Hiking in the Smokies: Day Trekking up Mt. LeConte
Submitted by Julie Thorner, aka “Coach Mom”
The Smoky Mountains straddle the Tennessee and North Carolina border, and form part of the famous Appalachian mountain range that goes from Georgia all the way north to Maine. You can hike in the Smokies year-round, thanks to typically mild winters. The trail system is extensive, mostly well-marked, and has easy to very strenuous (aka really HARD) paths for hikers of all ages and fitness levels. The Smoky Mountains are steep and rugged, with abundant creeks and waterfalls throughout their lush “temperate rainforest” forests. The 16 tallest peaks are over 6000 feet -higher than their northeastern Appalachian cousins in the New England region.
I had wanted to climb Mt. LeConte, the 3rd highest peak in the Smokies at 6593 feet, for years, but my kids then were still too young to enjoy a strenuous hike (and I wasn’t interested in carrying them up the mountain). Back when I was about 11, my family did a magical hiking trip up Mt. Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeastern Appalachians Presidential range at 6,288 feet. Our 2-day trip included an overnight at the Lake of the Clouds hut. I remember heavy leather hiking boots, wool socks and wool sweaters, obligatory bandanas, chocolate, cheese, crackers, oranges, and metal canteens of water. It was a grunt to the top, but the views made it worthwhile and I recall feeling pretty dang exhilarated to have accomplished that hike.
Fast forward a few decades and last summer my oldest son Tyler, age 14, and I were at the trailhead of Mt. LeConte. I was anticipating recreating that magical family hiking experience of my youth. Tyler was psyched to have a day with mom all to himself and hoped to see a bear. Our plan was to do the hike in one day, beginning with a civilized, non-alpine 9:00am start time. In hindsight, I only recommend our day trek approach if you are fit enough for a full day of maximum hiking and bring hiking poles, lots of water, and a good attitude. Otherwise, reserve a room at the LeConte Lodge (book 6 months in advance) and make it a leisurely 2-day hike. Oh, and it would be good to start earlier than 9am…
Mt. LeConte is very well covered in hiking guides. There are five trails to the summit. We chose the scenic and most popular Alum Cave trail. It is the shortest and steepest trail at 12 miles round trip to the summit, and includes spectacular Alum Cave Bluff about halfway up the mountainside. (I saw an historical photo from the turn of the century of women in long skirts and dainty boots, and men in hats and suit coats posing at the Alum Cave Bluff that revealed an intoxicatingly magnificent cliff. I needed to see if it still looked that way.) National Geographic recently featured the 20 Best Hikes in the US National Parks and chose Mt. LeConte as the star hike for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here’s why:
The convenient trailhead starts right at US Hwy 441 in the park. Get there early to the little roadside parking area (before 9:00am!) because it fills up fast. The trail ascends easily along Alum Cave Creek for the first 1.3 miles. This cool, happy, crystal-clear creek seems to talk to you as you hike beside it. The trail leaves the creek and goes, literally, through the rock at Arch Rock, and up carved steps to a higher trail. This is the beginning of the steeper section to the Alum Cave Bluff, the wondrous rocky overhang that was perfect for our late picnic lunch stop. Upon reaching the bluff it was quite something to reflect on the many intrepid hikers who had come to that very spot more than 100 years ago. This popular picnic spot is also the turnaround point for hikers not going up to the top of Mt. LeConte. Tyler liked watching water drops from the very top of the cliff floating down past us, as though they were sprinkles from heaven.
After Alum Cave Bluff, the trail starts to ascend pretty sharply. In one section, previous hikers from the early years fixed a long metal cable into the rock side of the mountain as a handhold for climbers. Environmental angst for the rock aside, this Coach Mom was glad to use it going up, and especially, going down. The rock can get pretty slippery when it rains, so be careful. Tyler scrambled up easily, of course. In the Smokies you need to be prepared for rain in the afternoon, no matter what the day starts like, and certainly no matter what the weatherman (or woman) says. The weather in the Smokies changes rapidly, especially at elevation, and in summer quick thunderstorms are common. It’s true that you aren’t likely to get snow on a summer afternoon the way you can in the Rockies, but temps can drop 10-20 degrees on a summer day at elevation. Our hike up to the lodge included some great views and a few choice narrow avalanche chutes (slide areas) that we both thought looked perfect for skiing! We got up to the lodge at a decent hour in the early afternoon and enjoyed the store, a snack at the restaurant, water refills, and the rocking chairs on the store porch.
The hike back down included watching a mother deer and her young fawn walk through the trees near the lodge. We made it back to the open ridgeline when I heard a pretty significant “rustling” in the rhododendron bushes that dropped off the right side of the trail. I motioned to Tyler and said that it sounded like something big. Sure enough, an enormous black bear was literally a few feet from us, down off the trail. Tyler was thrilled! I thought it was too big and too close, to be very honest. I have seen many bears in the park, and this was the biggest by far. Yes, it is true -there are a LOT of black bears in the Smokies. We moved back a decent distance and watched the bear cross the trail and wander along foraging for about 15 minutes. Other hikers came by and also saw the bear. While it was spectacular to see one up so close and so big, I was a bit surprised at the nonchalance of the other hikers about this very much “wild” animal.
The rest of the descent was a comfortable pace with great conversation through the forest, through Arch Rock, and finally along Alum Cave Creek. The hiking poles Tyler had carried up strapped to his pack were unbelievably useful on the way down. The steep terrain and long distance (6 miles each way) made it hard on knees and ankles by the end of the day. I knew poles were useful, but we both became evangelists for collapsible hiking poles after Mt. LeConte! Near the trail’s end we stopped to help a party of older hikers deal with one in their group who had a leg injury. My small Adventure Medical first aid kit (and river guide training) came in quite handy as they needed tape, bandages, and wrap to help him get back to their cars. Tyler and I finished our trip just after 7pm and made it back to Cherokee in time for a celebratory dinner out. It was indeed a magical day.
Coach Mom’s Hiking Gear Checklist:
Water (50 or 70L water reservoirs in hydration packs like Camelbak, Gregory, Ultimate, etc. really work best), lots of snacks or a picnic lunch, camera and spare batteries, collapsible hiking poles (essential), lightweight fleece sweater or LS shirt, hat, sunglasses, first aid kit, small pack towel (to wipe off your camera lens if it rains). Cell phones don’t work in the park, so leave it in the car, yay!
On first aid kits: You don’t have to be a former boy or girl scout (or raft guide) to get a decent first aid kit and toss it in your backpack. With kids, you never know who’s going to trip and gash a knee, elbow, or forehead. My rule is: don’t leave home without it! Better yet, leave it in the car, always restocked, and then you won’t forget it. First aid kits these days are small, convenient, and massively practical. It’s just plain silly not to have one with you.
More Resources for Hiking In the Smokies
Mt Leconte: Alum Cave Trail
Really great reference page, and has a 6 minute video clip of the hike.
Overall very useful information on hiking trails throughout GSMNP
Mt LeConte Lodge
All about the lodge, including how to book a reservation
National Geographic 20 Best Hikes in National Parks:
Features Mt. LeConte for Great Smoky Mountains National Park: April 25, 2012
Adventure Medical First Aid Kits
Other regional hikes
Graveyard Fields: Blue Ridge Parkway
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Robbinsville NC
Shining Rock Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest & Blue Ridge Parkway
Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest, “The Yosemite of the East”
Hiking in the Northeast
Submitted by Stefani Jackenthal, aka “Adventure Auntie”
What’s more fun than packing up snacks, tying up your shoes and hitting the trails? Low gear with a big Mother Nature and fitness payoff are just a few reasons I love hiking and why it’s a fantastic family activity. The northeast has an endless web of kid-friendly trails crisscrossing parks and mountains with a mix of hoofing hills, strolling path and ambling descents that will delight little and big hikers alike.
Bear Mountain & Harriman State Park
Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park, in Rockland, NY, sports over 235 miles of tree-lined trails cross nearly 52,000 acres of lush forest. The whopping 50 marked trails are perfect for a family day of play in the bright outdoors. There are plenty of twisty tree-lined places to trek with mini-hikers and – cool crevices to tuck through for adventurous tweens and teens. Some of the trails require serious rock scrambling, so best to do your research before hitting the trailhead.
One of the local fave-rave areas is Anthony Wayne Recreation. Chockfull of well maintained, marked trails, the 2.8-mile Anthony Wayne Trail loop is a good starting point as it connects with a network of trails to extend the day’s outing. The Reeves Meadow Visitor Center is a perfect place to pick up trail map. Popular with older mountain girls and boys, is the 5.5-mile Pine Meadow Trail with rolling, somewhat rocky terrain in areas, which edges along the north shore of Pine Meadow Lake.
Those looking for a big adventure can consider taking on part or all of the 18-mile section of Appalachian Trail, in the northern slice of the park, which traverses west from Hudson River at the Bear Mountain Bridge. With a bit of connecting trails, it can become a loop with some of the 11 intersecting trails.
Tug Hill State Forest
Located in a loosely shaped triangle formed by Watertown, Rome and Syracuse in New York’s Finger Lakes region, the Tug Hill plateau is slam-packed with wilderness that attracts scores of hikers hankering to hit the woodsy trails. Situated between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks, Tug Hill encompasses 2100 miles of densely packed forest teaming with nearly 25 marked, undulating trails that zip past gurgling creeks, up wiggly narrow dirt trails that are welcoming to little legs, down swooping shallow hills and past pillowy meadows blanketed with pastel wildflowers. The area is eye-candy for the soul and the perfect destination for active family fun.
For more challenging terrain that may kick it up notch for teens and tweens, head north to Tug Hill State Forest in the town of Rodman, in Jefferson City. Just off route 177, it harbors nearly 12,000 acres of well-marked and maintained trails of varying length, difficulty and natural beauty.
The area is a fantastic study in horticulture, too. It’s ideal for chatting with your kids about the diverse plant and trees, while striding through fragrant woodlands peppered with northern hardwoods, conifer plantations and open wetlands. There are long flat stretches winding past white spruce, larch and pines and somewhat steep climbs, up us dirt paths zigzagging to Buena vistas. The 1.9-mile Oak Rim Trail is a local fan favorite as it’s for hikers only (no bikers allowed) and shimmies along the edge of Inman Gulf with breathtaking views for gushing waterfall and surrounding valley. While the 1.7 mile Snowbird loop wends past tall white and red pines, with kid-friendly long, gentle climbs and a short steep strut to a wooden bridge over Fish Creek. This is a terrific place to stop to admire the sparkly fish swimming beneath babbling water.