I’d made up my mind to go to the Smokies so that I could climb Mt. LeConte, one of the triumphs of my youth. When you’re young, you do stuff like that because you want to and you can. When you’re getting old, I reckon you do stuff like that because you have to and you want to prove you still are able.
I decided to go up I-77 to I-40 and then to 19, which takes you through Maggie Valley and Cherokee where you hop on 441 and enter the park. Drove all the way over the mountains through the park from Cherokee almost to Gatlinburg. Took a left at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and drove on in to the Elkmont campground. Got my campsite paid for and my tent set up by 5:30 pm. I’d left Charlotte at noon, and had stopped for gas and to eat and another place to buy a map, so I made pretty good time. One thing I noticed is that if you want to avoid crowds in the Smokies, go in September; especially weekdays. I encountered no traffic at all through Maggie Valley to Gatlinburg.
I spent the first night in my little tent reading Kerouacs' THE DHARMA BUMS. Must admit that the book is probably one of the reasons I was suddenly struck with mountain wanderlust. Fell asleep at 8 pm, woke briefly at 2 am from bright moonlight shining through my tent window (so I closed the flap) and then slept until 6:45, which was later than I wanted to sleep. I thought I’d have just woken earlier than that. So I jumped up, shaved and brushed my teeth in the nearby bathhouse, and was on my way to the Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead after assembling my pack.
At 8:30 am I was on the trail. Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is the most direct route to the summit of Mt. LeConte. It’s only a five-mile walk, but very steep and very rugged and very tiring for most. The trail gains 3,000 feet of elevation in that short distance. There was no one else walking with me at that early time, but I could tell from wet boot prints on rocks that some people were a short distance ahead of me. The sign at the trailhead informs the reader that it takes 4 hours to get to the summit. I recorded the time so that I could compare how fast or slow I’d be compared to the average.
The trail first takes you through very old stands of cove hardwoods along a beautiful mountain creek full of crystal clear water. After a while, the trail crosses the creek and veers to the right and begins to steeply ascend the slopes. Soon, you come to Arch Rock, which is a hole bored through the stone by the slow action of water and ice. The trail goes right up through this arch using a series of steps and cable handrails. From here on, the trail is really very steep.
At about 2.2 miles, after breaking out onto a very high and rocky narrow ridge, you come to the Alum Cave Bluffs for which the trail is named. This is an enormous overhanging rock shelf. The bluffs rise up for hundreds of feet. The floor beneath the bluffs, sheltered from rain, are dry and dusty and the footing is not that great. Here, the trail ascends at a ridiculous angle and lots of people pause here to take goofy photographs standing at impossible angles. Many people choose to turn back here.
After you climb beyond the bluffs, you are again ascending very steeply over the ridges and along cliff faces going higher and higher and moving into a very different kind of world. The trees have long ceased to be hardwoods and become first hemlocks and then fir trees. However, acid rain has been killing these forests for the past thirty years, and between one third and two thirds of all of the big balsam trees are dead, whitening husks standing stark and ugly on the mountainside. It’s pretty horrible. When I was here as a teenager, the forest appeared healthy. Now it’s just a matter of time until it’s extinct.
At these heights, I get a sensation I only get when I reach high elevation. I never feel that way unless I get over 5,000 feet. I don’t know what it is, but I could probably sense it even if you took me there blindfolded. Just before I got to the bluffs, I passed the party of three who had preceded me on the trail. I didn’t encounter anyone else going up, but I did meet up with several parties coming down the trail, people who had stayed the night at LeConte Lodge, the rustic hotel near the peak that one can only access by foot.
Soon, I found myself passing the lodge. I saw the trail to the summit, and in another two tenths of a mile I was standing on the cliffs that mark the top of Mt. LeConte. It was 10:30 am, so I had done the five miles in two hours. Am I bad, or what?
Exhausted and sweaty, I took off my pack and sprawled out on the rocks. The sun was shining and it was relatively warm. I say relatively, because the highest temperature ever recorded on LeConte was 74 degrees. But it felt good. And I had a decent view, although the clouds were threatening to roll in. As I was getting my lunch out of my pack, the clouds did arrive, and the temperatures cooled noticeably. I had brought my red fleece jacket and had to put it on. By the time I finished lunch my fingers were getting a little numb and I was very happy the wind wasn’t blowing.
Coming down from the Cliff Tops, I went to look at the LeConte Shelter. It’s a very nice lean-to that sleeps twelve. There is set of cables and pulleys there where you can suspend your backpacks to protect them from marauding bears. The last time I’d been up there, a bear had gone into the shelter and had shredded a guy’s down-filled sleeping bag. There were feathers everywhere, and the guy had to walk down the mountain since he couldn’t stay warm during the night without the bag. That shelter is gone, now, and this new one is only a year old. Very nice and modern.
After being on the peak for one hour, I started down and passed a lot of people coming up to stay at the lodge. They were in a large party and I was surprised at how many elderly people were making the climb. Many of them were in their 70s! (Hope I can still climb like that when I’m 70.) And it looked like they were all going to make it to the lodge. But I kept wondering why the party hadn’t taken the AT and The Boulevard route that, while longer, is much, much easier. Finally, just before I got back down to the bluffs, I did encounter two old ladies who were turning back, arguing with a younger woman who had been assigned to walk with them. “I’m going back. It’s not worth it! It’s just not worth it!” Again, I wondered what idiot had put these people on this route when there is a much easier one.
I encountered two different families going up as I went down who had those packs where the parents carry the baby on their backs. This late in the day, there were many more people headed up than down the mountain.
Just beyond Alum Cave Bluffs I looked down and saw what I at first thought was an infant’s shoelace. But it moved and I realized it was a baby snake. Sitting there in the middle of the rocky trail, warming itself in the sun, I knew that it would probably get crushed underfoot. So I shooed it away, off the rocks and onto the edge of the trail in the brush. Other than some northern red squirrels, it was the only wild creature I saw on the whole hike.
By the time I got back to the trailhead where my truck was parked, I was very tired and very sweaty. Also, I had failed to wear two pairs of socks so that on the way down my feet had slipped in my boots and my heels and toes were on fire. And my thighs were sore from all of that climbing. However, I knew there were some deep pools in the creek where you can park on the way back to the Elkmont campground. So I stopped at a set of small waterfalls, stripped down to my swimming trunks and water shoes and jumped in. The water was crystal clear and cold as heck. But I scrubbed myself and submerged my head and got myself clean. After that, I toweled off and went back to the camp where I got into some dry, clean clothes. Then I drove into Gatlinburg and had a steak and missed Carole and Andy so much that I decided to just do a quick hike to a waterfall the next morning and come back home to my family. I ain’t no Dharma bum. Too much in love with my wife and son.
I spent the night sleeping fitfully. Not because I was cold or uncomfortable, exactly, but because my thighs were so sore from the climb. And the ground is very unforgiving to sore muscles. But I got a good night’s sleep, woke up, ate cereal with cold milk, and broke camp. By ten am I was at the trailhead to Laurel Falls. This is a 2.6 mile round trip up a very steep ridge to the falls. I pretty much ran up it, passing everyone in front of me and leaving them gawking at the big man trotting improbably up the steep slopes. In nothing flat I was at the falls where I took some photographs, splashed that cold, clear water on my face and arms, and then raced back down to the truck. I stopped briefly a couple more times to take some pictures at overlooks at Newfound Gap, but I was anxious to see my family and so I was home safely by 4 pm.
Since Great Smoky Mountains National Park is such a relatively brief drive away, I think I’ll go more often. The park is in peril from a number of manmade problems, but it’s so beautiful that I want to go as often as I can. Hopefully, I’ll be back there within the coming year. We’ll see.