Roy Exum: The Leaves Of LeConte

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In my time I have gloried every year in the leaves of autumn. I’ve seen the maples in New England, the oaks in the Shenandoah Valley, and the aspens on the Colorado plateau but my all-time favorite view is now in full blush. Nothing can compare to Mount LeConte in our Smoky Mountains every October.

There is a spectacular reason for my claim because the only way you can see it is to live it. And earn it. I am going to let you in on the greatest outdoor adventure thousands of people have now enjoyed – an evening’s stay at LeConte Lodge.

First, you’ve got to know LeConte is the highest mountain in Tennessee, rising some 6,593 feet and there are no roads to the lodge. Everybody hikes in, or up, from five different trail heads outside of Gatlinburg. Our deal was that we would always get reservations the year before and then, no matter the weather, eat an early lunch and spend the afternoon going what seems like straight up. The trick is to take two cars, parking one at a different trail head, so you can go up one route and come down another, but, remember this; the shortest route is the steepest.

I’m not going to kid you – it’s a tough haul for a stout man and I’ve seen people do just about anything to lighten their day packs as the merciless trails seem to get steeper. But the mountain in autumn is a view like you have never seen and, once you get above the tree line, you become certain that of every artist who ever used a palette, it was God who created heaven and earth who is the best that ever was.

From now until mid-November, when snow closes the lodge until late March, reservations are booked solid. You can check the “waiting list” on the LeConte Lodge website but a better bet is to be a day hiker and arrange to eat lunch at the lodge, hiking down the same afternoon. Yes, the hike up is a strain and you’ll have to leave the trail head about daybreak, but the trip back down is absolutely spectacular and well worth the journey.

If you are lucky enough to get a reservation, you’ll find there is no electricity and that the lamps and cabin heaters use coal oil. There is ample drinking water and the beds have a thick inch of woolen blankets, but when the cabin heaters run low about 6 a.m. you won’t tarry before getting dressed. In a week or two snows often covers the morning ground.

The legend is that it never gets above 80 degrees on the summit, not even on August’s hottest day, and there is no such thing as a rain ticket; I’ve gone up in a diving rain rather than default my no-money-back reservation. Back in my early visits the elements -- rain and sleet and snow – were fun because they added to the challenge but, lordy, I’ve seen grown men grab trees and gasp “how much further” during the last mile.

Today the cost of a night’s stay starts at $121 for an adult and there are cabin packages, but that includes a good dinner, like soup, beef tips, rice and green beans with eggs, bacon, toast and juice the next morning. If you want a fruit glass of wine at dinner, add another $10.

You see, since there are no roads, everything is brought up each day by sure-footed llamas and, when you see a pack train on the trail, veteran LeConte hikers know to give the animals a wide berth because the beasts delight in spitting on people. They’re accurate, too.

I’m telling you there is nothing that compared with Mount LeConte for fall colors but when you have reservations, and sit with about 40 total strangers at dinner, the whole thing is a hoot. Great stories are told at the big fireplace and everybody flocks to Big Top to watch the sun settle but, believe this, tired hikers always go to bed early. The fact there is no TV, no radio, just enhances the whole thing.

You can learn more about LeConte Lodge by calling the office in Sevierville, (865) 429-5704, or by going to the website, www.lecontelodge.com, but if you want to see this year’s splendor, ask about making reservations for a day hiker’s lunch. Believe me, the hot chocolate is about the best thing you ever tasted on a late October afternoon.

LeConte Lodge in Morning Snow
LeConte Lodge in Morning Snow

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