GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS, Tenn.
Some people go to great lengths to escape Florida's summer heat. • I go to great heights — 6,593 feet above sea level to be exact, to LeConte Lodge at the summit of Mount LeConte. • LeConte is not a lodge in the sense of the grand hotels out West with soaring great rooms and two-story picture windows. • It is more a shelter-from-the-elements lodge with no electricity, no showers, no room service. A lodge that lists "chair," "pillow" and "bucket" among its amenities. A lodge accessible only by foot, with a hike of at least 5 miles just to get there. • But LeConte also offers its guests something unique: a sense of physical accomplishment and a closeness to nature that even out-of-shape city types can appreciate.
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I have made LeConte my summer escape five times over the past three years, dragging with me an assortment of friends and relatives. I am not a native Floridian, and every June seems hotter than the last. LeConte boasts that the temperature on top of the mountain never breaks 80 degrees, even on the warmest days of summer. To a woman sweltering in St. Petersburg, 80 sounds like heaven.
I first hiked LeConte when I was about 8, a family trip with some friends. I don't remember much about that visit, though my mother certainly must have, and she must not have recalled it fondly. I didn't see the top of LeConte again until I organized a weekend outing with girlfriends a few years ago.
Not much had changed in my absence.
There are still five trails — and no roads — that lead to the top. My first trip was up the Alum Cave trail, and I've used that route to ascend ever since. At 5 miles, it is the shortest, though steepest, way to the top, with an elevation gain of 2,560 feet from trailhead to summit.
It also is by many accounts one of the prettiest trails in the Smokies; you'll see why just steps from the parking lot. The trail crosses Walker Camp Prong over a wooden bridge, the first of many photo ops. The creek is typical Smokies — fast-moving water rushing around and over rocks of all shapes and sizes — but the surrounding scenery changes with the season. In spring, it fairly glows with the green of new growth. In summer, the lush green laurel that borders the creek and the trail blooms with softball-sized flowers of white and pale pink. Later months bring fall's palette of yellows, oranges and reds and, in winter, snow.
At lower elevations, the trail is a gentle introduction to new hikers, and to those of us who have spent winter months at sea level. Usually by the time I reach the bluffs for which the trail is named — not quite half the distance to the lodge — my burning thighs remind me of last summer's pledge to get in shape before the next trip. (I have yet to follow through.)
The trail is decidedly more difficult past the bluffs. In places, cables anchored to the rock face are a welcome help over a rocky path more fit for goat than human, and some steps cut into the rocks are tough for short legs or bad knees.
Luckily, slow and steady works just fine. I have hiked with both my 4-year-old son and my 72-year-old father, as well as friends of various ages and fitness levels. While some reached the top more quickly than others, we all made it eventually.
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The lodge is far from grandiose, yet still a comforting sight. After hours on the trail, any thoughts of "This is it?" are overwhelmed by "I made it!" and "Food!" Two larger weathered buildings, the dining hall and the office, are set among a cluster of seven cabins and three larger sleeping lodges that can accommodate a total of 60 guests a night. Every building has a porch with rocking chairs, and that's where you'll find many hikers, reading or dozing. Sign in at the office and take your time looking at the walls. They're covered with photos old and new, stories of famed LeConte visitors and a huge map with dozens of pins marking guests' hometowns. Also check out the log book, where each hiker notes his hometown and number of trips to LeConte. Many guests are repeat customers; some have come for 30 years or more. The large office is crowded with more rocking chairs, a wood-burning stove and tables for cards or board games (a sizable collection is stacked neatly in the corner). Here is where the action is once the sun goes down.
Upon arrival, though, the office is where you pick up two of the more valuable things for your stay: a wash bucket and a key to the outhouse with flush toilets (otherwise it's a longer walk to pit privies at the edge of the property). One of the crew members will show you to your home for the night, either a one-bedroom cabin or a two- or three-bedroom lodge. All feature double-bed-sized bunk beds covered with thick wool blankets and come equipped with kerosene lamps, propane heaters and the promised chair and pillow. Opening the windows lets in the cool mountain air, but also any red squirrels (called "boomers") or smaller rodents (the screens are designed to keep out bears, though luckily they've never been tested during one of my stays). The wildlife I usually spot is on the smaller side: squirrels, birds, salamanders, snakes and the occasional deer.
Afternoons are a time to relax in the rocking chairs, take a nap in your cabin or hang out in the office chatting with other guests. In good weather, and once your feet have recovered, a couple of short hikes lead to breathtaking, bird's-eye views of the national park and perhaps a wildlife sighting or two. Within half an hour of our arrival one year, my sons joined in a raucous game of tag with other young hikers, there with more than 20 relatives to celebrate a granddad's 80th birthday. You'll get to know more of your fellow hikers at dinner, announced with the clanging of an iron triangle at 6 p.m. each night.
Meals are served family style in the dining hall, with each group assigned to one of the tables of eight (if you have a smaller party, you'll share a table with other guests). What comes next is no surprise if you've been to the lodge before, because the menu never changes. In fact, it's laminated and hangs in the lodge office. A peach half, warm corn bread and a creamy soup start things off, followed soon after by pot roast, mashed potatoes, green beans, baked apples and giant chocolate chip cookies. The crew takes requests (with a little notice) to accommodate vegetarian diets and special occasions (my son Tom celebrated his 7th birthday with chocolate cake and sprinkles). A bottomless glass of wine is available during the dinner hour — and, trust me, at this altitude, you won't need much.
After supper on clear days, most hikers wander up two-tenths of a mile to Cliff Tops, the west side of the summit. There you're treated to fantastic sunsets over layer upon layer of mountains — that is, if you're lucky. This being the Smokies, clear days aren't exactly common. Some hikers come year after year and never see the sun from the mountaintop.
Early risers get a second chance come morning. A short trail leads to Myrtle Point on the east side, a perfect place to welcome the sunrise. The hike is a little spooky — it feels like eyes are watching you all around in the darkness — but the experience is well worth a few what-was-that moments. (You also pass an Appalachian Trail shelter along the way; one glance inside and you'll understand how a pillow and a wash basin can be considered noteworthy amenities.)
Breakfast is at 8, and the lodge sends you off with a stomach full of pancakes, biscuits, eggs, Canadian bacon and grits. After a stop at the office to buy a T-shirt (a must-have; they're available only at the lodge and feature a new design each year) and a photo session on the dining hall steps (where the date and elevation are displayed), it's time to head home.
Tired, and definitely in need of a shower, you can't help but feel a little pride when passing day hikers at the lower elevations. "You stayed at the lodge?" they say, noticing the new T-shirt (or possibly the smell).
Every summer, it's the same. And every summer, after a hot shower and several sessions to stretch out calf muscles I didn't know I had, it's the same too: By next year's trip, I'll definitely be in shape.
B Buckberry Joyce is the Times' Lifestyles news editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8113.