Trip Report: Mt. LeConte

Location

Mt. LeConte is in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At an elevation of 6593 feet, it is the third highest peak in the park.

It has been said that Mt. LeConte is the highest mountain above its immediate base east of the Rockies. It rises 5,301 feet from Gatlinburg (1,292 feet above sea level).

Trip Summary

Date November 26, 2005
Distance 14.45 mi (6.01 mi uphill, 7.10 mi downhill, 1.27 mi flat)
Elevation 6459 ft total ascent (4721 ft descent) – 15.2 % uphill grade, 15.2 % downhill grade
Time 8:16:31 total (7:05:25 moving, 1:11:06 stopped)

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Route

From the trailhead on Cherokee Orchard Road, just outside Gatlinburg, I hiked up Mt. LeConte on the Bull Head Trail (5.9 miles long). Near the lodge the trail intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail and the Alum Cave Bluff Trail.

Mt. LeConte’s summit is on a very short spur from the Boulevard Trail.

I returned to the Cherokee Orchard Road trailhead by way of the Rainbow Falls Trail (6 miles long).

Description

I got a late start Saturday morning and that’s never a good thing when you have to drive through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The traffic around the outlet malls was going to be a nightmare, I feared. It usually is, even when it isn’t the day after the day after Thanksgiving.

Surprisingly, the traffic had not yet picked up, so I wasn’t delayed too much. I arrived at the trailhead parking lot at about 9:45 a.m.

As I was lacing up my hiking boots a pickup truck pulled up along side me. A family climbed out and then came a dog.

“Um, you folks know dogs aren’t allowed in the park, don’t you?” I asked.

Apparently they didn’t. They also didn’t put their dog back in the truck, but they didn’t get belligerent.

There were a couple “no dogs” signs around the trailhead, so I was hopeful after I left they would see them and do the right thing.

My plan was to hike up the Bull Head Trail. I liked the idea of a big climb and some decent mileage, but that wasn’t the only reason for choosing that particular trail.

I wasn’t sure what conditions to expect near the top.

As proof of that, take a look at my gear list. I carried a lot more clothing and gear than I needed.

I carried enough insulating layers to keep me warm in temperatures 30 degrees colder than it actually was. I also brought a stove with dry soup mix and hot chocolate mix. I must have had at least five pounds of stuff I didn’t need.

I’ve carried less for a whole weekend outing.

Oh well, at 16 lbs. the pack wasn’t going slow me down.

Though the trail is a constant climb, I didn’t think the grade was that bad. And though I read one trail description that made it sound like it was boulder-strewn, I also didn’t think the treadway was any worse than most trails in the Smokies.

With brief stops once an hour for a gulp of water and a couple handfuls of trail mix, plus a couple Kodak moments, I reached the lodge at the top at 2:00 p.m.

The weather could not have been nicer for late November. It was sunny and a thermometer on the side of the lodge’s office building read 44 degree.

A porch in the sun with some rocking chairs looked like a good place for lunch so I stopped there. Turns out the local squirrels thought it was a nice place for lunch too.

Squirrels that will stop at nothing for your lunch

My lunch.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more aggressive squirrels.

Escaping unscathed, I started looking for the summit. Unfortunately, my Trails Illustrated map wasn’t clear about the summit’s location. As I stopped to consult the map, two guys came along.

They had just come up by way of the Alum Cave Bluff Trail and they said they were looking for the summit too.

But when they headed off to a side trail to Cliff Tops, I knew they were headed in the wrong direction. It was pretty obvious the Boulevard Trail headed up to higher ground.

Just as I passed LeConte Shelter, I ran into two more guys. One said the summit was just ahead.

Summit of Mt. LeConte

The summit wasn’t more than six feet from the trail and clearly marked with a large pile of rocks.

After taking a brief time out at the shelter to finish the lunch I had wrestled from the marauding squirrels, it was getting close to 3:00. I had calculated it would take me 2-and-a-half hours to return to the trailhead, so I had wanted to leave by 3:00 in order to get back to my car before it got too dark.

But as I started out I decided to take a detour to check out Cliff Tops. I was enjoying the views. I had only been to LeConte one previous time and on that trip the weather was so miserable there were no views to enjoy.

Initially, I planned to also return by way of the Bull Head, but near the top on my way up I had met a couple on their way down. They told me they had come up the Rainbow Falls Trail and said it was a good trail coming up and they were going back down that way.

Their response surprised me because I remembered reading about the Rainbow Falls Trail at Summitpost.org. A post there claimed it was not a good route for descending.

The trail was snowier and icier on the way down

For the first thousand feet or so of descent, the trail was not only snow covered, but because of the sinking sun the snow it was becoming crusty. That made the trip down pretty slippery.

I don’t know if it was because of the angle to the sun or because the Rainbow Falls Trail is slightly longer than the Bull Head Trail, but it seemed there was much more snow on the way down than there was on the way up.

Between the sightseeing detour at the top and the longer, icy descent, my trip back down took longer than I had calculated. By the time I neared the bottom it was getting dark enough that I had to concentrate on the trail.

I could have stopped to put on my headlamp, but only the final half-mile or so was getting hard to see.

I arrived back at the car at 6:00, a half-hour later than expected.

Despite a few briefly treacherous moments, the trip was uneventful. That is, until I got back into Gatlinburg.

Now I’ve driven in most of the major cities of the U.S., but I think Gatlinburg’s traffic that night was the worst I’ve seen.

I sat waiting for an intersection to clear through five cycles of traffic light changes before I abandoned any hope of turning right. Instead, I had to go left into the national park and use the bypass to get around Gatlinburg.

And then came Pigeon Forge.

It was not a fun drive home.

Reflection

What I’d do differently

  • Get an earlier start
  • Pay more attention to trail descriptions for the location of the summit
  • Don’t try to drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge during the holiday season
  • Don’t wear heavy hiking boots, even if I expect to be in snow
  • Remember to clear out my GPS before starting out on the trail

What I’d do the same

  • Don’t let weather deter me (unless it’s obviously dangerous
  • Remain fearless in confrontations with squirrels
  • Hike my own hike
  • Enjoy my hike!

Gear list

Wearing Weight (oz.)
REI zip-neck long underwear top 6.5
The North Face nylon pants 15
SmartWool liner socks 1
SmartWool socks 3
Mountain Hardware softshell pullover 11.5
Patagonia baseball-style cap 2
Cotton bandanna 1
Nylon wallet, cash, identification, etc. 3.5
Asolo boots 64
Total – wearing 6.72 lbs.
Carrying Weight (oz.)
Golite “Day Pack” 13.5
Stuff sacks – home made (3) 3.5
Gebel trekking poles 21.5
First aid kit – water treatment 7.5
Mountain Hardware soft shell pullover 1.5
Plastic safety whistle 0.5
Bic lighter 1
Markill Hot Rod titanium stove 4.5
Isobutane cannister 6.5
Snow Peak double-wall titanium mug 5
Snow Peak Trek 700 titanium cook pot 5.5
Snow Peak titanium spork 1
Petzel Zipka headlamp 2.5
Trails Illustrated map 1.5
Garmin GPSMap 60C GPS 7.5
Canon Powershot S70 camera 10.5
Rite in the Rain note pad 1
Nalgene Lab marker 1
Aloksak storage bag 0.5
Manzilla Windstopper mittens 3.5
Cascade Designs Z-rest seat cushion 2
Integral Designs Primalid hat 1.5
Drop Stoppers Micropore Rainsuit 10
Marmot DriClime wind shirt 9.5
REI zip fleece pants 21.5
The North Face Nuptse down jacket 21
Food 17
Water in 1 liter Platypus bottles (2) 76
Total – carrying 16.13 lbs.
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