Tennessee Part III: Climbing Mount LeConte

This is Part III of our trip to Tennessee. For part I go here

Photographs taken July 12, 2017

For our fifth and final day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park we wanted to climb Mount LeConte, the third tallest peak in the park. We woke up before sunrise to a silent campground, stars still shining in the sky. We rolled up our sleeping pads and tent, and heated water for coffee and a warm breakfast of hikers granola. The sun was just starting to rise as we began the long drive across the park back to Trillium Gap Trailhead.

There were a few cars at the trailhead, but nothing compared to the crowds from the day before. As we started across the parking lot we noticed a large trailer with a sign saying there were llamas taking supplies up to the lodge on top of the mountain. I had heard about this before coming, and we looked forward to seeing them!

It didn't take long: early into the hike we crossed paths with one of the llamas and its wrangler.

He was being led back to the trailer after acting skittish on his first trip up the mountain.  
When we arrived at Grotto Falls we stopped to chat with a family that made it there before us. They were impressed that we were attempting the climb to the summit, wished us good luck, and went on their way back to the trailhead. We took the opportunity to enjoy the Falls before it got busier later. 

Grotto Falls is a very serene waterfall; it is the only waterfall in the National Park you can walk behind, and it is home to a number of salamander species. I can see why it is such a popular destination.

The trail beyond Grotto Falls does not see as much traffic as the first stretch, so the path becomes considerably more rough. We took a short break at Trillium Gap to eat a small snack and take in our surroundings. At this point the trail split, one route going to our destination, and the other was a short .2 miles to Brushy Mountain. 

Getting back on the trail, we spotted a deer that was standing straight ahead of us. As we moved towards it, it just ignored us. The deer we were used to in Missouri and Michigan all run as soon as they hear you, so this seemed unusual. We just kept moving forward, and eventually it stepped aside for us to pass.  

From there the trail to the summit grew progressively tighter and more difficult. The hike was long, but beautiful. We occasionally caught glimpses of our destination, until a heavy mist set in about two thirds of the way up

As we neared the end of our assent, less than a mile left, we spotted another deer on the side of the trail. We crept forward quietly as to not startle it, but as I rounded the corner I saw a large black mass with a tan muzzle ahead of us. It was a bear, maybe 30 ft away in the middle of the trail! I startled, the deer skittered away, and the bear lumbered off the way it had come. After collecting ourselves we remembered that we were supposed to be making noise, so we talked loudly and hit rocks together the rest of the way up. 

Weary from the hike, and the crash that follows a rush of adrenaline, we finally reached LeConte Lodge.

The lodge is a privately owned historic site, predating the National Park it is in. Sitting just below the summit of Mount LeConte at 6360 ft, the only way to get to the lodge is by hiking. This is why pack llamas are used to bring supplies up.

The llama pack that had made the trip earlier that day was resting nearby. After refilling our water and having some lunch, we went to see them.

As one of their wranglers fed them carrots and pancakes from the lodge mess hall, he told us they use two alternating groups of llamas to bring supplies to the lodge three times a week. In another hour this group would make the journey down and get a couple days of rest before having to make the trip again.

Our final destination was close, so we bid the llamas farewell, and began the last climb towards the peak of Mount LeConte. Atop the mountain at last, we added our stone to the cairn, claiming our place among those that had come before us.

Though the woods on the peak blocked our view, there were spectacular vistas from the trails surrounding it. 

Between the summit and the LeConte Lodge we found another Appalachian shelter. Multiple signs were posted warning hikers that black bears are very active in the area, and that there had been several fatal attacks. 

Aside from some light rain and distant thunder, the hike back to the trailhead was pretty uneventful. We passed a few others that had taken on the mountain, and when we reached Trillium Gap we were told that there had been another bear sighting minutes before we arrived.

As expected, Grotto Falls was bustling when we got back. We were so exhausted and sore we just kept pushing through the stream of newcomers until we got to our car. Proud of our accomplishment, we drove to Knoxville for the last leg of our trip.

We stayed in Old City in a giant loft above a coffee shop. As we pulled into the parking lot we were unsure of what we were getting into, but it didn’t matter; we just wanted to shower and relax. 

We ate at the Old City Wine Bar across the street, where we shared some delicious small plates and a bottle of wine. It was nice to have a meal that didn’t involve peanut butter or trail mix!

We headed back up to the loft, and fell asleep as soon as we hit the bed. The area looked really cool, but exploring would have to wait. 

Thank you for reading about our adventure! Part IV will be coming out next week, but in the meantime follow my Instagram account for more photos from this trip, and my Facebook page to get updates on what I’m doing now. I have prints for sale on my Etsy store, so be sure to check that out too!

Continue reading Part IV here