Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
October 1 marks the sign-up deadline day for the Mt. LeConte Lodge lottery. Annually, the system opens up for hikers to enjoy a bucket-list experience: overnight stay in a secluded, quaint guest lodge “village” complete with dining hall. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, situated on an open glade just below the summit of Mt. LeConte, and at an elevation 6,360 feet, is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States.
Mt. LeConte is a remote, yet breathtakingly beautiful spot where day and overnight visitors can enjoy scenic views and serene quiet while rocking on porches. The Edenesque setting attracts undaunted deer and squirrels that “visit” guests on their porches. Distinct bird and wildflower species make their home in the area. Spruce and fir trees fill the air with that fresh Christmas-tree aroma.
There are no roads that lead to the lodge. There are, however, five hiking trails ranging in length from 5.5 miles up to 8 miles. Sometimes, one or more of the trails is under repair or out due to weather issues, but one of the nearest to Franklin – and one that is diverse geographically – is Alum Cave Trail, less than 60 miles from Franklin toward Gatlinburg, and just 20 miles from Cherokee. This hike is 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave trailhead to Mt. LeConte Lodge – 11 miles round trip.
The well-marked trail does not actually traverse through a cave, but instead winds under what is known as Arch Rock, a sort of open cave. The first part of this trail is relatively easy, beside Alum Cave Stream and small waterfalls, over bridges, and along cliffs with open vistas. The stopping point for many is at the 2.3 mile mark, at Alum Cave Bluffs; the natural landmark is the reason for the Alum Cave Trail’s namesake. Alum Cave Bluffs is a massive concave overhang that towers 75 to 80 feet high. This spacious area is a popular resting point, and for many a turnaround site as well. Hikers can take shelter here from harsh summer sun or duck in during a rainstorm, which can occur unexpectedly. All along the trail are lichen and moss-covered areas dense with fern, or paths covered in or lined with rocks of varying shapes, sizes, and hues.
Locals have many stories to tell about the Alum Cave Trail. During the mid-1800s, the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined parts of the area for Epsom salts, and locals used the salts to add pigment to clothing. During the Civil War, soldiers scoured the area for saltpeter, which was used to produce gunpowder during the war.
A Mt. LeConte Lodge lottery “win” means accommodations for a particular date can be secured for the following season, which runs from March to November. Mt. LeConte Lodge’s cabins accommodate 60 total. At the start of each season, a helicopter drops 200,000 pounds of supplies. Throughout the remainder of the season, seven to nine llamas trek up one of the trails three times weekly to bring packs of food, clean linens, and other supplies. These llamas are led by one guide, who makes the more than a six-mile hike with them up and then back again in one day. In early September, one of the guides explained to onlookers that he picks up the llamas in Gatlinburg at 4:30 a.m. and has them ready and on the trail by 5:30 a.m.; he heads back down the trail – after they have been unpacked and have had time to rest and eat – around 2 p.m. While waiting for the guide to string them back together for their hike back down, the llamas perk their ears and hum impatiently.
Full-time staff at Mt. LeConte settles in for three to six weeks, hiking back down for a few days off, and then return for another three to six weeks. The 11 or so staff members reside in employee cabins and take care of everything at the site – from food preparation and cabin cleaning to lighting heater pilot lights and selling Mt. LeConte merchandise.
In the Lodge are shelves of games, books, and magazines. Several guitars are available for the musically inclined. The Lodge is open 24/7 for day travelers to rest their weary feet before heading back down the mountain or for guests to gather and enjoy during their stay. Plus, many visitors take the extra .3 mile jaunt to see a spectacular sunset or awaken early to brave a .7 mile walk to view a one-of-a-kind sunrise experience.
The Lodge is something of a museum as well, with black and white photos of early travelers to the area and the bronzed shoes of Margaret Stevenson, who scaled the mountain 718 times, the last when she was in her 80s. Most prominent is the story of Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer who began building the retreat in 1926. Jack married Pauline at a sunrise service at LeConte’s Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch daybreak. Jack, Pauline, and their family continued to operate the Lodge until 1960. Most impressive about Huff is the photograph of him at 25-years-old hiking up to Mt. LeConte with his frail mother and her kitten sitting in a chair strapped to his back. In his lifetime, Huff apparently climbed the mountain thousands of times.
There is no electricity at the Lodge, but plenty of oil lanterns available. There is a community bathroom, a spring-fed pump, and a warm water spigot emerging from the dining hall. Each cabin is given a bucket for filling with water to take a sponge bath, brush teeth, etc. While the beds come with sheets and blankets, and there is a bar of soap in each room, there are no wash cloths or towels. Overnight guests must pack in their clothing and other necessities. There is an unlimited wine service, for an extra fee, as well as free coffee, hot chocolate, and lemonade for overnight guests, who also receive a large family-style dinner and breakfast. Dinner might include platters of pot roast in gravy and bowls of mashed potatoes, baked apples, and green beans as well as homemade cornbread and dessert. A typical hearty breakfast may consist of pancakes, grits, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and homemade apple butter. Sandwiches and snacks cost extra and are available for both overnight and day guests.
While some guests make a Mt. LeConte hike and getaway an annual event, others check it off their bucket lists. One family/friend unit venturing up the first part of September reserves the entire Mt. LeConte area at least once annually – and they have been doing so for 40 years.
Mollie and Silas Tolan, of Johnson City, Tenn., celebrated their 10th anniversary Sept. 6 and 7, leaving their three young children with relatives. “It’s awesome … even more so than we expected,” said Silas. “The logistics of how they get everything up here is amazing.” Added Mollie, “To think that the supplies were just brought up by llamas … It’s all so beautiful and we definitely want to come back.”
Besides the hike and the natural beauty, the Tolans agreed that just sitting and relaxing in the rocking chairs and taking in the scenery was worth the climb to the top.