Four Days and Forty Miles on the Appalacian Trail and the Tallest Mountain in the Eastern United States
I don’t think I have to sell anyone on the beauty of North Carolina in general or Great Smoky Mountain National Park in particular. It is the most visited park in the national park system, boasting the greatest variety of animals in the world (with over 1,600 black bears), more flowering plants than any other North American national park (over 1,600 varieties), more native tree species than all of northern Europe (over 100), over 800 miles of maintained hiking trails (including the famed Appalachian Trail), and a range in elevation from 800 to 6,643 feet, including the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, Mount LeConte. To say the least, it is spectacular and breathtaking.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to hike up Mount LeConte with three buddies as part of a four-day, 40-mile backpacking trip. Little did we know that the weather would turn against us, and we would almost be fighting for our lives before we reached the top. But starting out, it was very pleasant. That’s the way mountains are: they change on you suddenly. One minute they’re loving on you, and the next they’re trying to kill you, as Jim Craig points out to Jessica in The Man From Snowy River.
We started out, as I said, pleasantly at Newfound Gap on the Appalachian Trail and hiked northeast the first evening to Icewater Spring, where we stayed in one of the twelve-man shelters provided along the trail. The forest service has upgraded the shelters quite a bit, adding a covered dining area, outhouse and sky hooks for hanging packs in all locations; but they are much stricter about not building fires and maintaining the areas around the shelters than in the past.
The next morning, we saw a magnificent sunrise, then hiked the short distance northeast to Charlie’s Bunion: a magnificent rocky craig flanked on either side by a narrow walkway that is dangerously precipitous. For that reason, there is a sign going in to Charlie’s that says, “Closely Control Children.” The view is breathtaking.
From there we continued on to Peck’s Corner – around 9 miles – across Laurel Top. We saw a lot of old trees along the way that had been uprooted and turned on their sides by storms because they were growing out of almost nothing but rock. We also saw many other trees that looked like they had been struck by lightning, apparently, splitting them in half, exposing their orange wood in great splinters. There were rhododendrons full of pink blossoms, as well as those that had lost their blossoms and had covered the trails with the petals. All the foliage was lush and green from abundant rains.
Along the trial, we met a couple that had stayed at Peck’s Corner the previous evening. They said they had been visited by a black bear that came into the shelter looking for food, and that he had been quite entertaining. He made off with a couple of their water bottles, which they later found on the trail torn apart. The shelters used to have metal cages across the front to keep bears out; but those were removed when the shelters were upgraded so, now, they are totally open. That’s the reason hikers are encouraged to hang their food and trash on the sky hooks provided.
When we got to Peck’s, the log book showed that bears had visited the shelter for the past three nights. We were really excited about the possibility of seeing them again that night. The shelter was full of hikers. Two of them chose to sleep on the dirt floor, even though a visitation by bears was eminent. Unfortunately, a storm hit in the early evening and continued all night, probably discouraging the bears from coming out.
The next day, we hiked back the way we had come along Laurel Top and Charlie’s Bunion to Icewater Spring, where we turned northwest to take the Boulevard: an 8-mile trail eventually leading up to the top of Mount LeConte. But first, it loses altitude quite a bit, so that we were tempted to think we had gotten on the wrong trail. But eventually, some other hikers confirmed our location. Along the trail were numerous firs, so from time to time it smelled like we were in a Christmas tree farm.
Because the Boulevard is over softer ground than the Appalachian Trail, which is made up mostly of rock such as slate, it is lower than the surrounding ground, and feels like you’re hiking along a very narrow creek bed bordered on both sides by tall grass. Most of these trails act as conduits to relieve the ground of excess water when it rains; so they are, in essence, creek beds. We experienced this at one point when a terrific thunderstorm arose.
We were hiking through a forest of old-growth evergreens when we heard the thunder and it began to rain lightly. It felt to me like a passing storm, so I decided not to pull out my poncho to cover my pack. But as the temperature was dropping, I did put on my rain jacket. By the time we got to the foot of Mount LeConte, the rain was coming down hard and my pack was beyond protecting.
Mount LeConte is almost totally made of yellow, orange and white shell, with fringes of green foliage here and there – at least on the Boulevard side, which is the longest of the five trials leading to the top. As the storm continued, we battled our way up what seemed like a never-ending trail. Every time we came to a place where it looked like it might level off, there was another section rising before us. At one point, where the mountain is especially severe, I felt like I was on Mount Mordor in Lord Of The Rings. With the thunderstorm going on and the mountain nothing but a face of shell, it was especially scary. I prayed for the rain to stop, but it continued. I also prayed that we would all make it to the top, which we did; but not before feeling like hypothermia might be a real threat.
When we reached the top, we were greeted by a lane bordered on both sides by the most beautiful Christmas trees I’ve ever seen. This led to the shelter, which was near a famous lodge that had been built back when the park was established. It was reported that black bears had shown up there, and that the hikers had been photographing them; so we felt sure we’d see bears that night.
Unfortunately, again, it continued to rain most of the night, so that, not only were the bears kept indoors, so were we. We were drenched to the bone when we got to the shelter; and, once we got into dry clothing, didn’t even want to go out to use the outhouse. We lit candles to make the shelter a bit more homey and went straight to bed after a light dinner of macaroni and cheese.
The next morning, as we were fixing our breakfast, some very aggressive brown squirrels showed up. They had no fear of coming right up to us begging for food, and actually got underfoot. I knew if the squirrels were that bold, the bears would have been even more so.
After breakfast, we hiked out through the lodge, where we stopped to get water at the community water pump. That was the only place on our trip where we didn’t have either to boil or to purify our water. The lodge was rustic and quaint, hearkening back to the ’20’s and ’30’s, when it was built and when the Great Smoky Mountains were made into a national park. There was the lodge proper, small cabins with bunk beds, and a dining hut serving two meals a day. Food and other provisions had to be brought in by llamas from Gatlinburg. The bell rang for the call to breakfast while we were hiking through.
The fog was so thick from all the rain we had been having that we could barely see more than a couple of the cabins at a time. Considering the fact that the lodge had a rustic 1930’s look to it, everything seemed quite surreal. As we were hiking down, we saw clouds of fog rising off the mountains like smoke, which is where Great Smoky Mountains get their name. It took several hours for the sun to burn it all off so that we could get a clear view of the mountains again.
We hiked down on the Alum Cave Trail, which is 5 miles long – the shortest and most popular of the five trails on Mount LeConte. The trail is named for a huge deposit of alum, which looks like white sand, and forms a type of outdoor “cave” in the side of the mountain about halfway down the trail. As we hiked past it, it was alive with squirrels and chipmunks, probably in the habit of begging for food from the numerous visitors.
Steel handrails have been bolted into the side of the mountain in the most tricky and dangerous places. One slip in any of a number of spots could have sent one of us sliding down the side of the mountain.
Besides Alum Cave, there are many other interesting sites along the way. One of them is a stone staircase that goes through a steep passageway in the rock. It is next to a wonderful river crossed by a log bridge. There are many such crossings along the trail.
When we got to the bottom of the mountain, we followed the river out, meeting other groups of hikers along the way. Most were just walking up to see the cave, which was a pity for them because the best part of Mount LeConte is above there. But the lower part of Alum Cave Trail is also beautiful, and far easier to hike.
It was a great four days in one of the prettiest parts of God’s creation. If you would like to go, you have to have reservations for all of the shelters on the Appalachian Trail, but they aren’t hard to get. Go to http://www.appalachiantrail.org. The lodge at Mount LeConte also requires reservations, usually a year in advance. Go to http://www.gsmnp.com/pages/mtleconte.html.
By the way, Mount LeConte is over a mile tall. It is not the highest peak, but it is the tallest mountain (meaning mountain face) in the Eastern United States. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak, at 6,684 feet. If you’ve never hiked the Appalachian Trail or visited the top of Mt. LeConte, you’re missing an easily accessible wonder of God’s Creation. Just pray for the mountain to be in good humor. 🙂
Waitsel Smith, June 23, 2007
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Comments from Readers Like You:
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It was an awesome time, cannot believe it has been 3 years! Wanna go back!
Hope my back will permit! Great sharing Waitsel! The Hypothermia was temporary for Tripp he is much better now! – Kipper in Atlanta, GA
Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Images © 2007 Larry Smith. All Rights Reserved.