Over the past 10 years, November has been a month for moving Idyll Time south to warmer waters. The Atlantic ICW is busy with boaters of a similar desire. The waterway can be very congested and marinas may be full so reservations are always suggested. We have also used November to take a boating break from the busy waterways and migrate to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) for our annual Mt. LeConte Lodge mountain climb.
For the past 24 years, we have climbed Mt. LeConte on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We always begin our climb from the Gatlinburg, TN area on Saturday morning after a huge breakfast at the Log Cabin Pancake House. There are five trails leading to the mountain top of 6594 feet, the third highest peak in the Smoky Mtns., next to Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot, only 50 ft. higher. Mt. LeConte Lodge has been in continuous operation since the 1930’s. No roads lead to the lodge, only hiking trails. The shortest trail, Alum Cave, is 5 miles while the Boulevard Trail is the longest at 8 miles. There is an average of 3000 feet of climb to reach the lodge and for most nights during the April to November season the lodge is full to its’ 60 person capacity. There is no electricity or in-room running water atop the mountain. The one room cabins consist of a double bunk bed, table and chair and are heated with a propane heater. It is truly a unique place. The lodge is the only privately owned/operated concession within the GSMNP. Weekly supplies by Llamas bring fresh food and linens. Bulk dry goods are brought in during a 3 day cargo helicopter operation each March, just before opening day. Daily dinner and breakfast, included in the price, is served family style to the 60 trail-weary hungry guests. These menus have not changed in all the years that anyone can remember.
We have always spent Saturday and Sunday nights atop at the lodge before hiking down on Monday morning, post hearty breakfast. Sunday is usually spent relaxing and walking around the mountain top, Thanksgiving dinner with the staff, or hiking down to meet friends coming up. Over the 24 years, the weather this time of year can vary widely, from t-shirt and shorts to a full blown blizzard requiring ice crampons, heavy parkas, and snow gaiters. Our first several yearly visits were spent hiking with our good friends, Tom and Marj. LeConte Lodge has always had a grandfather reservation system that allowed you to roll your same reservation dates from year to year. However if you miss your date, the rollover stops. Tom and Marj, for reasons not of their doing, missed on Saturday night years ago and suffered this policy. They now hike up on Sunday only. For over 10 years, we were accompanied on our annual trek by our niece, Courtney. Starting when she was only 7 years old, Mt. LeConte became part of a family ritual until she left for college 4 years ago. Her brother, Stormy, stepped into her spot and has climbed with us for the past 6 years. He is now 14 years old and the family tradition continues with him today. Once he is in college that may bring to an end the LeConte hike tradition. The grandfathering of reservations also ends in 2018. So we will see how lucky we can be joining the multitude of those wishing for the LeConte experience. Reservations open up one year in advance and are usually gone within a few hours.
This year the weather was rainy and cloudy for the beginning of our Saturday start, post Gatlinburg pancake breakfast. With extreme drought conditions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the rain was most surely welcomed but didn’t add up to more than a ¼ inch. Most of our hike was spent in the clouds and mist with obscured visibility down to 100 feet at times. Having hiked the Bullhead Trail many times, we now know every twist and turn for the 7 mile trek to the top. We are happy to see the trail free of snow and ice. In past years we have seen sections of the trail very treacherous with sheets of solid ice. The GSMNP can be dangerous during the winter months. Over the years, the Park has had several instances of lost hikers, some of which were never found.
The Saturday evening sky clears in time for the annual hike to Cliff Tops where we are rewarded with spectacular mountain top vistas as the sun sets below the mountain peaks. Afterwards, everyone piles into the dining hall for the family style dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and spiced apples preceded by hot vegetable soup and a slice of iron skillet cornbread. The desert of fresh chocolate chip cookies are always a favorite with the guests. It gets dark early this time of year and after the miles of hiking, fresh air, 6500 ft. altitude, and a full belly most folks are in bed by 8 pm.
Sunday morning this year brought temperatures in the single digits, and winds of 20 knots. The annual trek to Myrtle Point for Sunday sunrise was foregone for extra sleep between the Hudson Bay blankets on the bunk beds while the propane heater struggled to keep the cabin slightly above freezing. The clanging of the steel triangle announced the 8 AM breakfast. Several empty chairs reveal no-shows for those still weary of the day before. Pancakes followed by scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and white corn grits (we are still in the south y’all) are washed down with Tang (yes, that wonderful NASA creation from the ‘60s), coffee or hot chocolate.
This year, our mid-morning Sunday is spent hiking down the Boulevard Trail to meet Tom and Bill hiking their way up. Stormy and Susie turned around early so as to see the Llamas bringing up special Thanksgiving dinner supplies. The Llama train leaves shortly after the noon time staff dinner with the linen change. They are the best animals to use as their hooves do not damage the fragile trails in the GSMNP.
The rest of Sunday is spent relaxing in the Lodge snuggled next to the large propane heater, exercising the large comfy rocking chairs and swapping adventure stories. These stories are never exaggerated or embellished but seem to grow more exciting every year (note the hint of sarcasm). Jeff always seems to be the primary offender. Sunset at Cliff Tops is spectacularly clear and several NC wildfires can be seen in the distance. Dinner at 6PM and breakfast at 8AM allows us time to see old friends from past years. After breakfast, we say good bye to the staff and annual friends. The backpacks are adjusted for the 5 hour trip down to the trailhead parking lot. After a 3 hour drive back home to Chattanooga, the legs are always stiff from sitting in the car. This year was not as bad because Stormy, at 14 years of age, is now old enough to carry a full pack of not only his own gear but some of ours also. In fact, his pack for the first time weighed the most at 33 lbs.!!! With my pack somewhat lighter, my legs however were no less stiff than in past years. Old age? Not a chance!!!
After a few days back home cleaning up our hiking gear, we will be back aboard Idyll Time who is patiently waiting for us at Bald Head Island, NC. We will then wait on a weather window before running offshore during a 48 hour run direct to St. Augustine, FL where we plan on spending Christmas with family and friends.
Note: as we write this blog about Mt. LeConte we just learned that wild fires are now burning in the Great Smoky Mtns. with major devastation in downtown Gatlinburg with over 140 homes and several motels burned to the ground. The fire is working its destructive path up Mt. LeConte. All of the hiking trails are closed and there is mandatory evacuation in Gatlinburg. We hope and pray that the fires do not reach atop Mt. LeConte. A series of fronts bringing rain to the area will hopefully end this destructive chapter of the National Parks history.