November 6, 2015
“There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.”
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Forty-five minutes from my house is a different world: higher precipitation, varied landscapes, animals and fauna found nowhere else in the world, awe-inspiring waterfalls and difficult trails. This place is the Great Smoky National Park.
I have always been intimidated by the Smoky’s, and I’m not sure why. At my job, stories of bear, snake and other encounters are traded with high frequency. Everyone has a Smoky’s story. Several years ago, we took an intern to see Gregory Bald and we encountered a black rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. A black rattlesnake. I didn’t even know rattlesnakes were black. Maybe my own apprehension has kept me at bay from this area.
This entry is my first attempt to hike every trail in the Smoky’s.
The Alum Cave Trail is difficult. The trailhead is at a large parking area off 441 in Tennessee. The first mile is a pleasant romp over bridges, streams and meandering terrain with a slight upward grade. After a mile and a half you encounter Arch Rock, a wonderful rock formation, where the trail ascends a large hole through its center with beautifully crafted steps. From the Rock, the trail starts to climb substantially, crossing Styx Branch. After another half mile there is a wonderful view from Peregrine Peak.
The trail continues to climb for another half mile to Alum Cave Bluff. The minerals found at the Bluff consist of salt, magnesia, alum and Epsom salts (ironic, really), which were mined for much the 19th century.
The Bluffs are the midway point to Mt. LeConte. The trail really starts to ascend upward from there, with tough climbs over wet rocks and steep terrain. As I went upward the clouds and fog began to envelope the area. After 2 miles I saw the Mt. LeConte Lodge, a series of cabins that are rented out to those willing to hike to the summit. A short distance further is the Mount Le Conte Shelter.
The summit of LeConte is my favorite of all the peaks I have hiked in the South Beyond 6000 challenge. There is a no view, but rather it is encased in trees. At the summit is a collection of rocks in a pyramid fashion. The story I have always heard is the Le Conte is the third highest peak in the Smoky’s. Every hiker is supposed to place a rock there, in the hopes of making it higher that Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Park.
As the rain started to pound, and I made my way down the mountain, I kept encountering hiker after hiker. Of all the beautiful scenery and trees and terrain, the best part of this trail was the conversation with other hikers. A smile greeted me at every turn, with people that were so happy to be there. In this day and age, where every time you turn on the news you see some new horrific story of the depravity of mankind, it was wonderful to have so many positive encounters. Perhaps FDR would be happy if he knew that many years later Americans were jointly sharing in this wonderful landscape.
Total mileage is 10 miles.