In the 1920’s, before any national parks existed in the Eastern part of the country, visionaries from Washington climbed the 6,300 foot peak to Mt. Le Conte and perceived the vast spectacle of what they would later name the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As we gazed at the same wondrous vista of rugged peaks and forested ridges, we understood their resolve.
Our adventure had begun when I’d turned the page on my calendar and seen the note “book Le Conte Lodge”. “Why did I write that?” I wondered. After a quick Google, I remembered that it is one of the country’s only hike-to inns. Each night from March to November, about sixty guests make the arduous climb to sleep in roughly hewn cabins. Despite the primitive conditions and challenging journey, most of the reservations are filled as soon as the yearly booking process begins.
So the following May, my husband and I headed out. The Rainbow Trail, one of four to choose from, begins incongruously a few miles outside of Dollywood, Tenn. One minute you’re looking out the car window at plastic flower bouquets, the next you’re admiring rhododendrons. Sturdy walking sticks that considerate hikers had abandoned at the trailhead awaited us. The day was sunny and warm. We removed layers of clothing as we went. Two hours in, a beautiful waterfall was a picture-perfect picnic stop.
We were luckier than some previous hikers who recounted rain “…got caught in a torrential downpour with about 1 mile left…we struggled though the last mile soaking wet, slipping on rocks…” or bears “Saw three different bears… They were not a threat, just looking for a free meal.” Some hikers had telescoping ski poles and rugged hiking boots, and matching Patagonia ensembles. Others like us, had shorts and t-shirts and running shoes. The rocky, relentlessly steep path was challenging for everyone. By the fifth hour, we were happy to see the rustic lodge ahead, ramshackle though it is.
Jack Huff began the lodge as a tent camp in 1926, before the National Park was established, where he and his wife lived until 1960. Their story is one of our country’s great pioneering tales. Everything had to be brought up by pack mule. Jack even carried his invalid mother up the mountain in a specially built chair strapped to his back. His vision was to create an authentic experience for adventurous visitors.
Today there is still no electricity, hot water, or telephones, and llamas still bring up supplies. A stay at the lodge begins with a quick orientation and a bucket. From the communal spigot we took water to our bunkhouse to clean up. There was hot coffee, hot chocolate and rocking chairs on the porch to take in the views. Peak after peak of forested mountains and rocky summits surrounded us in every direction. Not a sign of civilization until nightfall when we could see the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg on the horizon.
At the communal dinner table, we met our fellow travelers of various ages and fitness levels. One woman barked at my husband “Don’t talk to me. I’m exhausted” but most were friendly. Everyone told stories of other outdoor adventures. Some had been to the lodge numerous times. The food reminded me of my high school cafeteria but plentiful. Fortunately, we had the “bottomless” glass of wine. The sleeping accommodations include one-room cabins or larger ones like we had with a shared area surrounded by bunk rooms for two. There was a propane heater, which we needed even in May, and plenty of blankets and pillows. The bathrooms have flush toilets but no showers.
The next morning we savored the setting before starting the surprisingly challenging downward hike. The lodge had packed us a lunch and refilled our water bottles. By the time we reached Dollywood, we were sweaty, tired and happy to enjoy the Hard Rock Café’s AC. Tall cool margaritas in hand, we toasted our accomplishment and Mt. Le Conte: One of the Southeast’s greatest adventures.
For 2012 reservations, visit www.leconte–lodge.com. Fill out the form on the website beginning in August to put your request into the lottery for reservations beginning Oct. 3. Or call or email starting Oct. 3.
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