It’s not for everybody.
Climbing up almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain over 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave Trailhead to the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte on a damp day, only to spend the night in a primitive cabin before hiking back down the next morning.
Fortunately, everybody doesn’t want to do it. Just the 10 best hiking friends did on this occasion, and we had a great time talking, laughing, catching up and getting to know each other better.
I’ve made the 10-mile round-trip hike to Mount LeConte in the same day maybe 15 times–I can’t remember–but I’ve made the overnight version of the hike three times. Obviously, spending the night gives you a looong rest break in the middle of that hike. More important, it gives you time to see the sun set on the tallest mountaintop in Tennessee.
Getting an overnight cabin isn’t easy. Demand far exceeds nightly capacity of about 35-40. The Park Service basically awards the slots by lottery, which you enter by emailing your preferences for dates and hiking party on a deadline the year before your planned outing. In November, the overnight slots–all of them–for the following year are awarded.
So, I learned in November 2017 that Bill and I were chosen for a 10-person cabin slot in October 2018. I emailed a couple dozen friends who hike and, within about 24 hours, we had our party of 10.
Besides Bill and me, we would be joined by four couples who are friends from church. Of course, since November 2017, I took a new job that took Bill and me to Chattanooga in June. So we don’t go to church with these eight friends, anymore, and that made the opportunity to climb Mount LeConte and spend the night there with them even more special.
We began at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16 having breakfast with Ann and Jim Wallace–Jim, who found us the realtor who sold our Knoxville house within 24 hours–and Joe and Carol Ottaviano, all of whom we’d been going to church with for years but had never gone with for a hike. The six of us then met up with Thomas and Danielle Walker–Danielle, the incomparable pastor to families at Grace Presbyterian–and Jeremy and Ashley Akers. Jeremy and Ashley are friends of Thomas and Danielle and they stepped in when Ben and Megan Brooks–whose children I used to teach in Sunday school at Grace–found out about a month before the planned outing that they couldn’t go.
We got all the gear and hikers into two vehicles and headed for the trail, which is more popular than usual in October, when Great Smoky Mountains National Park is teeming with tourists looking for fall color. By the time we reached the trailhead at 9 a.m., a parking lot with about 30 spaces already was full, along with a second one of the same size, and we got two of the last roadside spots filling up.
I miss seeing these special people at least once a week at church–and Jeremy and Ashley were the delightful people I knew they would have to be as friends of Thomas and Danielle. We made the requisite before-hike group photo and set off.
Since summer didn’t know when to quit this year and it takes sunny days and cool nights to set the process of autumn color in motion, there hadn’t been sufficient time for the color to bloom. But nobody can know that months or even the year before, when plans are being made for traveling from out of town or out of state to visit the national park.
So, when it’s necessary to commit well in advance, you take what you get when your time comes.
It was an especially good stroke of luck that everyone who joined Bill and me was new to the overnight experience. As much as I love it, it’s a treat to be with people as they discover the fun of sleeping on that mountaintop for the first time.
It was cool and damp and drizzly as we pushed off, and the first leaf color didn’t appear until we reached the halfway point at Alum Cave Bluff. We had gained about 1,500 feet of elevation in 2.2 miles and were sitting at 4,950 at the bluff.
It’s an impressive stone formation more than eight stories high and, thanks to the Park Service completely rehabbing the trail over two years starting in 2015, there are steps to help you navigate a short, steep slope–that I remember going up practically on all fours–as you approach the bluff.
After lunch and the requisite photos, we got back to the hike and the steeper second half of the trail.
We went over the sections that are single-file over slick rock, where you use metal cable to hang on and secure your footing.
We looked out, mostly into the fog that is the clouds you’d have seen from the road below, and tried to make out landmarks on the horizon.
The drizzle turned into a light rain, and ponchos and pack covers were pulled out to keep wet from getting wetter.
We arrived at LeConte Lodge about 3 p.m. and got the keys to our cabin, where coffee cups were waiting for us to take to the dining hall and help ourselves to hot drinks. Before that, though, we turned on the propane space heaters in the cabin and everybody made use of the wall-mounted clothes rack to dry the wet stuff.
Dinner was the tried-and-true beef roast, ample vegetables, cornbread wedges and gigantic chocolate chip cookies, served at 6 p.m., right as rain. Outside, rain still fell lightly. Between the cloudy skies and the hour, dark would come shortly after the meal.
The main lodge building housed a large, propane-powered heater, and it seemed everyone spending the night was gathered around the heater to swap stories, play cards, or both.
In a situation without wifi or electric power, good old-fashioned conversation and good company was the order of the day. I enjoyed my share, then decided to venture the half-mile or so out to a landmark overlook–Cliff Tops–where, ordinarily, the view pays off your climb as it feels like you’re looking down on the world from the top of it.
But it was as expected on this night: raining, blustery and getting dark fast. I wasn’t looking for a great view, or anything, really; though I was reminded strongly of a solo outing I made there more than five years ago, when I carried my troubles up the mountain and was met at Cliff Tops by a raven who it seemed had come there to take some of those troubles off my mind.
The next morning, the weather was much-improved. The rain was gone and the sun was trying to shine. Over a mountain of pancakes and protein, everybody shared how they had passed the night.
Danielle, who doesn’t like a hard bed, said the one she and Thomas slept on caused her to toss or turn every few minutes all night. “Like a rotisserie chicken,” she said, “and I’m like crispy, this morning.”
Carol decided to try climbing down the ladder of her bunk bed facing outward, and when she missed the last step and crashed to the floor, I, apparently, was the only one who didn’t hear it.
In fact, Bill and I slept in twin beds in the “parlor” of the cabin, which was a high-traffic area all night as folks walked outside and the 100 yards away to the only flush toilets on the compound. I apparently also slept through Jim being forced to knock on the cabin door after getting locked out on his nocturnal trip down the path.
Ann, who said she “really missed” a hot shower, said the trip crossed an item off her bucket list. For good.
On our way back down the mountain, we detoured out to Cliff Tops. A layer of clouds rested in the valley below, but the clear skies we stood under promised a good-weather descent. And it was.
Landmarks and scenery obscured the day before were on beautiful display.
We’d looked forward to the outing for almost a year, and everything about it was worth the wait.
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