A 34-year-old itch
I made my first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains as a kid in 1974. I was on summer vacation with my parents and we stayed in a campground on US 321 that had a view of Mt. LeConte. I loved looking at it, and I wanted to climb it then, but couldn't, since no one would take me. We never went back for family vacation, as my family members (except me) are beach people, not mountain people, and they kept returning to Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach. Until this year, that is....
My parents, my kids and I, and my sister and husband and their kids all went to Gatlinburg again this June. It's still true that none of them are really hikers or climbers, but after breakfast on our last full day in town my parents offered to babysit my youngest while I "did something" on my own. It took me about 10 minutes to put on my boots, get my pack ready, and take off. I'd hoped to get a chance to climb LeConte on this trip, and here it was. I followed the caravan up US 441 to the Alum Cave Trail parking lot and got there almost exactly at 10 a.m. Not an alpine start by any means, I know, but the opportunity was what it was. There were two parking spots left when I arrived, and the last one filled just a minute after I got there.
Up the trail
I'd hiked the Chimney Tops Trail a couple of days before and was expecting something just as steep but much longer. I was pleased to realize as I climbed that although the Alum Cave Trail has its steep spots, it's not as unrelenting as I feared. The trail was fairly busy as far as the 'cave' itself, where a young girl had a sort of vertigo attack, freezing in place, whimpering, and clinging to her Mom, just after I arrived and took a water break.
Above Alum Cave the views got better and better. A little ways beyond Peregrine Peak I heard a hawk screaming that I didn't take time to look for, but thought was probably a Peregrine Falcon. I heard many warblers and vireos singing - I'm a birder - but won't bore non-birders with the long list of species. I loved the exposed, rocky sections of trail higher up because of the views they offered, but I suspect when they get icy they require a bit of attention for safe passage.
On the top
Getting to the Rainbow Falls Trail junction was a relief since I knew from the map I was near the top. I didn't stop at the LeConte Lodge on the way up, just passed it and headed for the top. When I found the giant summit cairn I was a bit amused. I'd seen replicas of the summit benchmark for sale in a shop in Gatlinburg and was planning to look for it... guess it's buried under several hundred pounds of stone now. My goal had been to arrive at the summit between 2 and 2:30 and I actually made it at 1:53. I have a bit of crunchiness in one of my knees, so I'm sure many folks would make it more quickly than I did.
As I started down the weather still looked great so I relaxed and started taking more pictures. I spent about half an hour checking out the LeConte Lodge property and eating an apple on the deck of their office building. What a spot for a retreat... beautiful views. The air was indeed smoky, hazy and thick, or I'm sure it would have been even better.
Scratch, scratch... ahhh.
On the way down I heard the noisy hawks again, and this time I stopped to locate the source. Actually there were two
Peregrines, one chasing the other. I watched for several minutes as they chased and dived at each other. Although it was getting a bit late in the afternoon, I still met several people on the way up as I headed down, most but not all of them below Alum Cave. It took me a little over 2.5 hours from the Lodge back to the parking lot - again, I'm sure others would make it faster, but that was with some birding and photography along the way.
It felt good to have scratched this itch... I'd been wanting to climb LeConte since 1974. Any time I thought about visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park my mind would automatically say "yeah, you need to climb Mount LeConte." I'd actually been here in 2006 on business but not had a chance to make the climb. Of course I could have come back and done it sooner, and I have done plenty of other hikes and climbs since then, but the way it worked out was fine. After getting back to town, I took my parents and daughter out to dinner as a thank you to them and a mini-celebration for me.