It’s the most visited National Park for a reason! Stunning Blue Ridge views, incredible biodiversity and well it’s less than a day’s drive for a third of Americans. Hit the trails to escape the crowds and there you’ll find endless opportunity for adventure. I can remember driving through the park as a child but it wasn’t until October of last year (15′) when I first experienced the magic of the Smoky Mountains. For those two days I set my sights on Tennessee’s highest peak and the best adventure hike according to ‘Your guide to the National Parks’ by Michael Joseph Oswald. His book is the holy bible of National Park guides and will make any trip significantly easier to plan.
After a quick drive from Atlanta that Saturday and having set up camp at Smokemont it was time for Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee’s highest peak standing at 6,643 ft. I had a late start to the day so by the time I drove to the parking lot, .5 miles from the observation deck at the peak, the sun had begun setting and the colors were unreal!
After taking in the parking lot views I grabbed my headlamp and a sandwich for a walk up to the peak. At the intersection of the AT you’ll see the observation deck that provides 360 degree views. There was still a little glow from the sun when I first arrived so I took a few photos then sat back and waited for the stars on that chilly fall night.
The show was sensational and that night’s sleep was comfortably cold. In the morning I learned the importance of gloves taking down camp without any. Luckily I had 30 minutes to thaw out my hands before arriving at the Alum Cave trailhead early Sunday morning. The hike takes you to the 3rd highest peak in the park, Mt LeConte. It’s really cool because it starts at a lower elevation then it’s neighbors so it’s actually the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi!
You’ll have plenty of great vantage points on the way up and you’ll run into a few oddities too. At mile 2.2 you’ll reach what’s called the Alum Cave. Many people turn back here but the best of the trail is yet to come.
You’ll straddle a cable hand rail along rock ledges and walk over some tricky cascades. It seemed like there was something interesting around every bend. The trail itself changes after every step and really keeps you on your toes. Trekking poles would be a good option.
At 5 miles just before reaching the summit you’ll come across the LeConte Lodge which books up way in advance and for good reason. It would make for one epic group trip! After meeting a few people around the lodge I hiked to the highest actual point which is marked by a large cairn .5 miles up from the lodge (5.5 miles from the trailhead).
For the best view take the Cliff Top spur trail from the lodge. It faces west so you should plan a trip to stay at the lodge and watch sunset from the Cliff Tops. The view was wonderful during the day too!
From there it’s all downhill going back the way you came. I enjoy out and back hikes. You really have the time to focus on the little things that you may have missed going up. On this trip it was all about the gorgeous fall colors.
Although just a brief visit it was a start to a beautiful friendship that I hope lasts forever. That could be compromised because of its location though. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park experiences some of the highest measured air pollution of any national park. If the GSMNP is your home away from home like it is for many then donate to help the park service monitor and evaluate these causes and hopefully they’ll be able to work quickly with state and local agencies to reduce the impact.