The mountains are calling and I must go.
- John Muir
MOUNT LECONTE IS one of the tallest mountains in the Eastern United States; indeed, the sixth-highest on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. The mountain, at 6,593 feet in height, stands several miles north of the main divide of the Great Smoky Mountains. Thus, the view to the north from the summit encompasses the wide expanse of the Tennessee Valley, almost exactly one mile below. To the south, east, and west, the entire Smoky Mountain stretches for mile after mile. LeConte is therefore extremely prominent, and easily distinguished from afar as being notably detached from the main chain of the Smokies. This divide – which doubles as the Tennessee / North Carolina line – is connected to Mount LeConte by a long, thin ridge called the Boulevard. This ridge provides a lengthy but scenic access to the summit, after departing from a junction with the Appalachian Trail.
Atop Mount LeConte is one of the more unique establishments found within a national park. Located just west of and below the summit, LeConte Lodge is a collection of rustic cabins and small wooden lodges. The lodge has existed in some form since 1926, when initial construction began. Since then, LeConte Lodge has developed into a rustic retreat accommodating up to 50 guests per night. There is no electricity; however, the buildings are heated, and illumination comes from kerosene lanterns. Hot meals are offered; a welcome treat after a strenuous hike to the summit.
Part of the LeConte Lodge compound, June 29, 2013
I have visited LeConte Lodge seven times now. The first occasion came at the age of twelve, when my Dad and I stayed on the mountain on the night of July 7, 2007. Five trips followed in relatively quick succession. Attempts to obtain an overnight reservation were, of late, unsuccessful. Finally, a reservation came available for the night of June 28, 2013.
Watching the weather forecast for the mountain during the week preceding the trip proved to be a slightly troubling exercise. The chance of rain kept climbing, and the Tennessee Valley had settled into the familiar afternoon-thunderstorms pattern so common during the summer. This couldn’t be helped, of course, and that’s what rain jackets are for. Backpacks were filled, and our Friday morning departure was set.
Friday dawned somewhat better than forecasted; mostly clear in the morning, with ground fog. We drove the nearly two hours to the trailhead, and even scored a genuine parking space – a first! Our typical trail of choice is the Alum Cave Trail. This trail begins off of Newfound Gap Road, and offers the shortest route to the summit. One climbs over two thousand feet in the space of around 5.2 miles of trail. The hike to the top was uneventful; during the last mile or so, stunning vistas of the main divide of the Smokies offer welcome distraction from the steep and rocky climb. By this point, the sky had turned to an almost-complete overcast. Evidence of previous rains could be found all over the trail; where it is usually dry and rocky, it resembled a small creek. I was thankful for the waterproof hiking shoes I was wearing during that last mile.
Upon arrival at the lodge, Dad and I looked out over the valley below. Visibility was limited by the ever-present summertime haze layer, but one could see for a few miles before ground and cloud blurred together at the horizon. This condition was to be short-lived. Within a few minutes, fog rolled in, blanketing the top of Mount LeConte and cutting visibility down to scarcely over 100 feet. “Fog” on the mountain is somewhat different from the sort of fog seen in the valley below. While it might be a partly-cloudy day down below, the clouds often move across the summit. Thus the sensation is something like flying through clouds, though with your feet on solid ground. The ever-darkening clouds brought with them rumbles of thunder and heavy rains. I had commented for years about how I’d like to be on the mountain during a storm. I got my wish that afternoon. It worked out rather well that we were no longer out on the trail, and had the luxury of watching the rain from the rocking chairs on the cabin’s porch.
Rain on LeConte
Weather observation and the consumption of hot chocolate filled the remainder of the afternoon. It rained for some time, before ceasing only minutes before the 6:00 dinner bell. The clouds, swirling by the summit, thickened, and visibility was reduced again. Very little natural light was available to illuminate the dining hall, and we ate mostly by lamplight. Sunset – the main event on Mount LeConte – was set for 8:53 PM. I remained optimistic while enjoying large helpings of roast beef and staring out of the windows…but bits of optimism were continually replaced by the mist.
Returning to the cabin after dinner, the waiting game began. My optimistic glances at the clouds were guided by experience…on the first visit I had made to the lodge, six years earlier, the fog had been so thick when we arrived that visibility was cut to mere feet. Before sunset time, however, the clouds had vanished to be replaced by a spectacular fiery sunset. Surely a repeat performance was in order….wasn’t it?
8:00 went by with scarcely a glimpse of anything but gray clouds. Even so, we decided to make the trip to Cliff Tops, where one best views the sunset on the mountain. The hike to Cliff Tops is an uphill 0.2 miles over rocks; these rocks were instead a flowing creek, courtesy of the downpour. I had hoped for some clearing of the weather by the time we reached Cliff Tops, but it wasn’t to be. The steep rocky ledge comprising our destination was all that could be seen. Ahead was a solid wall of white cloud, sliding across the mountain, propelled by a cold wind. Even in July, a wintertime jacket was needed.
Cliff Tops, June 28, 2013. Swirling clouds obscure the stunning vistas beyond.
There was still hope as the time of sunset approached. Every glance at my watch seemed to cause a tantalizing flash of sunlight through the clouds. The time of sunset was reached, and passed, and still the clouds persisted. And then, suddenly, a break began to appear far below. The dim outlines of trees would appear for a brief second, illuminated by the golden glow of the vanishing sun. A ridge would come into view, only to vanish as a new wave of cloud flashed by. Working quickly, I set up my tripod and captured a few images, before the window into the sunset vanished once again.
The sunset appears…and vanishes again. Cliff Top, June 28, 2013.
I realized here that I would have to be content with the photos I had captured. Darkness was arriving, marching in from behind us, to the east, chasing the sun further down below the horizon.
And then it happened.
Suddenly, we weren’t in the middle of the cloud layer. We were at the top. The clear skies of twilight could abruptly be seen directly overhead. It seemed now as though we were surfing waves of cloud; half in the clear, with the vista below still quite obscured. But the clearing trend continued, and flashes of mountains began appearing as the strengthening winds cleared the way.
Above the Clouds
And, all at once, the full glory of a LeConte sunset burst into view. As the clouds cleared, it was as though a curtain had been lifted. Sunlight, mountains, clouds, distant flickering lights, trees, everything – suddenly in full view. It was all at once impossible to decide where to look first…everywhere, it seemed, there was a new scene even more spectacular than the last. I took photo after photo, determined to capture the sudden magic for all time. We were now above the clouds, which danced between ridges, helping the Smokies live up to their name. The sun, fully vanished now, still cast a brilliant yellow-orange illumination on a line across the horizon. Elsewhere, the skies were every shade of blue and purple imaginable.
Finally, in the clear
While the remains of sunset were spectacular enough, the truly amazing sights were to be found to the left (the south) of the current frame. Looking on a line to Clingmans Dome, some 10 miles distant, the mountains appeared as spectacular as I have ever seen.
Where once there were only clouds…now, a vista as impressive as I have ever seen. The rocks seen in the bottom of the frame are those seen earlier in this post. Pictured looking toward Clingmans Dome from Cliff Top.
Darkness was arriving, and I shut down the camera in order to take in the view fully, with my own eyes. It didn’t stay off for very long…I just had to capture one last set of images. This sequence shows the western edge of Mount LeConte, and the ridges beyond, still partly shrouded in fog. Shortly thereafter, darkness settled over the mountains completely, and it was time to go.
Moments before darkness…one last look.
Staying for the arrival of darkness necessitates a night hike back to the lodge. Properly equipped with flashlights, this is usually a straightforward exercise. However, this occasion made things a bit more interesting. Remember the rain? The trip back to the lodge now involved a descent down a rocky stream, flowing with water. Moving slowly and carefully, this excursion back was accomplished without incident.
The clouds followed us back to the cabin. Shortly after arriving, the glittering mass of lights in the valley below vanished, replaced by almost complete blackness. Silence gradually descended as other guests at the lodge retired to bed. Someone had a guitar, and made an attempt at music. This too turned quiet, and the inky stillness grew heavy.
Minutes before midnight, just before bed, the sky cleared again. Mist was replaced by a carpet of stars unlike any I have ever seen. The city lights are interesting to view; the spectacle above is utterly mesmerizing. I saw two firsts for me, that night, looking up at the thousands of points of light. Shooting stars…not one, but three, exactly as I had envisioned them. And then, most impressive of all….the blurred outline of a nebula.
It rained again during the night. Around 5 AM, I awoke to the sound of strong winds blowing sheets of water against the cabin walls. This downpour passed, and morning dawned as I watched from the cabin porch, coffee in hand. There were scattered clouds across the valley below, and occasionally one would drift across the lodge compound. Mostly, though, there was fog in the lower-lying areas of the valley. This pattern presented the perfect opportunity for another round of pictures.
The view from the LeConte Lodge Office on the morning of June 29, 2013…English Mountain, surrounded by patches of ground fog.
Soon, it was time for the always-delicious breakfast of pancakes, ham, and eggs. Shortly thereafter, we hiked down the mountain. The rain from the previous night had further saturated the trail, which crossed over waterfalls where once there were only dry creekbeds. However, the hike was uneventful, and, walking down the trail, we took wonderful memories home with us.
Special thanks to Denver Childress for suggesting the name for this post!