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A trip up Mount LeConte rewards hikers with breath-taking views and big adventure.

The clouds, which we were inside just a few hours ago, have fallen far into the valleys below, leaving only a few of the higher peaks poking up. The brisk breeze is creating somewhat of a chill but no one seems to care. All attention is focused on the western horizon as the sun puts on an incredible show in the window between the clouds. Twilight on Mount LeConte is a charmed time-a window between the two worlds of day and night-when many old tales say that even mere mortals like myself, might witness the spirits that haunt such places of great power. None of those would visit us this evening but the sunset was one I shall never forget.

The western most end of Mount LeConte, Cliff Tops, is a good six miles from any trailhead and camping is not allowed on the top of LeConte. The only way to witness the majesty of this sunset is a stay at the LeConte Lodge-a treat in and of itself.

The lodge-now under management by the Stokely Companies-was formed in the early part of the last century. Originally a single tent, it is now a series of small log cabins along with a common dining hall, office and supply storage buildings.

The trip to the lodge can be accomplished via several trails. The one we chose was the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. By many accounts the most beautiful walk in the park; it is a 5.5 mile trek which ascends nearly 3,000 feet. One of the best parts of this trail is its exposed nature. Often carved right out of the rock wall it offers incredible views of the valleys below. Having experienced a pleasant visit to Stokley’s Charit Creek Lodge in the Big South Fork Wilderness area some years ago, I was looking forward to the trip to LeConte Lodge.

For everything there is a first and this trip would bring us to the highest lodge in the Eastern United States. Our scheduled date arrived with low cloud ceilings and heavy rain but hopefully improving conditions later in the day. The rain broke about midday and we began our ascent up the thoroughly drenched Alum Cave Bluff Trail. Having been forewarned that the trail was somewhat exposed just raised the feeling of adventure. The trailhead is on US 441 about a mile above the popular Chimneys trailhead and the first mile or so meanders along Alum Cave Creek through wonderfully lush thickets of laurel and rhododendron. As the trail leaves the stream it becomes a little more strenuous but still very pleasant.

The first great view is just below the Alum Bluff at a small outcropping that overlooks Little Duck Hawk Ridge. There is a distinctive hole in the top of the formation. Just beyond this is the Alum Bluff. I was surprised to see clouds of dust rising from the other hikers’ feet on such a wet and dreary day. The bluffs contain alum, Epsom salt, saltpeter, magnesia, and copperas in quantity, as well as other common minerals and some that have not been found anywhere else in the world in much lesser amounts.

For my group, passing the bluffs on the trip up would also put us into the clouds. The trail continues a steep ascent up the mountain and becomes increasingly exposed with sections seemingly carved out of solid rock. The park service or trail repair crews have provided cables for those less sure-footed hikers along the more exposed sections of the trail. The fog shrouded trail was truly mystical from there on. The smoky wisps of clouds in the trees were reminiscent of a scene that movie psychologists or hypnotists tell their patients to envision when they want them in an especially calm and peaceful state. After a little over five miles I was glad to reach the lodge and take a break.

We were taken to our cabin and issued a three-gallon galvanized bucket. There is hot water available at the dining hall that can be brought to your room to clean up with. This is truly a luxury this far in the backcountry. You are also asked to leave all of your food in the office to prevent bears from paying you a late night visit. Not hard to believe after seeing their attempt to get into the food store building just one night before. We were just getting settled when the dinner bell rang.

The dining hall is a community style affair giving you the opportunity to meet some of your fellow guests in a relaxed environment. One of the couples at our table had been coming to the lodge for many, many years and shared with us several fun stories about their visits. Local Knoxvillians Brown Tate and Phil Campbell stopped by our table to say hello and inquire if were going to hike to see the sunset. The country style dinner was exactly as advertised and complete with a big cookie for dessert. But as we ate, what was really amazing was the camaraderie of the guests and the staff.

The lodge is managed by Tim Line, who has been working here for the past 33 years. A warm, friendly fellow obviously well liked by both the visitors and staff. Tim and all of the staff members were incredibly friendly and just down right pleasant to be around. The atmosphere is casual and new friends can be made just by saying hello.

It must have been meant to be because just before sunset the clouds parted-some dropping to the valley floor others rising up high-to create the most wonderful window for our sunset. The valley clouds were below some of the other peaks making for a view not unlike flying above the clouds. It was absolutely incredible.

Nothing beats a hot cup of coffee and a big stack of pancakes for breakfast. So much for the diet, but after the previous day’s hike I felt entitled to eat whatever I wanted. The weather was wonderful with a little bit of a thermal inversion keeping the clouds in the valleys. The hike down was absolutely beautiful. Vistas of mountains peaking through the clouds, beautiful fall colors just beginning and perfect temperatures.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or have never set foot in the park, a stay at LeConte Lodge will be an adventure you will never forget.

For more information the lodge has quite the detailed web site, http://www.leconte-lodge.com/ If I have talked you into a hike and stay already, contact them at reservations@lecontelodge.com or by calling 865 429-5704.

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