By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Mount Le Conte in the Smoky Mountains has been on my to-do list since I first heard the name. That was probably with mom and dad on one our many trips to the park. Me and my sister were probably fighting in the back of a Chrysler New Yorker.
Until Saturday, I thought Le Conte was the tallest mountain in the Smokies. Now I find that Clingman’s Dome is tallest, whether you stand on top of the man-made overlook or under it. Mount Guyot , which I had never heard of, is also taller. Both mountains are less than 50-feet taller than Le Conte, but taller none the less.
Unlike most of my hikes, this one proved to be rather uneventful. Possibly because I was with a small group, led by a former park ranger and not fumbling through the woods solo. The guide knew every plant, leaf, and gnat on the mountain by first name. He was also quick-witted. When another group of hikers met us on the trail, he said, “Great day for a hike.”
“Too crowded,” the man grumble.
“Yeah, you should go back,” our guide quipped.
Our little group was an odd mix as you would expect from nine strangers joined randomly from Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida. There was a couple that lived in separate states, but it seemed to work well for them. The guy from Florida longed for any companionship. When pictures were taken of other members, he often turned up in the background. There was a lady that looked to be from money with her fur hat and elegant presence. Then there were the three sisters, one of which had trouble keeping up.
“Let’s just go on. She’ll find us,” the other sisters suggested.
Among the tidbits I learned on this hike, for every 1,000 feet you climb in elevation is the same as driving 350 miles north. This means by the time you reach the summit, the climate was more Southern Canada than East Tennessee. I also found out how you know a climb is steep. If your nose touches the mountain as you climb, it is steep.
At the top of Le Conte, you will find the highest inn available for lodging in the Eastern United States. Le Conte Lodge is not plush. They do promise clean bedding because the sheets are packed up the mountain by llama three times a week. There is a dining hall that provides a hot meal (soup and sandwich) with those supplies brought in by helicopter twice a year. There is no electricity. Water comes from a centrally located spigot. The bathrooms offer little privacy. Unless you take enough people to fill a cabin, you will be bunking with a stranger. Thankfully I was only there for the day.
It took us 4 1⁄2 hours to reach Le Conte Lodge, except one sister that needed five hours. After exploring the inn and signing the guidebook, the trip leader said we could go down on our own pace. I ran part of the decent and made it to the parking lot in one hour and 40 minutes.
I thought it was fast, considering one thing held me up. Actually 20 things. There were two groups of about 10 Japanese tourists that slowed my pace. I think they were telling me to pass, but how was I to know? It may sound stereotypical, but they all carried cameras and when they stopped to take pictures I hit the passing lane.
I thought when I reached the bottom I had one less mountain to climb, instead I have two more. Looks like Guyton and Clingman’s Dome have been added to the list.