Below the Line

Bucket-List Trip: The Top of Tennessee

By Elizabeth HutchisonSeptember 24, 2016

At LeConte Lodge—perched near the summit of Mount LeConte with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—there’s no electricity, no Internet, no running water, and the only way to get here is to hike in. In fact, not a whole lot has changed since Tennessee mountaineer Jack Huff began building the backcountry retreat in 1926. But for the 12,000-plus guests who keep the lodge booked solid from March through November, that’s the whole appeal.

View from the top. (Photos courtesy of LeConte Lodge)

Reservations for the 2017 season begin at 8 a.m. EDT on Monday, October 3 and can be made by phone (865-429-5704). Mark your calendars now because spaces go quickly, especially holidays, weekends, and peak leaf season.

From left: Entrance to the dining room; on the trail; a room with a view.

“It’s a truly unique place,” says manager Tim Line, who began working on the LeConte crew in 1977. He even met his wife Lisa here. “We’re the highest backcountry lodge east of the Mississippi River, but people can come all the way up here and spend the night without having to carry a bunch of extra gear.” No sleeping bags, tents, or dinner provisions necessary. Guests include hikers of all ages—everyone from four-year-olds to eighty-year-olds.

Deer graze near the lodge.

Line recommends the Alum Cave Trail. At five-and-a-half miles, it’s the shortest and the steepest of the five trails leading to the lodge but also the most scenic. “It’s a 3,000 foot elevation gain,” Hine says. “But generally, if you take your time and pack a lunch, you’ll do just fine. You don’t need to have a whole lot of experience.” Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap trails are only a mile longer and can be tackled in five or six hours. If you find yourself on Trillium Gap on Wednesdays or Fridays watch for the llama train carrying supplies up to the lodge.

LeConte cabins.

When you reach LeConte, relax in a rocking chair on the front porch of one of seven rough-hewn cabins and three multi-room lodges. Kerosene lamps and propane heaters warm the wooden structures. And striped Hudson Bay wool blankets line each bunk. Even summer nights dip down into the low fifties. Dinner is served family-style in the dining room at 6 p.m., sharp. (There’s a full Southern breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, biscuits, and grits to look forward to in the morning, too.) After supper, make the ten-minute hike to Cliff Tops for one of the South’s most spectacular sunsets. No doubt you’ll be planning your return trip on the walk back.

The dining room at LeConte.

The lodge may have stayed largely (gloriously) the same for the last ninety years, but the landscape is living, growing thing. “It’s changing all the time,” Line says. “Every time you come up here you’ll experience something new.”

View from Mount LeConte. (Photo by Aviator31/Wikimedia)