Smoky Mountain Clouds

A Tennessee Trek: Hike the Smokies to Mount LeConte

Usually my urge for exploration is satisfied with sonar-assisted searches of fishing holes or watching the gold miners on the History Channel. But every now and then, I am seized by the urge to step outside my comfort zone and head to the back of beyond for an adventure.

Lucky for me, the oldest existing mountains in the world, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the half-million acres inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park are a half-day’s drive from my front door.

Smoky Mountain Clouds

The Smoky Mountain Field School has programs ranging from one day sessions on birding, nature photography, plein air painting, wilderness orienteering, edibles and medicinal plants to animal tracking, fly fishing, Cherokee history, canoe trips and overnight hikes. (Photo: Cathy Summerlin)

Even luckier, I discovered the variety of programs offered from March to November by the Smoky Mountain Field School, a joint venture between the University of Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Registering for one of the Field School hikes to the top of Mount LeConte with an overnight stay at the historic lodge built in 1926 on one of the highest peaks in the Smokies sounded like a pretty good adventure to me.

LeConte Lodge

Every year family traditions, lasting friendships, wedding anniversaries and personal milestones are celebrated with pilgrimages to the lodge built on top of Mount LeConte by Jack Huff in 1926. (Photo: Doug Brown)

Five trails lead to LeConte Lodge and entail a minimum hike of 5.5 miles one way with elevation changes of up to 3,800 feet. That kind of climbing is hard on calves and quads going up and tough on the toes and knees going down. I was used to walking a mile or two most days on our country road and hiking down to our creek, but decided I’d better ramp up my training for several weeks before the trip.

The temperature gradient from Gatlinburg to the mountaintop parallels travelling from Tennessee to Maine in a day’s walk so I knew layers of clothing, plenty of water and comfortable hiking boots would be essential.

I looked forward to hiking past waterfalls, wildflowers and above the timber line. I shucked down to short sleeves about half-way up the trail but was surprised that a light snow was falling by the time the lodge came into view at 6,400 feet. I didn’t assume I’d have room service, indoor plumbing or electricity at the top but was glad to find a steaming cup of hot chocolate waiting.

Smoky Mountain Waterfalls

Overnight guided hikes are offered to Mount LeConte in spring, summer and fall by the Smoky Mountain Field School. (Photo: Cathy Summerlin)

Supplies are carried by llamas up the Trillium Gap Trail on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so designer salads aren’t on the menu for the family style dinner. Wine is an option and was worth the extra $10. I figured it was probably the altitude and the exercise (and the fact I didn’t have to carry it up the mountain myself) that made the canned beef and veggies taste so good!

Cabins are equipped with water buckets, kerosene lamps, a propane stove and metal grills over the windows to keep nuisance bears at bay.

A flashlight and some strong motivation were needed to make the trip to visit the flush toilets once the sun set. But the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg in the distance and an incredible star display overhead kept me company as I made my way across the uneven terrain.

Talk of clear weather and anticipation of a beautiful sunrise at Myrtle Point got most everyone moving before dawn the next morning.

Myrtle Point

During the summer of 1924 committee members from the Department of the Interior saw the sunrise from Myrtle Point and the Smokies were selected as the site for the first national park in the eastern U. S. Photo Cathy Summerlin

All too quickly breakfast was over and it was time to head back to civilization. But it had been such a good trip I felt sure I’d be returning to this memorable spot.

Are you ready for your adventure? For information about Smoky Mountain Field School classes being offered through November 9 this year, call 865-974-0150.

Smoky Mountains

Before you decide it can’t get any better, walk out to Cliff Tops for the sunset view. (Photo: Cathy Summerlin)

Hi there! I’m Vernon Summerlin. Like many, I came to Nashville to break into the music industry. After years of striving, I...Read on


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  2. avatar

    MiChelle Ogle

    I remember going to Mount LeConte as a young Girl Scout. We hiked all day. I thought we would never get there. I had to carry my own backpack, no Llamas in sight. The trip was totally worth every step. The sunrise, the fresh air, and the breakfast (more food than I had ever seen in my life)made up for the hike up and of course back down.

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