It was after midnight when Mother Nature sent a downpour to declare her authority. Jolted awake by the roar of raindrops on the tin roof, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and was soon met by another sound of authority: Wind. Its howl told me the gusts were packing enough power to blow a man down, and it was obvious there would be no uninterrupted sleep for the rest of the night.
Although it had stopped raining by the time day broke, there was no sun to be seen because a cloud was wrapped around the summit. It was 35 degrees; the air was the color of goose down; and this is what I saw looking out from my sleeping bag:
The thought of remaining in our bags and out of the cold was appealing, but we pushed it aside. Having covered more than five miles climbing to this spot the day before, and knowing we now faced an eight-mile hike out of the wilderness, we forced ourselves to get going.
First we donned our jackets and lowered our backpacks from the bear cables. Then we crammed our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks, and crammed those sacks into our packs. Then we shouldered the packs and headed away from LeConte Shelter on the Boulevard Trail.
Within a matter of minutes we came to High Top, the loftiest of
What High Top does provide in the way of sightseeing is the tall rock pile pictured below, which has been erected over the years by hikers adding stones when they arrive. Some say this has been done in an effort to make LeConte even taller, so that its elevation will surpass that of Clingman’s Dome. Others say it has been done to honor an ancient Cherokee custom which holds that people should add stones to rock piles they pass, in order to placate evil spirits.
Continuing on, we were only a third of a mile from the shelter when we reached the spot where the Boulevard Trail turns left and heads downhill, while a side path goes straight and uphill to another of LeConte’s peaks: Myrtle Point. And for the record, Myrtle Point is what you would expect of a peak -- narrow, rocky, and obviously high, to the point of being dizzying. If you ever spend a night on LeConte, you may want to know that Myrtle Point is known as the best place on the mountain to watch the sunrise.
Although we were still in a cloud, we could not turn down the opportunity to stand atop Myrtle Point after coming this far, so we set off on the side path and hoped the cloud would somehow blow away or burn off in the next few minutes. We found that the side path is not so much a path, but the actual rocky spur that forms the peak:
The cloud cover did not dissipate like we had hoped, but it did grow thinner and we were able to make out a faint but expansive view to the north:
Encouraged that the clouds seemed to be on their way out, we scrambled back down Myrtle Point to resume our course on the Boulevard Trail. Along the way we encountered a pair of ladies who had stayed at LeConte Lodge the previous night. One of them showed us a picture she had taken of a black bear that showed up at the lodge around dinner hour. As it turned out, the bear was featured on the lodge’s blog the very next day.
Back on the Boulevard Trail, we descended steadily down the eastern side of LeConte’s massif until we reached a ledge that juts out over a big drop. Here I am on it:
Standing there and looking back up whence we had come, it was obvious that we were leaving the cloud behind. Wisps of vapor drifted by just above us, raking through the trees, but below us were open skies. The trail continued a short ways to the following rock face, where we took advantage of one of those steel cables that are bolted into the mountainside at many places on LeConte:
After crossing the rock face and looking back, this is the view to which we were treated:
From that point forward we were walking not merely on the Boulevard Trail, but on The Boulevard itself: The 2½-mile ridgeline connecting
This stretch was the most glorious of our whole trip. The skies were blue and the vistas boundless. The temperatures were cold and dry, not frigid and damp. And the walking, while not always level, was also not difficult because the ups and downs were wonderfully modest.
Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. At some point the trail started ascending without leveling off. Suddenly we were trudging not merely upward, but continuously upward, and steeply upward, and having already traveled a long distance while lugging a lot of weight, my muscles screamed in protest.
For the next ¾ mile or so all we did was climb the northwestern flank of
Those 2.7 miles are the state line between
This proved to be the most technically demanding stretch of our entire adventure. We seemed to walk slower and slower and get shorter and shorter of breath, but when we started seeing casually dressed people with kids in tow, we knew we were nearing the parking lot at Newfound Gap. Finally it came into view, and I swear the sight of a parking lot has never felt so good. We sat down and guzzled Gatorade, feeling victorious and whipped all at the same time.
I went back over to the trailhead where we had emerged, and snapped a picture of the sign that greets everyone who steps into the woods at that point.
Twenty minutes later we were driving to the town of
In closing, here is a picture of LeConte's massif, taken from the Appalachian Trail looking back to the north: