Living in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mt. Leconte has almost legendary status. While not the tallest or even the most difficult, Leconte is “the” mountain to climb. The mountain, complete with 3 distinct peaks, is easily seen and identified from town.
My first journey to the top, by way of the Alum Cave trail, occurred in 2006 with my parents. Best I recall, we hiked the day after my first date with the scruffy nerf-herder that would become my darling love. Since then, I’ve hiked each of the 6 different trails that lead to the top. I’ve tackled the trails just Jay and I, and on other occasions with friends. Of course, on a couple of occasions, he’s been social enough to hike with friends.
Until this past fall, my parents had yet to make another trip to the top. When presented with the opportunity to stay overnight in the lodge, we all jumped at the chance. Leconte Lodge books a year in advance and reservations are difficult to come by. The single room cabins have no electricity or running water, but rather an oil lamp, a kerosene heater, and an outhouse.
We hiked to the top via the Boulevard trail and dropped a car at the Alum Cave trailhead so that we could hike the shorter route down the next day. Jay and I have taken the Boulevard trail (8 miles one direction) twice previously, both in extreme weather conditions. Several years ago we hiked on the Martin Luther King Jr holiday, with snow up to our shins. Before our trip to Scotland to hike the West Highland Way, we hiked the 16-mile round trip trail in the pouring rain as a training hike. Despite these less than ideal conditions, the trail earned its spot as my favorite way to reach the summit of Mt. Leconte.
I continue to be amazed at what troopers my parents proved to be this past October when we hit the trail. I’ll never tell a lady’s age, but both of them are north of retirement age so their efforts and awesomeness cannot be overstated. About a half-mile from the top, near the lodge area, we passed a group of younger hikers. One girl (I’d guess to be in her 20s) looked at my parents and said “How did YOU do this? This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!”
While they crashed hard when we arrived at the cabin, they agreed to hike just a bit more to Cliff Tops to see the sunset. Exhausted and chilled to the bone, my parents immediately turned the kerosene heater in the cabin and claimed the bottom bunk bed. In the middle of the night, I awoke sweating. With no true gauge of how hot the top bunk truly was, I’d swear to it being 90s degrees up there. I got out of bed, wearing as little as appropriate for sharing a room with your parents, and turned the heater off.
For varied reasons, no one else slept well that night either. Awake before my alarm, I gathered my things for the 0.75-mile hike to Myrtle Point. We decided the night before the extra mileage would be worth seeing sunrise on the mountain. Headlamps on and flashlights in hand, we hiked in the dark. We made it to the point with plenty of time to spare and had the honor of being the first to arrive. My parents had never done this portion of the trail, and I knew my father wouldn’t be happy when the sun came up and he saw just how much of a drop off was on either side.
We missed the morning coffee service while watching the sunrise, but upon returning to the cabin enjoyed the hot breakfast. Jay had the cabin for two nights, so we had the cabin a bit longer than most. We decided to eat lunch, then head down the trail. Some friends of ours (clients of Jay’s) started their hike that morning and would be there in time for dinner. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the second day off work, so I hiked down with my parents.
Before we did that, however, we crawled back into our respective bunk beds for a bit of a nap. We filled our bellies then headed down Alum Cave. 2020 saw a huge uptick in visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Alum is one of the more popular trails. I started counting people we encountered on the trail, and quickly grew weary of the task. By the end, I had counted approximately 700 people on the 5 miles of trail.
A member or two of my hiking party struggled on the way down. Still pooped from the day before, the steep decline did no favors for their sexagenarian joints. I got a little annoyed at the pace and the frequency of breaks, not to mention all the people on the trail. In an effort to be considerate hikers, we pulled off the trail to help people pass. However, at several points in the trail that’s all it felt like we did. Instead of being annoyed, I tried to remind myself what a blessing the experience was. Not only are my parents alive and healthy, but also share my enjoyment of the mountains.
The prompt for this post came courtesy of the Five Minute Friday link-up prompt for the week: Sunrise. Full disclosure, however, this post took a bit more than the standard 5 minutes to write. I’m incredibly thankful for the prompt which encouraged me to get this memory in writing.