooh-aah" moment.
Meanwhile, back at the lodge….
By lantern light in our cabin, our group of strangers became acquainted as outdoor enthusiasts always do, telling stories of “that time we hiked to…” and “I got this injury when…” and “you really should camp at…” So stimulating to share experiences, trying to write down tips and trips for future reference.
It’s dark on top of a cloud covered mountain! Make sure you take your flashlight and know which cabin you’re in when you go to the bathroom, or you may try to climb back into the wrong bunk. Just sayin’.
“Never waste any amount of time doing anything important when there is a sunset outside that you should be sitting under!” ~C. Joy Bell