I’ve been lucky enough to score a night for Jack and I at LeConte Lodge, but somehow my well-laid plans are falling to pieces. Situated on top of Mt. LeConte at 6593 feet, one of the highest peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, LeConte Lodge can only be reached on foot. The lodge is over 6 trail miles from the nearest road, and the weather in the Smokies has taken a turn. Despite last week’s predictions of mainly sunny skies and temperatures in the 40’s, an overnight snowfall has closed the road we intend to drive to our trailhead. We are now faced with 2 1/2 hours to drive the necessary alternate route, as opposed to the 1 hour we had anticipated. In addition, with heavy snow on the trails, another delay ensues as I find and purchase a pair of overpriced gaitors. Frustration sets in – traffic moves slowly through rain and snow showers.
At long last we are on the Rainbow Falls Trail at 1:30 pm and just beginning our 6.6 mile hike, not a great distance, but the elevation gain is 3820 feet and it gets dark at 5:00. It’s amazing how stress melts away the minute we are on the trail. Nonetheless, we move quickly. We start with just a few inches of snow on the trail, passing by green rhododendron bushes and deciduous trees still showing late-fall color. We climb higher and as the snow deepens, the laden vegetation hangs heavily over the trail. The sight of Rainbow Falls is ample reward for our first hour of effort – the water seems to free-fall out of a rocky basin, and the surrounding area is skirted with icicles. We are making good time, but the sky darkens and snow falls harder as we climb. As the snow deepens, I wish for snowshoes. It just hadn’t occurred to us to pack them for a fall hike in the Smokies – big mistake. At 4:30, we trudge through deep snow and start to contemplate hiking the final stretch in darkness. Not necessary – at 5:00 we gratefully arrive at LeConte Lodge, tired and very hungry.
We are shown to our cabin. This is a very cool place and we have one of the original rooms dating from the 1920’s – crooked old floorboards and stone walls, lit by a kerosene lamp, and thankfully heated by a propane heater. A recently installed flush toilet is not operating because of the freezing temperatures – same goes for the running water. Dinner is at 6:00 – hot filling food that tastes amazing. The lodge normally welcomes 50 guests per evening. Tonight, November 23, the last night of their season, there are 12. Everyone else cancelled because of the weather. The “winter warden” arrived today; he will stay alone on top of the mountain at LeConte Lodge until it reopens for business in the spring. He just returned to the U.S. from a National Guard posting in Iraq. I guess LeConte is a good place to decompress.
Back in our room for the night, the heater is making a valiant effort, but the snow has scarcely melted from the tops of our packs. Sleep is a welcome respite after the day’s travel. I am secretly afraid of getting lost in the snow on my way to the outhouse, so when Jack wakes up at 2:00 a.m. for a trip outside, I’m right there with him. Later we discovered that overnight temperatures were around 5 degrees F – nice!
How can I describe how beautiful Mt. LeConte is on a sunny winter morning – trees loaded with snow, clear views in every direction and autumn colour distantly visible below the snow line at the lower elevations. We snap picture after picture with freezing fingers. We meet some local adventurers who tell us they have never seen such spectacular conditions and views as today. We feel privileged. As we hike around in the deep snow on the mountaintop and begin our descent, our thoughts once again turn to our Dual Tracs languishing at home in the bottom of a closet.
Our LeConte Lodge overnight trip was truly one of our most spectacular and rewarding hiking experiences ever, and had we thought of strapping our snowshoes to our packs, our backcountry travel could have been even more efficient and enjoyable. A good lesson learned!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in Tennessee and North Carolina. The park website is http://www.nps.gov/grsm/. LeConte Lodge is extremely popular and is booked for many months in advance. We were lucky to get a reservation for the final night of the season, which runs from March to November http://www.lecontelodge.com/. For early and late season bookings, you might want to consider taking your snowshoes.
Elsewhere in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome Road, which is closed to automobiles in winter, is cited as one of the best places in the park for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and sledding.