The elk battle we had witnessed was behind us by 30 minutes, 3,000 vertical feet, and 15½ miles of winding road by the time we reached Newfound Gap. Mike parked the car and I stepped out into a cold drizzle, almost a mile above sea level and directly on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. If not for the fact we were in the clouds, we would have been treated to a magnificent view of the mountains.
The bill of my baseball cap kept the raindrops far enough from my eyes that I felt no need to squint as I looked for the red van, which was supposed to shuttle us to the trailhead where our journey was to start. Sure enough, I saw it waiting about 60 feet away, over by the trailhead where our journey was to end.
The driver introduced herself as Samantha. Before long, my hiking partners and I had piled our stuff into the van and were listening to her talk about bear encounters as she drove us down the north slopes of the Smokies. Mike’s car remained locked in Newfound Gap’s parking lot, stocked with Gatorade and beer and waiting for our eventual return.
It was not raining where Samantha dropped us off, but knowing the forecast and knowing we were likely to hike back into the clouds, we opted to sheath our backpacks in rain covers. After finding somebody kind enough to take the following picture, we stepped onto the Alum Cave Trail and our adventure began in earnest.
Streams are the trail’s constant companion for its first 1½ miles. Almost immediately we crossed Walker Camp Prong on a wooden bridge and a minute later crossed Alum Cave Creek on another one. The trail travels alongside Alum Cave Creek for about a mile, heading upstream on an easy incline to the point where the creek veers off to the east. As you can see, Mike went right down to its banks to search for the perfect photo spot:
Most people fail to notice Alum Cave Creek’s departure because right as that happens the trail starts to follow one of its tributaries, a stream known as Styx Branch. It crosses Styx Branch four times, and after the third crossing it passes through this interesting geological formation known as Arch Rock:
The arch is actually a hole in the dark slate/sandstone sediment of the Anakeesta Formation. The Anakeesta is sloping in this spot, and as the trail passes under the arch it goes uphill on steps carved into the rock. Here I am climbing them:
On the other side of Arch Rock, the character of the trail changes abruptly. Rather than ascending gently, it does so steeply and continuously while making its way toward the top of
. It often travels along the sides of precipices, in some cases with steel cables bolted into the mountainside for you to hold onto. Mount LeConte
We saw lots of red squirrels scampering about and several times heard their insistent chatter. As you would expect in October, the weather was cool and the forest was bathed in color:
Up to about 4,500 feet there are more deciduous trees than evergreens, but above that the evergreens get larger and more numerous:
Roughly two miles into the hike, the trail swings rightward around the mountain flank and straight ahead is an outcropping called Inspiration Point. The views from there proved that the word “breathtaking” is not always an exaggeration:
Back on the trail, it was about a third of a mile to the landmark which gives it its name.
Bluffs is not a cave, but rather a cliff face that towers 80 feet above the trail and hangs outward. The area beneath it is dry and makes a perfect spot for taking a break and enjoying the view. It is where most people turn around and head back to their cars: Alum Cave
We did take a break there to eat some
, but then we pressed on. The bluffs are at 4,950 feet elevation, while LeConte Shelter -- where we planned to camp that night -- is at 6,440 feet. We still had 2.7 miles left to trail’s end, followed by an additional third of a mile on another trail to reach the shelter. Cliff Bars and swig some water
Above the bluffs, the forest becomes one whose trees are almost all evergreens. Early in our hike we had seen lots of hardwoods, especially yellow birch, but at these higher altitudes the forest is a cathedral of Christmas trees. Red spruce are everywhere and Fraser firs are up here as well. It was wonderful having the aroma of Christmas fill my nostrils for the last couple miles of that day’s hike:
And those last couple miles revealed exactly why LeConte inspires awe. It is not so much its height, but its steepness at that height which impresses. In some places the trail is hewn directly into the side of vertical rock walls. In many places I used my right hand to grip one of those steel cables I mentioned earlier, while my left foot stepped inches from harrowing drops of God knows how many hundreds of feet.
The vistas from the upper reaches of the Alum Cave Trail are said to be among the best in
, and I suspect that is true, but I can not vouch for them because we were hemmed in by view-robbing clouds when we got there. And on top of that it was cold, and on top of that it started raining, so we were happy when the wooden structures of LeConte Lodge suddenly appeared in the mist: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I mentioned the lodge in my last post, but to recap, it is a collection of huts with a central dining room and is accessible only by foot. We made a bee line to the dining room and took advantage of its sack lunch deal: bagel, cream cheese, beef sausage, Musselman’s apple sauce, trail mix, packet of powdered Gatorade, and unlimited coffee and hot chocolate for $9. After the calories we had burned (and after being served by a worker we affectionately dubbed “Mountain Chick”) it felt like we were in a five-star restaurant.
Not long before our trip, Mark’s sister from Minnesota had casually mentioned LeConte Lodge and how she would like to hike to it sometime -- without knowing he even knew what it was, much less had plans to climb the mountain. Naturally, he held back on the specifics of our trip and had us take pictures of him outside the dining room to impress her:
As good as it felt to sit in the warm dining room and rest our aching muscles, it was late in the afternoon and we still had to make it to the shelter and get situated, so we re-shouldered our packs and headed back outside.
Fortunately it was only a quarter-mile from the lodge to the shelter, and because we were now on LeConte’s summit ridge, the walk was level for a change. Along the way we passed a side path to Cliff Top. Of LeConte’s four peaks, it is the one most renowned for sunsets, but we knew there would be no sunset for us because of the thick cloud cover.
The next picture is of the shelter. That’s Tom on the right and Mark on the left, if you can make him out:
This one shows our packs hanging from bear cables outside the shelter:
And this one shows a snail "attacking" Tom’s Glad-bag-wrapped pack before it got hoisted onto the cables:
We ate dinner at the shelter -- some of us cooking on our backcountry stoves and some of us opting for self-heating MRE’s -- but there was something about the lodge being so close that drew us back there. What they call an office is heated by a wood stove, open 24 hours, and much more like a community room than an office. There are tables and chairs and plenty of games sitting on the shelves waiting to be played. And though I don't know if it is there for ambience or actual use, there is an old loom that definitely looks cool:
We hiked back over there and hung out playing cards for a while. One table over from us, a large group of people were engaged in a serious religious discussion while, interestingly enough, drinking liquor from flasks and chugging wine from self-ported bottles.
As the sky grew dark outside, the room grew dim inside because there is no electricity at the lodge. Kerosene lamps served as centerpieces for the tables, and whichever ones people decided to light served as the room’s only illumination. Eventually we called it a night, zipped up our fleeces, pulled on our gloves, turned on our flashlights, and made our way back to the shelter in the dark. It was time to get some rest for the hike that awaited us in the morning.