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A Photographic Tour of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains

Ms. Carroll is an avid outdoors person and served as a Wilderness First Responder for 10+ years.

The very first time I hiked a LeConte trail, I chose the Alum Cave Trail. Sadly, I had to abort the hike before I reached the Grotto because I developed an unexplained stagger and dizziness. Following an hours long drive home, I wound up having emergency back surgery for a bone spur that had managed to lodge in my sciatic nerve. That surgery left me permanently numb with no feeling in the entire left side of my left foot. But LeConte still called my name!

Against this backdrop, you can see how meaningful this photographic journal is to me but moreover, how meaningful LeConte is to me. It represents my personal climb back to normalcy. Since that first hike along the Alum Cave, I've summited LeConte over a dozen times with a half dead foot labeled as a permanent drop foot. My story pales in comparison to Jack Huff's. In 1929, he strapped a chair to his back in order to carry his frail mother to the top, making the seven mile trek in five hours.

Every hike and every trail to LeConte has proved to be as enriching and rewarding as the one before. There are five trails which can be utilized to summit Mt. LeConte with a drop foot, a chair, or maybe if you're lucky, just a daypack:

  1. Alum Cave Trail;
  2. Boulevard Trail;
  3. Rainbow Falls Trail;
  4. Trillium Gap Trail; or
  5. Bullhead Trail.

The 4.5 mile (one-way) Alum Cave Trail contains a steep elevation gain of over 2700 feet while the 6.5 mile (one-way) Trillium Gap Trail has a more gradual elevation gain but still boasts 3400' in elevation gain. Trillium is the only trail the llamas take to transport supplies back and forth to the lodge (except during winter closures) which may be an indicator that it's the safest. The Bullhead Trail has stunning panoramic views but this trek will challenge your feet with 14.4 miles round-trip and your lungs with nearly 4000' in elevation gain. The Rainbow Falls Trail contains as its namesake, the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies and the least elevation gain. It's just a short hike to the falls (2.7 miles) then the trail continues for another 6.7 miles to the summit. The Boulevard Trail is the longest trail at 15.6 miles round-trip and nearly 3000' in elevation gain. It is the most difficult, but also one of the most rewarding. You will feel like you are walking along the spine of the Appalachians.

Regardless of a hiker's trail choice, LeConte remains the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi and the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each trail leading to the summit poses its own difficulties and boasts its own uniqueness and secrets. Alum Cave Trail is the most widely used simply because it's the shortest.

The Cherokee Indians called the Smoky mountains “Shaconage” (Sha-Kon-O-Hey) which means "land of the blue smoke."

The Cherokee Indians called the Smoky mountains “Shaconage” (Sha-Kon-O-Hey) which means "land of the blue smoke."

Weather Can Be A Game Changer

Which trail a hiker chooses should depend on the time of year (i.e., the elements) and how much time has been allotted for the hike. I've seen hikers forced to repress bragging rights about bagging the peak simply because they picked a difficult trail in difficult weather. The Smoky Mountains can be as harsh and unforgiving as the wrath of a deep winter or as warm and welcoming as the first buds of spring. March is a particularly unpredictable month. Even if you begin your hike in fair weather, much can change by the time you climb 1,000 feet or more. Many hikers are ill-prepared on day hikes for sudden drops in temperature or for the ice which can quickly spread over rocky portions of the trail. Moreover, the fog is always an unknown on LeConte. It seldom interferes with your ability to see the trail, but can significantly obscure the peaks turning a scenic hike into nothing more than great exercise.

Depending on the weather and the trail you choose, hiking to the peak and back could take anywhere from 6 to 14 hours at a normal hiking pace. You will gain anywhere from 2000 to almost 4000' in elevation gain also depending on the trail.

The water flows vivaciously along the Alum Cave Trail until you reach the "cave" or "grotto."

The water flows vivaciously along the Alum Cave Trail until you reach the "cave" or "grotto."

This bluff on the Alum Cave Trail represents the point where you start gaining most of your elevation gain. I nearly saw a fellow hiker impaled with a 3' long icicle one year reminding me to scurry through here when icy formations are present.

This bluff on the Alum Cave Trail represents the point where you start gaining most of your elevation gain. I nearly saw a fellow hiker impaled with a 3' long icicle one year reminding me to scurry through here when icy formations are present.

Alum Cave Trail:  The next leg of the hike just past Inspiration Point. Inspiration Point is 4,700 feet in elevation.

Alum Cave Trail: The next leg of the hike just past Inspiration Point. Inspiration Point is 4,700 feet in elevation.

Mt. LeConte is the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi and the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The conditions on LeConte must be exact to catch this view. Somewhere below this scenic wonder, dusk settles on Gatlinburg while hikers on LeConte must find their way back to camp with headlamps.

The conditions on LeConte must be exact to catch this view. Somewhere below this scenic wonder, dusk settles on Gatlinburg while hikers on LeConte must find their way back to camp with headlamps.

Sunset view from Clifftops.

Sunset view from Clifftops.

The view from Myrtle Point early one Monday morning after several feet of snow.  In wintery weather, Myrtle Point can be especially chilling.

The view from Myrtle Point early one Monday morning after several feet of snow. In wintery weather, Myrtle Point can be especially chilling.

Grotto Falls along the Trillium Gap Trail

Grotto Falls along the Trillium Gap Trail

A field of trillium.

A field of trillium.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, you will find the llamas hitched to their posts so LeConte Lodge can maintain supplies. Eight llamas pack supplies in and out on theTrillium Gap/Rainbow Falls Trails.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, you will find the llamas hitched to their posts so LeConte Lodge can maintain supplies. Eight llamas pack supplies in and out on theTrillium Gap/Rainbow Falls Trails.

Be prepared to abort hiking as the llamas pass through.  You will be given llittle warning and the llamas WILL NOT stop for you.

Be prepared to abort hiking as the llamas pass through. You will be given llittle warning and the llamas WILL NOT stop for you.

Hiking in a foot of snow did not prepare us for the several feet atop LeConte.The trees held some back while the peak bore the brunt of it.

Hiking in a foot of snow did not prepare us for the several feet atop LeConte.The trees held some back while the peak bore the brunt of it.

Mt. LeConte is one of the most challenging but equally rewarding hikes that the Smokies have to offer, whichever trail you choose. It will be a bad experience if you have not prepared for whatever elements may befall you along the way. But if you have the hiking aptitude and choose your trail deliberately, LeConte is sure to reveal some of her many wonders.