A Cabin in the Clouds

Hike to this lodge for great views, home cooking, and wilderness all around

by Deborah Huso

At the ripe old age of 2, my daughter, Heidi, was already a veteran day hiker (as long as she could take frequent breaks riding on Dad’s shoulders). So when the idea of an overnight hiking trip crossed our minds, it seemed like something we could actually do. We set our sights on one of my favorite spots in the world, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Searching for a place to stay in the park, my husband, French, and I discovered LeConte Lodge, located on Mount LeConte, just east of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was built in 1926 by Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer, eight years before the opening of the national park. The propane-heated cabins, the real beds, the hot meals, and the amazing views all sounded perfect. After talking with the lodge managers, Tim and Lisa Line, we were even more excited. Many families make an annual summer trip there, they told us.

Then came the reality check: the shortest route up the mountain to the lodge, accessible only by foot, is a five-and-a-half-mile trail. In fact, the lodge is so remote that llamas are used to carry in supplies! Tim and Lisa assured us that kids, parents, and grandparents do this hike every year. We flexed our backpack-carrying muscles and reserved a cabin for a weekend in August.
Saturday: The Hike

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast in Gatlinburg, we drive to the parking lot of the Rainbow Falls Trail to wait for A Walk in the Woods, a trail-guide and hiker-shuttle service. The shuttle will take us to the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail for our trek up Mount LeConte. Tomorrow, we’ll come down Rainbow Falls Trail, so we’ll hike a different route each day (shuttle fee from $42 for up to five people; 865-436-8283;

At the trailhead, we strap on our backpacks and set off. The first stretch is a moderate climb, and the path parallels Alum Cave Creek. Heidi, who is crazy about water whether it’s in a bathtub or a lake, asks, “Water, please. Go swimming?” It’s a warm day, so we pull out her rubber clogs and let her wade in the chilly water.

After we’ve hiked about a mile and a half, we come to Arch Rock, a high, narrow rock tunnel. A stone staircase is carved into the trail that passes through it. Heidi is excited to climb the stairs herself, telling us, “Going in the tunnel!”

Soon we reach Inspiration Point and its views of jagged slopes streaked with fog. Blueberry bushes fill the landscape, and the fruit is a welcome snack as we hike on to the Alum Cave Bluffs. These high, jutting ledges form a rain shelter so perfect that moisture never reaches the dusty soil underneath. Even though the Smokies are one of the wettest places in the East, the bluffs stay bone dry.

We have several miles left to go, so we put Heidi in the backpack again and hike steadily for two rainy but peaceful hours. When we reach the summit, we enjoy vistas changing by the second as the Smokies’ signature fog drifts and curls. Soon we’re on a level path a few hundred yards from LeConte Lodge.

As we approach, we meet a young couple with three kids, one an 8-month-old baby, in tow. Tim and Lisa Line were right — LeConte may be near the top of a 6,593-foot mountain, but it is definitely a family destination.

Ten sturdy cabins come into view, all of them overlooking miles of Tennessee foothills. We check into ours (no electricity, but plenty of warm, thick blankets), and then head to the dining hall for hot cocoa. Not long after, the dinner bell rings. The guests, about 60 kids and adults, gather at tables in front of a propane stove for a cozy meal: beef tips in gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn bread, apples, and cookies.

After dinner, French heads up a spur trail to an area known as Cliff Top to watch the sun set. Heidi and I snuggle into the double bed, and soon she’s fast asleep, snoozing right through the grand commotion that occurs outside when a black bear wanders into camp.
Sunday: Down the Mountain

We rise early to get some otherworldly photos of pink sun streaking through fog-swept mountains, and hit the dining hall for pancakes, eggs, grits, Canadian bacon, and biscuits.

After ordering boxed lunches ($9 per box), we start walking down the six-and-a-half-mile Rainbow Falls Trail. We stop to eat on the boulders below the namesake falls, which drop steeply from a rock ledge, creating a magical veil of water. On sunny afternoons, the mist from the 80-foot-high falls produces — you guessed it! — a shimmering rainbow. Some years Mount LeConte receives as much as eight feet of rain, so there is always plenty of mist.

“Ready for the last stretch?” French asks when we’re done eating. He grins and hoists Heidi onto his shoulders. My husband, always happiest in the great outdoors, leaps down the trail into a forest of old-growth trees, lush mosses, and giant glacial boulders.

By the time we reach the parking lot where we left our car the previous day, we’ve been hiking for almost six hours (the descent is quicker for toddler-free families). We’re all ready for warm showers and civilization again.

Heidi and I float in our hotel’s pool for a while, but none of us is quite ready to let the mountain go, so we head over to the Gatlinburg Sky Lift ($12 for adults, $9 for kids ages 3 to 11; 865-436-4307;, a ski lift ride that gives us a panoramic view of Mount LeConte. In the pinkish glow of the setting sun, the mountain rises imposingly over the town. “We just hiked that,” I remind Heidi. “Last night, we stood at the very, very top.”

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