Five trails lead up to the slopes of Mt. Le Conte: Alum Cave, Bull Head, Rainbow Falls, The Boulevard, and Trillium Gap. This section serves as an introduction to all five trails. Mt. LeConte Lodge is only accessible by hiking one of five trails. The shortest and steepest is 5 1/2 miles long. Although the summit of LeConte is tree-covered and has no views, impressive views are available at Cliff Tops, and Myrtle Point on the other side of the summit. The walking distance on the trails, roundtrip to Mt. Le Conte are as follows: Alum Caves Trail (11 miles), Rainbow Falls Trail (13 miles), Bullhead Trail (13 miles), Trillium Gap Trail (14 miles) and the Boulevard (16 miles). The Rainbow Falls – Bullhead combination makes one of the park’s best loops. Call it charisma, or mystique or magnetism. Mt. Le Conte has it in abundance, enough to lure thousands of hikers each year up its rocky trails to its lofty summit.
Mt. LeConte is situated about 4 miles north of the main Great Smoky Mountain range. The third highest peak in the National Park at 6,593 feet above sea level, it stands a full mile above Gatlinburg, Tennessee. As seen from the west along the Little River Road, Mt. LeConte has the steepest and tallest slope in the eastern United States. Mt. LeConte is probably the most impressive peak in the Smoky Mountain National Park. While Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Guyot are higher, they are both parts of high ridges, while Mt. LeConte seems to tower over its surroundings. It is the most prominent peak.
Those wishing to experience it first hand have quite a few options for ascending this Queen of the Smokies. The shortest and probably easiest, is the Alum Cave Trail. This is five and a half miles with a vertical climb of around 2600 feet. Strangely, most climb the easiest is via Newfound Gap, an eight-mile trip, but only a vertical climb of 1200 feet. The eight mile jaunt is fairly populated and nothing but up and down the entire way. The Rainbow Falls trail is around 6.7 miles, climbing almost 4000 feet. The Bullhead trail starts and ends at the same spot as the Rainbow Falls trail, hence also gains about 4000 feet, but in about seven miles. It is slightly less scenic, but also less traveled that the Rainbow Falls route. The Trillium Gap, or Grotto Falls trail is similar in length and only slightly less difficult than the Rainbow Falls trail, gaining 3500 feet. Its trailhead is not far beyond the Rainbow Falls and Bullhead parking area. There is a little used, not particularly scenic two mile path connecting the two parking areas for those who wish to travel up one and down the other. Since this path adds two miles to the tiring trip, you may consider going up Rainbow Falls and down Grotto Falls. A benefit of this is that there is a sign at the Grotto Falls trailhead, but not at the Rainbow Falls end. Yet another way to reach Mount LeConte by Trillium Gap is from Porter’s Creek Campground, a 9.5 mile very scenic outing. Perhaps a couple of other routes could be contrived by joining up with the Appalachian Trail on the Boulevard at Icewater Springs shelter, three miles north of Newfound Gap. (Newfound Gap is where U.S. highway 441 crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, N.C.)
Whether you are on a day hike or overnight, bring plenty of water with you. A half-gallon per person is not too much. Though water is abundant on the trail, it can bring various bacterial bummers to ruin your journey. A sack lunch is good, though luncheon meats in a hot pack may also breed intestinal tribulation. Trail mix type foods are recommended, as they supply salt and sugar, your next biggest needs (after water) on the trail.
Also available on top of Mount LeConte is a backcountry shelter. It is basically a lean-to with a chicken wire fence over the entrance to discourage bears. Reservations are required and it is not easy to obtain them in crowded seasons – late spring and fall. Crude (and not too comfortable) bedding is found inside, although I personally prefer sleeping on the ground. No facilities are offered except a fire ring. Drinking water and pit toilets may be found at the lodge, less than a quarter of a mile away.
Let’s talk about the weather. It has been said (at least now it has) that there is a devious spirit haunting the peaks of Mount LeConte. This mischief-making gremlin seems to invoke fog and showers at its capricious will on the fairest of days. When at lower altitudes the weather is hot, hazy and humid (look for cumulus clouds), expect about a 75% chance of scattered showers and fog on Mount LeConte. The scientific excuse for this goblin is as follows: The warm, moist valley air rushes up the 5000-foot tall slope, driven by west winds. The increase of altitude forces a drop in pressure, reducing the density and therefore cooling in the process. As the temperature drops below the dew point, the water begins to condense, forming water droplets, which coalesce, drenching the innocent and bewildered hiker with pinpoint accuracy. This will happen day or night summer, winter, springtime and fall. Many times, the clouds will hover just around High Top, bobbing above and then below the treetops. This makes sunsets and sunrises an unpredictable sight. The best attitude to have is this: regardless of the weather, you are in a wonderful place away from bosses, phone calls, bills and IRS agents: Enjoy the flora, rocks, fresh air and clean water (available at the camp). If you are staying the night, you can look forward to a warm, dry bed and plenty of hot food. If you see the sunset, great! If not, come back and try again! It really does happen once in a while.
One reason for LeConte’s popularity is the lodge at the summit. A rustic lodge with accommodations is available at the top of Mount LeConte, located at the top of Mt. LeConte (6593 feet) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee. This rustic lodge, consisting of a collection of small cabins and a dining hall and office, is consistently booked well in advance, though cancellations do occur. Do not expect to get reservations easily, though. The first week in October is normally the time to reserve for the following season. Even then, you are lucky to find a Friday or Saturday night to your liking. ATTENTION: you cannot just show up and get either room or board even if there are openings. The reservation includes dinner, a bed, breakfast, and a great view. There is no running water or electricity in the cabins, and all food is brought up the mountain by llamas. As rough as this sounds, it is VERY difficult to get a reservation. It’s a fantastic experience!
There are both private cabins and two lodges available for groups. Either offers double width bunks covered with several thick woolen blankets. These are usually necessary all year round as temperatures at night seldom exceed 50. Heating is accomplished by portable kerosene heaters, which are a bit smelly. Bureaucrats and insurance companies banned the wonderful wood heaters and fireplaces originally installed. Lighting is provided by kerosene lamp, quite adequate and cozy. Mice are very common and necessitate storing all packed food in barrels provided at the ‘front desk.’ It is not uncommon to wake up to the pitter-patter of little feet in backpacks, even if there is no food in them. Bears also frequent the site mooching for morsels. Although less common than in years past, they still get inside the buildings on occasion. Rest rooms are outside, and actually have plumbing! Pit toilets are also available for those without reservations (or those who leave their key in their cabin). A collection of games is stacked in the main meeting room, along with books, pictures, guitars and other gizmos. No showers, phones or electricity will be found here (a benefit, by my standards!).
Two meals are provided with lodge reservations: supper at 6 p.m. and breakfast at 8 a.m. The menu doesn’t change, to my knowledge, and meals are served only when the dinner bell rings. Supper consists of soup and corn bread followed by a hearty beef and gravy stroganoff-ish dish with reconstituted potatoes, canned green beans, baked apples and finally, a cookie or two for desert. Hot chocolate and coffee are unlimited as long as they hold out. Wine is served if you make the request when you reserve the room. Breakfast will be pancakes and grits, biscuits, ham, scrambled eggs, instant orange drink, coffee, hot chocolate, along with honey, syrup, apple butter and the like. Meals are not fancy but substantial and ‘just what the doctor ordered’ after a long hike up a tall mountain.