It seems that 2021 is about getting to do the things that we canceled in 2020. One of the delayed trips was a long-coveted trip to Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve hiked to the top of Mount LeConte several times before as a day trip. It is a big hike on Alum Cave trail, 10 miles round trip, an altitude gain of 3000 feet, but with a wonderful reward of a view at the top and great accomplishment at the end. I used this trail to get ready for my Peru hike in 2016 and it really helped get me in shape. Since the 1930’s, there has been a lodge at the top of the mountain with a dozen or so cabins plus dining hall and office/store. It is a throwback to a bygone era of old mountaineers and charming rocking chairs to “sit a spell” and enjoy the view. The lodge is off-grid and only accessible by foot. The cabins are equipped with propane heaters and kerosene lamps and are resupplied three times a week by llamas carrying food and clean linen. Reservations are made by a lottery system the year before, so I was disappointed when my reservation for last April was cancel but was glad to rebook for this year and include Alexandra in the trip as she loves a good hiking adventure. Hamilton and Caroline also enjoy hiking and nature, so we were all happy with the plan.
I watched the weather forecast closely the week before and was pleased that the day would be sunny but, alas, we were going to have a cold snap. We packed long johns, hats, gloves and wool socks for the adventure, knowing we would be adding layers the higher we climbed and it was going to be a very cold night. We set out mid-morning for the hour and half drive with a sense of adventure and plenty of snacks and water. Our first ‘trail miracle’ was a small black bear just off the park road. It is rare to see a bear and there were quite a few cars stopped to see the little fella wandering in the woods. We made it to our destination just in time for our second ‘trail miracle’. The very crowded parking lot had just the perfect spot for us to park overnight as I really didn’t want to leave the car by the side of the road for that long. We ate our picnic lunch and put on our backpacks to head up the trail. The first couple of miles are flat and along a magnificent rocky stream. There are several log footbridges to cross and I always like to take a moment to breath the fresh mountain air and enjoy the rushing water. Further along are stairs that go through an open cave. There I saw my first hiker with ice cleats on her boots—yikes, I was a little worried about the rest of the trail. As the trail went up, it got colder and icier. There were overhangs with giant icicles randomly crashing to the ground or dripping to form thick flows of ice on the trail. Much of the upper part of the trail is carved out of stone with metal cables to hold onto—very helpful when the rocks are covered with solid ice.
We took our time and enjoyed the view but by the time we got to the lodge it was getting dark and very cold and I was hungry. The cabin was tiny and cold except the top bunk which was very hot as all the heat rose to the top and a continuous stream of frigid air seeped under the door. We snuggled into the beds until supper was delivered, hot and delicious after a long hike. Because of Covid, the dining hall was closed and it was well below freezing so outdoor dining was not a good option. I read on my Kindle and we all went to sleep early. I did keep waking up in the night to worry about getting back down the mountain in the morning after the trail refroze overnight.
The next morning it was 4 degrees and we were happy for hot coffee and breakfast of pancakes, eggs, biscuits, and grits to fortify us for the trek down. The morning was beautiful with every tree covered with a dense hoar frost all glowing with the pink light of morning. I went to the store to check out and had my third ‘trail miracle’, they sold ice cleats for our hiking shoes, we were saved! I would happily give them all the money in the world so that we wouldn’t break an arm or leg on the way back down. With the our more grippy shoes we could take our time and see the amazing frost covered world around us. We still were careful on the trail but enjoyed the treat of the crisp white world just as spring was around the corner. It was a glorious hike down the mountain.
We arrived back to our car, tired but warm from our adventure. We drove to the local tourist town, Pigeon Forge, to eat our first restaurant meal together in over a year. Pizza never tasted to good. We made our way home through the valley with a quick stop for coffee. I was so happy for a hot shower as it was so cold overnight, we slept in our hiking clothes. We all hobbled around the next couple of days with sore muscles and I had some tendentious but it was all worth it. I want to make the trek again in warmer weather and when the dining hall is open so we can visit with our fellow hikers and enjoy the view. I wouldn’t say our adventure was “fun” in the traditional sense but we all loved the thrill of the challenge, the amazing beauty and the time spent together. Success all around.