Life on LeConte

Published February 11, 2012
By Johnny Molloy – Outdoors Writer – Johnson City Press

Do you love to hike in the Smokies but hate to camp? Then I have the place for you — Mount LeConte Lodge, perched at 6,500 feet atop one of Tennessee’s most notable mountains. And the only way to get there is by foot.

Unlike many of the grand national parks out west, such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, or even Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no lodges or built-in accommodations accessible by automobile. LeConte Lodge came about almost by accident.

What is now the highest lodge east of the Mississippi River started out in 1925 as a collection of tents assembled by the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, a group organized to promote the establishment of the Smokies as a national park. The folks in the association hosted prominent movers and shakers, showing them the wonders of Mount LeConte, including the famous views from Cliff Top at sunset and Myrtle Point at sunrise, attempting to sway them into establishing a national park here.

From these humble beginnings, Mount LeConte Lodge was slowly transformed into an assemblage of cabins, dining facilities and main lodge building primarily by Jack Huff who operated the hostelry along with his wife from 1926 through 1959. Later, ownership of the lodge went through several hands, and is now operated through a lease with the National Park Service.

You can’t mention Jack Huff without relating the famous story about taking his mother to the lodge. Back in 1928, Huff’s mother, after hearing about all these wonderful views from the top of Mount LeConte, wanted to see them for herself. Unfortunately, she couldn’t climb the mountain, so Jack attached leather straps to a wood and wicker chair, then literally carried her up the mountain on his back. Unfortunately for them the all-too-frequent fog and clouds encircled the mountain, preventing Jack’s mother from enjoying a view. Jack carried her back down three days later.

Just as it was in Jack Huff’s day, you must hike to reach the top of Mount LeConte. The shortest distance is 5 miles one way. However, the effort required to reach the lodge only increases the rewards. Apparently hiking to the lodge doesn’t deter visitors from coming. In fact, on Oct. 1 of each year, would-be guests scramble to get on the Internet and book their chosen days. However, persistent hikers can call the LeConte Lodge office, located down in Gatlinburg and get available dates. Others get on a wait list.

I was lucky enough to be invited by a multiple lodge visitor, Susan Range, at the last minute. I had never stayed at the lodge and was excited to experience this mountaintop retreat. We took the Bullhead Trail from just above Gatlinburg, hiking a well-graded path with plenty of views along the way. Down in the lowlands we could see old stone fences from Smoky Mountain pioneers, living at the base of LeConte. We climbed higher up the hardwood slopes, eventually entering the spruce-fir forest reminiscent of those in Maine or Minnesota.

After eight miles of hiking, it was pleasing to see the collection of weathered gray buildings that comprise the lodge. The dark, main lodge building was lit by a kerosene lantern. Yes, there is no electricity up here. And that adds to the rustic charm. Authentic Mount LeConte and Smoky Mountain memorabilia decorated the walls. We checked in and then were led to one of the small cabins. They are cozy one-room affairs with small windows. The wooden buildings have a pair of upper and lower double bunk beds.

The cabins are warmed with wall-mounted propane heaters, for which we would later be grateful. Covered porches with rocking chairs allow you to enjoy the outside. Restrooms are located a short walk from the cabins. Larger groups have a choice of three multi-room lodges that are available.

Rain was falling by the time the dinner bell rang, and overnight guests scurried to the dining room. Mount LeConte has a capacity of 60 guests per night and they all dine together at once, family-style, at big tables, with plates and bowls of food being passed around, all in the dim but friendly glow of the lantern. Lodge personnel provide drinks and such. The food was hearty and we had our fill.

Conversations can get interesting around the dining table, as you get to meet other guests. We sat with a group from North Carolina and a young couple from Nashville. Naturally, hiking and the great outdoors was the primary subject of conversation. The Carolinians chose Mount LeConte Lodge because of the challenging climb to the top. The young couple wanted to vacation with like-minded individuals — the walk to the top and the rustic conditions has a way of putting us outdoorsy types together.

I for one was glad to be in the cabin that night rather than huddling beneath a tarp, as buckets of rain fell for hours. A front was moving through and temperatures were plummeting by breakfast, held at 8 a.m. Coffee and hot chocolate preceded the breakfast of ham, eggs, biscuits and pancakes aplenty.

Hiking was on the agenda that day. Susan and I rambled out to Brushy Mountain, a shoulder of Mount LeConte that presented views of East Tennessee from Gatlinburg at the foot of LeConte to Douglas Lake in the distance and waves of mountains in the yon. Since we were staying two nights, we were provided a hearty sack lunch of chicken salad sandwiches, trail mix and a big ol’ homemade brownie.

The temperatures kept falling through the day as the sky cleared and a front moved through. That evening we made the short walk to Cliff Top to soak in a famous sunset. The wind howled, pushing cold air right through our jackets, but the view was worth it, as Sol descended into a line of ridges to the west.

We then scrambled to the dining hall and enjoyed another meal. Susan and I supped with a whole new set of guests, as most of them stay for just one night. We were amazed with our companions — at our table were guests who came all the way from New Mexico and Minnesota, just to enjoy this Tennessee treasure. The stars lit the way on the walk from the dining hall to our cabin. Our footsteps crackled over the frozen ground. On that winter night the low went to 8 degrees.

Next morning, after another robust breakfast, we rambled back down the mountain. Crisp air hastened our pace, but we stopped to soak in vistas of East Tennessee, brought into focus by the cold front. By noon we were back at the parking lot, our mountaintop experience finished.

Read more:

Five lodges you can’t reach by car

Excerpt from: Five lodges you can’t reach by car

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
April 19, 2011 1:10 p.m. EDT

LeConte Lodge
Book early at LeConte Lodge. Guests often have to reserve a room at this popular Tennessee getaway up to a year in advance.
The lodge, nestled 6,500 feet atop Mount LeConte, offers breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stunning sunrises and sunsets bookend the days and sometimes visitors will spot black bears roaming nearby.

“LeConte is very rustic and creates an atmosphere of simpler times,” says frequent visitor Tom Collins of Duluth, Georgia.

LeConte bills itself as the perfect getaway from a high-tech world, so don’t expect modern conveniences at this inn. It’s very primitive with a wash basin and bucket for sponge baths, no electricity, no television, kerosene lanterns for light, and propane heaters for warmth. There is one up-to-date luxury: flush toilets.

The only way to reach LeConte is on foot along one of five trails that lead to the inn. The shortest trail is five miles and the longest is eight.

Supplies are brought in via helicopter and llama pack trains since it’s so remote. LeConte can accommodate 60 guests a night in either small personal log cabins or three multiroom lodges.

The staff prepares family-style meals (think meat and potatoes) served in the lodge’s dining room with your choice of coffee, hot chocolate and water. Wine is provided for an additional cost.

April 2010 Hike

We came up the Rainbow Falls trail on Mon. April 21. It was a lovely cool day with many flowers popping up. Leaves were just starting to burst forth. For two retirees it took us six hours to climb, pacing ourselves. Pacing youself is the key to a good hike. We had prepared for the trip, but is preparation ever enough? We left at 9 am—a great time. Definitely bring food, lots of water, and layer your clothes. Take the bare minimum in your backpack. Arrving at the lodge was very welcome indeed. The staff were all super—-great service—whatever you needed, they were available. The food was super and it seemed like our plates and glasses were never empty. Rooms were small but comfortable, but heat was turned on by request. There was good fellowship in the dining room and office area (nice heat in there in the evening). There wasn’t much of a sunset that night, but it was fun to go up to the cliff point to see “the other side of the mountain”! . The next morning we left about 9 am, taking the Bullhead trail down. Rainbow Falls trail has alot of rocks, but Bullhead was a very steady downhill hike (albeit, a longer one) with fewer rocks. It took us 3 hours in light rain to do Bullhead. Their sack lunch was well worth it—good assortment of food. We would highly recommend it to anyone and look forward to returning again, trying a different trail. Both were lovely and mostly shaded. The trails were dry (even in the light rain). A BIG thank you to all the staff. Steve & Fredrica Skov (Rockwood TN) , Russ and Steph Sears (Dalton, MA)

City View Article

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, If I have talked you into a hike and stay already, contact them at or by calling 865 429-5704.

Lunch for Day Hikers

Knoxville News Sentinel writer Morgan Simmons’ article in a recent issue of the paper:

I’ve avoided writing about Alum Cave Trail for the same reason I never got around to talking to the prettiest girl at my high school.

I figured she already was getting all the attention she could stand.

Located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Alum Cave Trail – also called Alum Cave Bluff Trail – is one of five trails that lead up Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the park behind Clingman’s Dome and Mount Guyot.

Of all the footpaths leading to LeConte, Alum Cave is the most popular, and for good reason. At 5.5 miles, it’s the shortest route to the top, with a net climb of 2,560 feet, and arguably the most scenic. The lower portion of the trail climbs gradually along Alum Cave Creek. At 1.3 miles, the trail ascends a flight of stairs through Arch Rock, and then begins a steady ascent to the top of 6,593-foot Mount LeConte.

At 2.3 miles, the trail passes beneath Alum Cave Bluffs, an overhanging cliff that was mined for alum, Epsom salt, saltpeter, and ferrous sulfate from 1837 through the Civil War.
The Bluffs is where most people turn around.

For those who continue on, LeConte Lodge awaits at the summit. The lodge began in 1925 as a large tent operated by Paul J. Adams under contract with the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Society. Today, it consists of seven cabins, three lodges, and a dining room and can accommodate as many as 60 guests. Three days a week, a team of llamas pack out the garbage and re-supply the lodge with clean linens. The facility is booked full throughout the season, which runs from March to November.

March 23 marked the re-opening of LeConte Lodge for 2009. The lodge is operated by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises under a concessionaire contract with the National Park Service.

As part of their new contract, Stokely Hospitality Enterprises is now offering lunch to day hikers. There are two options, both of which cost $10.

The first is a sack lunch that does not require reservations, and consists of a bagel and cream cheese, beef summer sausage, applesauce, trail mix, cookies and a Gatorade drink packet.

The sack lunches are available at anytime, and can be eaten at the lodge.

Call 865-429-5704 to make reservations at LeConte Lodge.

One of the signature features of the Alum Cave Trail is its exposure. The upper section of the trail is often rocky and narrow, with sheer drop-offs that make the hiker thankful for the wire cables bolted to the near-vertical sides of the mountain.

At the two-mile mark, the trail reaches Inspiration Point, a rocky promontory surrounded by heath balds and laurel slicks. The knife-edge ridge nearby is Little Duck Hawk Ridge, where in 1997 the park documented its first successful peregrine falcon nest in the Smokies since 1943.

The mountains are steep and craggy. It’s the kind of Southern Highland scenery that gets made into postcards, except for one thing – the vast number of hemlocks that have been killed by the hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native insect discovered in the Smokies in 2002.

The mountainsides and drainages are ghostly gray where the trees have already died. At this point, the park is battling the infestation in the backcountry with chemical and biological controls, hoping to save patches of hemlocks so the forest can eventually make a comeback.

LeConte Lodge gets a little more than 12,000 overnight guests a season. Between 13,000 and 14,000 day hikers visit the lodge each season.

Tim Line, the general manager of LeConte Lodge, estimates that he has made between 12,000 and 13,000 trips to the lodge, mostly up Alum Cave Trail. In 1978 he made it down the trail in 33 minutes by running the whole way. To his knowledge, it’s a record that still stands.

“It was stupid, is what it was,” Line said. “I fell a couple of times. Fortunately, I fell in the right direction.”

Getting to the Alum Cave Trail trailhead is easy, which undoubtedly contributes to the trail’s popularity. The parking lot is located on the Tennessee side of the Smokies off of U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road), eight-and-a-half miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

The GIFTED group from Louisville, KY

The idea to go to Mount Leconte started about 17 years ago when one of us along with our husband came across Mount Leconte on a day hike. We unfortunately did not have reservations and had to hike back down but always wanted to get back and stay the night. It took 17 years to assemble a very unlikely group of 40 something mothers, wives, working, novice hikers whose friendships have mostly started from our Catholic parish where our kids go to school and evolved as we stumble together through the trials and tribulations of parenthood. We started a group called GIFTED which is an acronym for GIRLS IN to FUN TIMES, EXERCISE and a DRINK that is our version of a Bunco group. We attempt to get together monthly but more like quarterly to attempt something new that hopefully will be physically or mentally active and always end with a good cocktail or two. Our activities up to this point consisted of things like bike rides, swimming, rowing, cooking class, skeet shootingand taking the Polar Bear plunge for Special Olympics. However, 9 busy women with 29 busy kids (that is cumulative not individually even though we are from Kentucky!) were able to get away for a few days to hike to Mount Leconte.

Our hike was on August 14th 2009 and started at the Rainbow Falls trailhead where we met our first couple and asked them to take our picture. When they found out we were from Kentucky they asked if we had any Kentucky Fried Chicken because there was a group that was attacked by a bear the week prior because they were carrying KFC in their backpacks. Soooo our group of novice hikers with varying fitness levels started up the mountain discussing what to do if we saw a bear. The answers varied from sounding our new alarms that we got in our hiking gift bags to shouting in some African tribal language which simulated grunting vowel sounds in a rapid fashion. We obviously were experienced!

The Rainbow Falls trail was beautiful, challenging and relatively uneventful. A few of us had to do a self analysis (or gut check)at the 2.4 beautiful Rainbow Falls stop knowing that we still had 4 miles ahead and wondering if we should turn back now. Everyone continued on and split into 2 groups based on pace. Unfortunately the slower group got caught in a torrential downpour with about 1 mile left. As we struggled though the last mile soaking wet, slipping on rocks and worn out we came across a father and daughter who had Down Syndrome who were struggling arm and arm. They were just enough of an inspiration to get us to the end. We found out the next morning at a breakfast that she was a Special Olympian with 3 gold medals in swimming. Awesome!

After we arrived we were happy to find much more comfortable accommodations than we expected. We dried out and enjoyed some hot chocolate in there creation room. We ended up walking in on a college student from Arkansas playing the guitar. He was joined by another guitar player from Ohio and they collaborated on what turned in to a very fun, relaxing session of listening to awesome music in our rocking chairs. We all agreed to hook back up after dinner and sunset.

The dinner was way beyond our expectations as the food was awesome and we all enjoyed more than our share of the one hour of unlimited wine! We then headed to an incredible view at sunset with narration from our favorite park rangers.

We reconvened with our musical and non-musical friends for a great night of music, singing and dancing again with our favorite park rangers. A memorable day and night for all was followed by a much needed comfortable night of sleep.

The morning was awesome as we limped .6 miles to Myrtle Point for a spectacular sunrise. It is well worth getting up early and the walk will help your sore legs. The breakfast also was delicious. Most of our group ate the pancakes as if it was their last meal before the electric chair only to be followed by eggs, ham, biscuits, grits, etc. It was more than enough to get you back down the mountain. We had a great trip down the Bullhead trail with incredible overlooks throughout.

Everyone in our group would highly recommend this trip. The beauty is spectacular and the Mount Leconte accommodations from the staff to the food to the cabins exceeded our expectations. The trip was incredible not only because of these things but the people we met along the way. We feel so fortunate. We would hope everyone, regardless of fitness level or age, takes this opportunity. Thank you Mount Leconte staff.

Best Regards and Hoping to Return,
The GIFTED group from Louisville, KY


I had the privilege of hiking with Ed Wright to watch the helicopter air supply to LeConte Lodge on Monday, March 17, 2008. It was Mr. Wright’s 1,306 hike.
The supplies were brought to the Luftee Overlook parking lot, about 3/4 mile past the Newfound Gap parking lot. Alan Householder, who also runs the llama train to the lodge, was overseeing the area and staying overnight to guard the supplies, most of which were covered with a tarp, but otherwise ready to go.

The weather forecast was favorable for the flight to commence on Monday and possibly continue Tuesday, if needed. A weather system was supposed to move in during the middle of the week that would make flying the helicopter impossible. Monday morning was mostly clear and cold, about 25º at the trailhead. Daylight was just breaking as I passed the Gatlinburg overlook, but it was still pretty dark at the trailhead at 7:20 AM. Daylight started to break in the deep woods as we walked along Alum Cave Creek. Recent rains and some melting snow have returned most of these areas to a full flow, although the regional drought is by no means over.

About ½ mile into the hike, it started getting lighter, and we could see sunshine starting to reach the highest ridges. It took us just about thirty minutes to hike the first mile to the first footlog bridge, and just a few minutes later we arrived at the Arch Rock. Just after crossing the fourth and final footlog bridge, at 8:18 AM, we saw the helicopter fly over on its way to the Luftee Overlook. After a short rest, we continued on to Alum Cave Bluff. We saw the helicopter making one of its runs to the top with supplies.

We reached Gracie’s Pulpit, the halfway point, at 9:42 AM. We continued to see and hear the Sikorsky helicopter shuttling supplies. About 800 or so feet past the Upper Steps is Lu’s Pulpit. There, the trail turns 90º and you begin to get some outstanding views of Clingman’s Dome. We reached the lodge and the temperature was 45º.

I went to the office porch to watch one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. A Sikorsky S-61N helicopter is used for the airlifts. It is operated by Construction Helicopters from Ypsilanti, Michigan. It has a twin turbo engine and can lift about 7,000 pounds and flies with two pilots, each of which have a bubble window they can peer out of to see where their load is hanging. The chopper is about 59 feet long, with a rotor diameter of about 62 feet. It can carry up to thirty passengers, and for this trip, landed near the lodge to drop of members of Construction Helicopters crew who assisted with the supply. Four pallets were suspended in cargo nets beneath the chopper with a long cable. The pilot would fly (apparently) roughly the same route the Boulevard Trail takes, crossing just north of High Top on his approach to the lodge. He would then maneuver the cargo and lower it between trees and cabins, placing it gently on the ground. The pilot was in contact with the ground crew through radio sets worn by some of them. He could drop a palette or two in one location, lift up, move a few yards, and place the others in front of another building. Long Straps hanging below the cargo nets allowed the ground crew to “fine tune” the deposit location. After dropping off new supplies, he would move the chopper to another location and pick up something to go off the mountain. Sometimes it was just trash or empty pallets, other times he would leave with as many as four propane tanks. After the helicopter left, those on the ground emptied the palettes. Some people formed a bucket brigade to move the new supplies into different buildings while others moved the cargo nets and empty pallets and readied them for another flight. Most of the non-perishable food, wine and t-shirts were brought up during the supply flights. I heard someone say that a total of three flights of four palettes each were required to bring up the t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other souvenir items to the lodge. By the time I left, the dining hall was almost completely full of boxes, all of which must be put away before the first guests arrive on March 26. I would assume most if not all the paid staff was working that day, but many of the visitors who hiked up to watch also pitched in.

After watching these activities for a couple of hours (and pitching in and helping some with the bucket brigade), I left for the hike down at 1:39 pm. The helicopter kept making flights, and it appeared that it was bringing up propane tanks. Alan had said the previous day that he thought the tanks were to go up on Tuesday, but the threat of weather may have caused them to move that up a day. Either way, the flights continued.

I arrived at the trailhead at 4:19 PM and drove down to the Gatlinburg bypass overlook to see if I could spot the helicopter still making flights. Sure enough, after just a few minutes, it appeared over Myrtle Point, hovered over the lodge, and turned and flew back out of sight. It was another spectacular hike to Mt. LeConte and it was an honor to meet and hike with Ed Wright.
Ron P. Metcalfe
Mosheim, Tennessee