Hike to Mount LeConte
By Steve Huffman
MOUNT LECONTE, Tenn. ó We arrived at the Icewater Spring shelter in the early afternoon of Friday, Nov. 6. It was a gorgeous day, the temperature in the mid-60s and the sky clear.
Darn exceptional weather to be deep inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a couple of my hiking companions reminded me, especially considering the time of year. Someone was looking out for us.
The three-sided (and a huge tarp had been draped across its one open end) shelter there at Icewater Spring, located along the Appalachian Trail, sleeps 16. There’s no charge for its use, but reservations made through the National Park Service are required of those spending the night. One over-nighter (he’d driven from Cincinnati, he said) had already taken up residence by the time we arrived.
“It’s a bear vending machine,” he said, motioning in the direction of the shelter. “They know this is where to come to get food.”
Well, at one time, maybe.
But efforts are being made to deter visits by the black bears, which are generally harmless though regarded as overgrown pests. Behind the shelter, strung from one tree to another, was a large cable. Hanging from that cable were smaller ones with hooks attached. These smaller cables extended to the ground and operated off pulleys. Signs advised (though “ordered” might be a better word) campers to put their food in pouches and hoist them up the cables before going to bed.
The height kept the food out of reach of the bears and discouraged a middle-of-the-night visit by Boo-Boo or one of his buddies.
For the record, my weekend backpacking excursion came at the invite of my next-door neighbor, Joseph Cataldo. Joseph goes to church with Fred Bryan, Ed Muire and Chris Borre, all accomplished hikers. The three are each lean and mean and can traverse a rocky mountain trail like nobody’s business, in the process hardly so much as breaking a sweat.
I hate them so.
Group members had apparently planned the weekend hike ó following the first night’s stop at the Icewater shelter we proceeded on Saturday another five miles to the top of Mount LeConte ó and told Joseph he could tag along if he could find someone who plodded along at his pace so they wouldn’t feel obligated to stop every 10 minutes to wait for him. This explains my invite.
We left Rowan County on Friday morning and stopped in Marion to pick up Fred’s brother, Greg (another member of the “lean-and-mean” club), then headed west. The Appalachian Trail crosses Newfound Gap Road just west of Cherokee and just inside Tennessee. It’s a beautiful place.
The hike to the Icewater shelter was relatively easy, only about three miles, though a steady uphill climb. We killed time that afternoon, then built a campfire. The sunset over the mountains was spectacular.
The shelter doesn’t include much in the way of amenities. It’s got two levels ó an upper and lower ó of platforms for sleeping. If you’re a stickler for privacy I’d recommend a Holiday Inn. It was cool but not unbearable that night, frost on the grass at dawn a sign that the temperature had dropped below freezing.
From the Icewater shelter, the Boulevard Trail ó an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail ó leads to Mount LeConte. The elevation change along the five-mile trail is a little more than 1,000 feet. It’s not a bad stroll until hikers near the summit where the incline grows markedly steeper. The shelter atop the mountain is similar to that at Icewater Spring. The sleeping accommodations are almost identical as are the cables designed to keep food out of the reach of neighborhood bears.
Also atop Mount LeConte (an elevation of a little more than 6,500 feet) is the LeConte Lodge, a series of small cabins available for rent. The lodge is open from March through the week of Thanksgiving. The only way to access the lodge is on foot and the shortest ó and steepest ó hike is via the Alum Cave Trail, which measures five miles. The lodge is supplied by either helicopter or llama (they’re not as tough as horses on the heavily traveled trails leading up the mountain).
The cabins are popular, often booked as much as a year in advance.
There’s no electricity or indoor toilets. It reminds me of what I think a village from the mid-1800s might resemble. The shelter where members of my entourage spent the night is two-tenths of a mile uphill from the cabins.
I’d heard of Mount LeConte for years though this marked my first visit.
I’d like to say something remarkable happened, but I’d be lying. It was a pretty three-day hike and the sunsets alone were worth the effort that went into climbing the mountain. I’m also a big believer that everyone needs to step out of his or her comfort zone on occasion and shake things up a bit.
A weekend spent backpacking is enough to do the trick for me.
We didn’t even see any bears, though there was plenty of bear poop (Joseph informed me that the official word for the excrement is “skat”) along the trails. Maybe the cables at the shelters are doing their job and the bears are going elsewhere to dine.
Freelance writer Steve Huffman lives in Spencer.