What’s the best way to end a long day at work on a Friday afternoon? Head to the Smokies to backpack, of course! Replacing the stethoscope around my neck with my headlamp, I hit the Appalachian Trail around 7 p.m. and hustled in 3 miles to Icewater Springs shelter, which sits off the A.T.
Two of my friends, Jackie and Lane, had been hiking all day on various trails to get there, and three others had hiked in just before me. The trip was coordinated via Meetup, and if you’e never heard of it, I highly encourage you take a look at the linked website. You can find local groups to suit just about any outdoor hobby and a calendar of events that provides instant companions for these activities.
For the past year, Lane has been hosting “Backpacking 101” style trips through a Meetup named Great Smokies Hiking and Adventure Group, in an effort to educate folks well before they head out into the backcountry. When my schedule allows, I help him with them (Jackie does too), and it’s been immensely rewarding to meet like minded people who want to get out in the woods more and be responsible in the process. The people on this trip were all “graduates” of Lane’s classes, and it was great reconnecting with friends and also making new ones.
It was nearly dark by the time I arrived around 8:15, and everyone was hanging their food bag and getting ready for bed. “Hiker midnight” comes on fast when the veil of darkness descends in the woods.
This was my first experience in a shelter, and I was admittedly a bit apprehensive about mice scrambling across me in the middle of the night! I woke up once, swearing I felt something touch my face, but only heard the pitter patter of mice feet on the roof of the shelter.
The next morning, three of us woke up extra early to hike a mile to an iconic rocky promontory called Charlie’s Bunion. Our mission: Watch the sun rise. The sun sure had received a lot of attention the previous week because of the eclipse, but I was eager to witness the every day miracle of it illuminating the earth.
When we arrived, the fog was thick and we were less than optimistic that we’d see much. Silly me, I should know better than to think the Smokies would disappoint. In an instant, our view transformed from a blank canvas of white to a mystical dance of fog rolling in and out of the valleys, revealing a landscape filled with peaks and valleys of our planet’s oldest mountains. Pure magic.
We eventually tore away from the show to head back to camp, where two more people had hiked in from Newfound Gap to join us for our day hike to Mt. LeConte–Chris (who also helps teach Backpacking 101 courses) and Amu, a newbie. We got ready to leave, but not before celebrating the birthday of Helen Mary with s’mores bars that I had made and packed in for the occasion.
With legs now fueled by sugar, we headed up the A.T. until it met up with the Boulevard Trail. From the Boulevard, we hiked to the summit of Mt. LeConte, one of the Smokies’ crown jewels. The ascent was easy with the companionship of interesting people and thoughtful conversation.
(If you’re interested in learning more about wildflowers in the park, Wildflowers of the Smokies is one of my favorites)
At the top, we enjoyed our lunches together and milled around a bit. The lodge was surely full since it’s peak season, but the mountain did not feel overly crowded. I have hiked LeConte about 10 different times, but oddly this was the first time I’d been there when the lodge was open. I wandered around a bit in the the common area for guests and loved reading some of the stories swirling around its colorful history.
We started our descent down the Alum Cave Trail. This trail is popular for good reason: Big views and geologic wonders dominate the scene and make the toe pounding descent much less painful. It has recently undergone extensive work, and the improvements to the trail were noticeable and very much appreciated.
Five miles later, we emerged from the woods, into a parking lot overflowing with cars. A quick shuttle back to Newfound, and we ended the day with promises to “meet up” again for another grand adventure!
Trail Report Card
Overall Grade: A+. It’s hard to go wrong with a trip up LeConte. There are five ways to reach the summit, each unique, and I’ve yet to find a path I don’t like.
Type of Hike: The way we hiked, it was a “Y” configuration, since we tacked on the overnight at the shelter and the sunrise jaunt to Charlie’s Bunion. That leg could be eliminated for a one-way day hike option (or you could overnight at the top at the LeConte shelter).
Mileage: 16.5 miles (see track below with elevation stats and such).
Suitability for Children: My kids have hiked up and down LeConte via the Alum Cave trail on two different occasions, and any reasonably fit child over the age of 8 shouldn’t have a problem, especially with some hiking experience. There are some areas with steep drop offs though, especially on the Alum Cave Trail, so be mindful of these places.
Camping: The Icewater Springs shelter is just a few tenths of a mile further beyond the A.T-Boulevard Trail junction. There is also a shelter at the top of LeConte but it is often closed for bear activity once the high season for the lodge begins.
Wildlife Encounters: None other than some red squirrels, mice in the shelter(!), and a few birds.
Water: Rather dry on the Boulevard Trail but a few reliable sources on Alum Cave.
Solitude: The A.T. and Alum Cave trails are both very crowded on a typical day. The Boulevard offers more solitude usually.
Gaia Track for Hike:
Recipe for S’mores Bars 🙂