A Trip to the Past- Visiting LeConte Lodge
By Stephanie Nusbaum, Girls Who Hike North Carolina Ambassador
I have heard a few tales of the mysterious lodge at the top of the Great Smoky Mountains. A place where you step back in time with no electricity, small cabins, kerosene heat, and family style meals.
Leconte Lodge, founded by Jack Huff, was established in 1926 and predates the establishment of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lodge stands near the 6,360 foot summit of Mount LeConte. There is some discrepancy on where the summit gets its name- either from famous geologist Joseph Le Conte, or his brother John Le Conte, a physicist at South Carolina College. Either way, this was a daunting trip. The lodge is so off the beaten path that they can only get supplies by helicopter or llamas!
The only way to reach the lodge is by hiking one of the trails:
Alum Cave is the shortest as 5.5 miles but you do a straight climb 2,560 feet in elevation. You can find the trail head on Hwy 441 near the Chimney Top trail head.
Only a climb of 1,080 feet this trail is 8 miles to the lodge. It can be narrow in spots and follows a ridge or parts. The final ascent is pretty steep from what the other guests stated.
This is the easiest of the hikes. It is a gentle climb of 3,300 feet over 6.5 miles. Also, llamas! On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays the llama train takes up supplies to the lodge. This is subject to change due to weather.
**I did not mention Rainbow Falls trail or Bullhead trail due to them being closed due to restoration Monday thru Thursday or fire/storm damage, respectively.
My boyfriend, David, had spent a night at the lodge when he was young and barley remembered it. He remember the meals, a few people he met there, and eating pancakes.
On a whim we looked into the cancellation list on the website, since the lodge is pretty much sold out when the reservations open in October,and applied the day as soon as possible. We figured that it was worth a try and since we have Mondays off- the waitlist does work on a date system so that you can only put in 3 days you are available. Amazingly we heard back the first day the office was had opened for the season- April 23rd was our date!
We kept our eye on the radar a few days before our trek and was sad to discover that it would be raining the whole time, there was even a wind advisory on our way up, but we decided that no matter what we were going. This did however change our plans on which trail we were taking. Due to the weather we decided to take the Alum Cave trail (The llamas didn’t take the trip due to weather so we didn’t miss them).
Sometimes I think I’m ready for a trip through the mountains and then I get to a climb like Alum Cave and it makes me think otherwise, but we did it! The first leg of the trip wasn’t difficult. It was a mile to a rock formation called Arch Rock, which features a staircase through it. It was slick but not difficult at all, unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the stairs. We experienced them throughout the trail. The hardest steps were the ones before the cave. It was a great place to rest and eat a quick lunch before heading up to the loge. The rain and wind started up so we moved as fast as we could up the mountain with stops for water and a breather whenever we needed it (myself more than my long legged boyfriend).
Finally we made it to the lodge where we were met with friendly faces and a warm space heater. After checking in and being shown around we went to the dining hall for the unlimited coffee and hot chocolate. The best part is that “The lodge will also offer our day hikers beverages: hot chocolate, coffee, and lemonade for $4.00 each and assorted baked goods for $1.00 each from 12:00 – 5:00 pm. (from the LeConte Lodge Website).” You may also purchase a packed lunch for a trip down the mountain or if you’re out exploring.
After warming up we made our way over to the office, due to the rain and wind we weren’t able to hangout outside on our porch. David and I took our wet boots and dried them out in front of the fire while we played board games.
Dinner was promptly at 6 pm. Guests made their way down to the dining hall and were given a table (which you would also sit at during breakfast). We sat with wonderful people, two gentlemen from Alabama and a couple from Houston. The Houston couple had gotten engaged that very day (David and I missed the actual engagement by minutes while we were getting coffee but thankfully she said yes!). It was fun to have a family style meal of pot roast, potatoes, apples, and wine, for $11, was unlimited. There was laughing and merriment throughout the whole night and dinner was a blast.
David and I wanted to take a quick rest before more exploring or at least joining some folks in the office/rec area. That quick rest turned into us sleeping and waking up at 3 am. It was burning up in our cabin! The kerosene space heater only had two modes, off or on, there was no in between, so we opened a window.
We did wake early the next day and enjoyed some coffee with the others before breakfast, also served family style. This was probably my favorite part because I love pancakes! We were also served eggs, bacon, and grits- I promise you will not leave this place hungry!
We, sadly, didn’t stay long after breakfast. It was raining again and we knew it wouldn’t stop any time soon. So down the mountain we went. The trail was mostly a river but much easier going down.
We did a quick stop to dry off at the cave but made it to our car in only a few hours. I was so glad to have purchased a sweatshirt after all the rain. It was so comfy to snuggle up in on the way home.
I was so glad that we were able to get into LeConte Lodge. It was a great experience and one place I definitely plan to visit again, if even on a day hike, with llamas!