Hiking Mount LeConte

top of Mount LeConte.jpg

One of the most fun things I've ever done? Hike to the top of Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It's one of those rare places with no roads leading to it, only hiking trails, the shortest of which is five-and-a-half miles one-way. If you're in really good shape, you can hike up and down the mountain in a day, but most people opt to stay at the lodge atop the mountain. The kicker? Bunks sell out quickly, so you have to book your stay usually a year in advance. Popular place for no electricity.

Our group of six woke up about an hour before sunrise. With 6.7 miles ahead of us, we filled up on pancakes and coffee before leaving the trailhead. The first several miles were a slow and steady trod as we eased up the mountain. We crossed paths with a few people who hoped to make it to the waterfall, about 2.7 miles up the trail, and an older couple who walked a few feet up the trail to simply see the stream. To begin with, the forest felt almost otherworldly with the babbling stream, birds chirping and leaves glistening overhead, and damp leaves muddled beneath our feet. Before we knew it, we were the only hikers to be seen for miles.

We took our time as we made our way up, trading turns sharing our favorite stories and Netflix recommendations and learning about each others' lives. We also traded turns leading the pack and bringing up the rear, shuffling in an Indian run-turned-hike of sorts.

The further up we went, the brighter the trees seemed to glow, and the tireder we got, despite the fact that we were taking small steps and frequent breaks. We took turns once more, trading snacks and encouraging words when we each struggled with something different—trembling legs, pounding hearts, exhausted bodies, shortness of breath.

I knew we were getting close when the leaves started disappearing and the tree limbs became twisted and wild. We were greeted with hot chocolate and coffee when we reached the top, a welcome respite in the 40-degree weather.

We stretched and rocked on the porch of our cabin while we waited for dinner—roast, carrots, potatoes, and wine served communal-style. During dinner, we met a man in his 70s who had hiked to the top of LeConte more than a dozen times, but who never thought he'd make it back after a car accident debilitated him years earlier. Fortunately for us, he made it back up, otherwise we may never have heard his story of a LeConte staff member who was renowned for making it down the mountain in half an hour to get a six pack of beer and hiking back up in less than two hours. (!!!)

Dinner ended just in time for sunset, which was truly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. The national park stretched for miles upon miles westward, so all we could see were smoky mountains bathed in pink and gold in every direction. That night, we all slept like bugs in rugs while kerosene warmed our cabin.

The next morning, we ate a hearty breakfast and took a cheesy (but essential) group photo before embarking down the mountain. We took a longer (8-mile) but flatter trail down, which followed a ridge much of the way.

Midway down, our trail joined the Appalachian, which helped invigorate our tired steps. I think we were all mesmerized by hiking just a few of the 2,200-mile pinnacle (and somewhat dumbfounded that anyone would be able to thru-hike the entire thing...although I, for one, daydream of doing just that).

Would I hike Mount LeConte again? Absolutely! In a heartbeat.

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travelStephanie Kirkland