Sunday, October 30, 2011

LeConte, Part One

Many people refer to the Great Smoky Mountains as “the Roof of Eastern America,” and with good reason: Inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, are sixteen peaks higher than 6,000 feet in altitude. By contrast, only one peak in all the other Appalachian states exceeds 6,000 feet. The highest in all of New England would not even crack the top ten in the South.

Among these giants, Tennessee’s Mount LeConte ranks as number three in the Smokies when measured by altitude; that is, by how far a mountain’s highest point sits above sea level. However, when measured by how tall a mountain stands -- i.e., how far its highest point sits above its base -- LeConte ranks as number one in all of America east of the Mississippi River. Its imposing, four-peaked massif dominates most views of the Smokies’ crest despite being only seven miles from Clingman’s Dome, the mountain with the highest altitude in the range.

For those reasons, and because you can not get to it by car, LeConte is widely thought of as the crown jewel of the Smokies. And it was for those very same reasons, or at least partly because of them, that my friend Mike and I decided to make LeConte the destination for this year’s version of our almost-annual hiking trip.

Unlike our fall trips in 2008 and 2009, more people came along for this one. Finney, who also accompanied us on our spring trip in 2008, was on hand. So too were Tom and Mark, neither of whom had backpacked before. My next two posts will detail the hike itself and include lots of pictures, but before writing those posts I am going to toss out a few more facts about the mountain:

  • In the 1920’s, when the federal government was considering establishing a national park in the Smokies, a local group brought government personnel to LeConte because they knew its sheer slopes and expansive views would “make the sale.”

  • Ecologically speaking, walking from LeConte’s base to its summit is the same as walking 1,000 miles from south to north. Its lower elevations have the same plants and animals you would expect to see in central Tennessee, while its higher, much colder elevations are inhabited by plants and animals of the Canadian forest zone.

  • Five different trails lead to its summit, and once there you have two options for remaining overnight: LeConte Shelter (a three-sided, tin-roofed structure with wooden ledges for sleeping) or LeConte Lodge.

  • Don’t let the word “lodge” make you think of Aspen. LeConte Lodge is a collection of huts with no electricity or running water. What it does have are comfortable beds, tasty meals in the dining room, old-fashioned kerosene lamps, and the nicest privies you’ll ever find. Supplies are brought up by llamas three times a week.

  • The lodge is about 300 feet below LeConte’s highest point and has never experienced 80 degrees -- the highest temperature ever recorded there was 78.

Like I said, my next two posts will feature lots of pictures of the hike, and therefore of Mount LeConte itself. But in the meantime I want to share two views from other points on our trip. This one was taken in the Tuskegee Creek Valley, along State Road 28 in Graham County, North Carolina:

The next one is video taken from my cell phone, of what is probably my all-time most unexpected wildlife encounter. Just after driving into Great Smoky Mountains National Park on our way to the trailhead, we rounded a bend in the Oconaluftee Valley and saw two bull elk locking antlers in a rutting duel. Elk are extremely rare in the East and I had never even thought about the possibility of seeing them in this spot.

We jumped out to watch and by the time I remembered my phone had video capability, the fight was almost over. I wish it had a better zoom, I wish it was in better focus, and I wish it was easier to make out the colliding of antlers (which was clearly audible in person) but hey, I got the most important part: The conclusion! And if you want to hear antlers, listen very closely to the first couple seconds. Here you go:

The next post will come in a few days to a week. Until then, enjoy your fall (or spring) wherever on the planet you are!


Barb said...

I'd definitely opt for the lodge! Your pics from the valley show a gorgeous fall. Also, though we have plenty of elk, I've never witnessed a rutting battle, so I'm glad you remembered your cell video! I'll be interested in your account of the hike. PS How can you like snow and live in FL?

Betsy from Tennessee said...