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|Ron P. Metcalfe, his wife, daughter and son's, September 3/4, 2006 overnight hike to the LeConte Lodge|
|Full photo album of September 3, 2006 hike, click here. Pictures from other LeConte hikes, click here.
By mid August, Abby and I (Ron P. Metcalfe) decided that we wanted to go back to LeConte again and bring her 5-year old brother Jackson and my wife Susan along. As Abby and Jackson have completed different hikes, I have bought them little patches to sew on their backpacks and medallions to attach to their hiking staffs. Ever since Jackson saw the LeConte patch on Abbys pack, he has asked to go to LeConte.
We were lucky enough to get a reservation on Sunday night, September 3, but only had three days notice to prepare. On Wednesday, I went to the store and bought our snacks and ponchos. On Thursday I had everyone lay out all their clothes and began to pack our backpacks. I e-mailed LeContes office and asked her about the possibility of getting a cake baked for dinner the night we would be there, as I had seen a sign in the office during our last visit that for an extra charge, the kitchen might be able to bake a cake. Christi said that cakes had been requested for Saturday and Monday, but that Sunday was still open if we wanted one. I told her that we did. She said the kitchen can make one cake per night and it is chocolate, yellow, or spice. I told her we preferred chocolate or yellow, but would take the spice cake if that were the only option. I hoped to get a cake and take a candle and have an early birthday party for Jackson, whose birthday is September 14.
Our plan was to spend Saturday night at base camp at Douglas Lake and leave bright and early Sunday morning. Saturday night, I checked and repacked all our gear and we went to bed around 10:00 PM. Since our previous two hikes had been in the rain, I had hoped for better weather. When we got the reservation, the forecast was for a 30% chance of rain. Previously, the forecast had been for partly cloudy skies and highs in the upper 70s. By Friday, the forecast was for partly cloudy skies on Saturday and a 20% chance of showers on Sunday. When we went to bed the night before, the sky was clear and stars were visible.
As Abby and I had done twice before, we went to the IHOP in Sevierville for breakfast on our way to the trailhead. It was overcast but it wasnt raining on the drive to Sevierville, and it was foggy in a few areas. As we ate, the sun began to rise and the dark skies began to lighten up. After leaving IHOP we took the Gatlinburg bypass and stopped at the overlook to check out the view of Mt. LeConte. We couldnt see anything but the base of the mountain around Cherokee Orchard, but at the second overlook we could see just the eastern edge of the mountain. Despite the low clouds over Gatlinburg, it appeared it would be a dry day for hiking.
We arrived at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and hit the trail at 7:25 AM. Since Jackson had never been to the lodge, we let him lead the way. About three quarters of a mile into the hike, we stopped by the large splintered tree that we named the "Lightning Strike" tree, and we reached the first footlog, the one-mile mark, at 8:06 AM. The first mile had taken us forty-one minutes. Fifty-four minutes into the hike, we reached the Arch Rock where we took our first break and had a candy bar snack. After about ten minutes of catching our breath and exploring the area, we hit the trail again and soon reached the final footlog.
At 9:00 AM we reached Inspiration Point and took another short break for water and to catch our breath and check out the views. We ambled up the trail a few feet to get a good view of the Eye of the Needle, and for the first time I saw the second eye down the ridge to the left of the main, obvious eye. At 9:15 AM we reached the Alum Cave Bluff. We had been hiking for one hour, fifty-four minutes and had only stopped for one extended break along the way, although we had paused several times for pictures or just to let everyone catch their breath, particularly along the steep stretch right before the Alum Cave Bluff steps.
We hung our packs on the rail along the trail and went up to the flat rock to have our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had made earlier in the morning. We left the Alum Cave Bluff at 9:50 AM and just about four minutes later I noticed the view along the spine of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, something I had never noticed before. I was amazed how narrow the entire ridge really was and wondered if anyone had ever attempted to climb out onto it. Eight minutes after leaving the Alum Cave Bluff, we reached the nearly halfway point, the false Gracie's Pulpit, at 9:58 AM. It was just beyond that area when I noticed the same view that Abby and I had during our first hike, the view of Chimney Tops and Sugarlands Mountain. (CLICK HERE for the earlier view). But this time, it was clear, instead of cloud and mist shrouded, as it had been when we hiked up in June.
Also around the halfway point, I took over carrying Jackson s backpack. I knew that the steepest part of the trail and the most treacherous lay ahead, so I wanted him in his best shape for that. After crossing the saddleback and rounding the bend, we could see the Myrtle Point peak of LeConte. We could also see the Grassy Slide and Rock Slide areas we would pass within the next two hours. I pointed out to Susan and Abby where the trail went and how much more elevation we had to climb before reaching those points. But I also assured them that soon after that, the trail leveled off and LeConte Lodge wasnt far from there. After the pleasant downhill of the saddleback, we came to the Log Steps, which I feel mark the beginning of the most tiring stretch of the trail. The three-quarters of a mile or so between the Log Steps and the Upper Steps at the switchback seem to be the most exhausting, so we planned to take as many breaks during this part as necessary. I didnt want to stop for five minutes rest after five minutes of walking, but we stopped plenty of times to catch our breath and rest our legs. That stretch of trail took us just under one hour to complete and we stopped for about twenty minutes after reaching the Upper Steps. While we were there, we heard the screech of a bird of prey overhead, which I assume was a Peregrine falcon, although it was so high and only visible through the trees that I cant be sure.
At 12:06 PM we reached Lus Pulpit. We stopped briefly here for pictures and for me to explain the final mile and half of the hike, which I assured Susan was about to get much better. But around each turn was another set of rocks, or another steel cable and precipitous drops.
One of the benchmarks that Jackson had remembered during the hike was the Grassy Slide. He kept asking if we were at the Grassy Slide yet, or how much further to the Grassy Slide. We arrived around 12:20 PM and stopped to admire the blooming Closed Gentian (pronounced gen shun) and Grass of Parnassus. Susan and Abby noticed bumblebees climbing inside the Closed Gentian, which, we later learned, was one of the characteristics of the flower. Abby and Jackson both took pictures of the area and we crossed the Rock Slide.
We reached the Stairway to Heaven, which I (again) assured Susan was one of the last steep climbs across rocks with steel cables and dangerous drops. I told her that the rewarding flat section of the trail was just ahead. Unfortunately, I had told her that about five times before, so I think it she had begun to doubt me. But just minutes later, at 12:55 PM we reached the flat area leading to the lodge. One of the neatest spots on the trail, it levels out and is surrounded by thick, short fir trees. It was here that I noticed the Indian Pipe growing during our last hike, and I just happened to look over and saw the same clump of flowers, although they had started to die.
During this section, I let Jackson have his backpack for the final push and put him back in the lead. We reached the junction with the Rainbow Falls trail at 1:05 PM. I told Jackson to be on the lookout for a small wooden bridge over the trail, which meant we were almost there. When he reached it, and we caught a glimpse of the top of one of the buildings, he almost started running in excitement. And at 1:09 PM, after five hours, forty-four minutes, we walked into the Lodge office.
Jackson and I went to the office to check in and Sarah, who was working the counter, said she recognized me from about a month before when Abby and I had come up. I covered Jacksons ears long enough to ask her if I needed to check with Allyson in the kitchen about the cake, and she said that I should. Susan and Abby arrived in the office and I managed to pull Abby and Jackson away from the games long enough for them to pick out a t-shirt. Susan and I also bought a t-shirt, and I got Jackson a bandanna and a hiking staff medallion. Sarah said that since I had been there recently, she wouldnt go through the directions, unless I wanted her to. She took us to Cabin #5, a one room, stand-alone cabin with a bunk bed and a cot. Our cabin didnt have a porch on it yet, but the construction workers were busy adding one on to the rear cabin.
We went into our cabin and began unpacking for our stay. There was a nice breeze blowing and the temperature was perfect, so we propped open the door while we took off our boots and arranged our gear. Abby and Jackson immediately climbed onto the top bunk and both declared that is where they wanted to sleep that night. As everyone emerged from the cabin, we grabbed our cups and headed down to the dining hall for some hot chocolate. Allyson filled our cups and we went onto the back porch of the dining hall to rest in the rocking chairs. While Abby and Jackson drank their hot chocolate and Susan called her mother, I went back to the kitchen to ask Allyson about the cake. She said she could make any flavor, so I asked for chocolate with chocolate icing. She said the cost was $10, so I gave her $20. I told her anybody that could bake a chocolate cake on request six vertical miles and one horizontal mile from the closest electrical outlet deserved every penny of it. She asked for whom the cake was being baked, and how old Jackson would be. She said she would have it ready for dinner.
I stepped back outside on the porch and Abby and Jackson wanted to go to the office to play Battleship. We filled up again on hot chocolate and went up to the office where the kids pulled down several games and played them all for a few minutes. Susan and I sat and flipped through some books and magazines while the kids played. Abby and Jackson took turns playing the guitar (which, by the way has a broken string, so the next people up should pack some guitar strings with them :) Since we still had three hours until dinner, I suggested we go ahead and hike up the rock cairn at High Top and then maybe on out to Myrtle Point. So we went back to the cabin and grabbed a jacket and headed out.
We took the steps behind the lodge and headed out the Boulevard Trail, stopping at the trail signs to read them, and stopping to check out the two large water tanks that look like submarines. We could even hear water gurgling from inside them. Along the trail I kept my eyes peeled for any deer, but saw only some tracks in the mud. After a few minutes we reached the LeConte Shelter and found it unoccupied, so we stopped and took a look around. We also took time to stop and inspect the bear cables where overnight hikers are supposed to store all their food and backpacks in an effort to keep from attracting bears.
We left the shelter and continued on up the trail until we reached the summit of Mt. LeConte. We all took turns placing our rocks on the cairn, which had grown a couple of feet since Abby and I were last there in July. However, it also looked pretty unstable, so we kept our distance, except for the family photo, as we didnt want a few hundred pounds of rocks toppling over on us. We decided to continue on out the trail to Myrtle Point. During our previous two trips, Abby and I had never gone on out, since it was raining both times. But this day it was cool and dry, so we rounded the bend and crossed the col between High Top and Myrtle Point. We met up with some hikers who were on an eighteen-mile day hike, and they said the spur to Myrtle Point was just around the bend. We found the sign directing us to Myrtle Point and began the two-tenths of a mile hike off the Boulevard Trail to that area. Much of the trail seemed to follow a knife edge of the mountain, as in many areas it looked as if the sides of the mountain dropped off quite a bit, although it was difficult to tell because of the thick brush and cloudy conditions. The hike out to Myrtle Point took about forty minutes, including the time we stopped at the shelter and rock cairn. We reached Myrtle Point and sat on the large broad rocks and rested while Abby and Jackson climbed over them, scratched their names into the rock, and played for a bit.
We decided to hike back to the cabin so we would have time for a short nap before supper. In less than five minutes, Abby was asleep, and just a few minutes later Jackson followed. I had almost fallen asleep when to kids playing outside our cabin began yelling Free Pokey Grass for sale, twenty-five cents. Just having fun, they were trying to sell grass to anyone who passed by. The only problem was they were right under our window. After a few minutes, they ran off to do something else and I started to nod off. Then they came back, this time outside our front door, hawking their Pokey Grass to anyone who would walk by. I wasnt angry, but I did lean my head out our and asked them if they would mind moving their Pokey Grass stand down toward the dining hall a bit. The boy apologized and they stopped selling Pokey Grass. I climbed back up the bunk and dozed off.
Around 5:45 PM I woke up and was surprised to find that the temperature had dropped and it was a bit chilly to be wearing shorts. So I climbed down, woke up the children and we changed and prepared for dinner. Jackson wasnt in the best of moods, but he climbed down and we waited for the dinner bell. At 6:00 PM sharp it rang and we headed to the dining hall to eat. I knew that Jackson wouldnt want any green beans or mashed potatoes, but thought he would eat the beef and cornbread and his chocolate chip cookie and peach. He still wasnt in the best of moods, so I let him start with the chocolate chip cookie instead. That lifted his spirits enough to have a bite of beef and some cornbread.
We sat at a table with Barbara and Diego and twelve-year old Kelby. They were from North Carolina and had just recently heard of LeConte. Barbara said that she had hiked into the Grand Canyon before and was hoping to return there someday. She said while searching on the Internet for interesting hikes in the area, she came across the LeConte Lodge and was thrilled to be able to get a room. Barbara, Diego, and Kelby had passed us on the trail earlier in the day around Gracies Pulpit and we had stopped to talk then. I had told them what was left on the trail and how much further they had to go. Barbara said at dinner that they had expected about a five-hour hike, but when Diego saw the sign at the Rainbow Falls junction saying that the lodge was one-tenth of a mile, they thought it was an error. Diego said they made the hike in just over three hours. We enjoyed sitting and talking with them all during the dinner.
As we neared the end of supper, Allyson came out of the kitchen with Jackson s cake complete with six candles on top. She called everyones attention and announced that a special guest was having a birthday. Jacksons eyes were wide when she came out with the cake, but he had no idea it was for him. When she said his name, he gasped and sat up in his seat, and grinned as everyone in the dining hall joined in singing Happy Birthday. Allyson and barely put the cake down on the table when Jackson blew out the candles. I cut him to fairly large pieces, got some for myself, and passed the cake around the table, sharing with Barbara, Diego, and Kelby. Once we had our slices, I took the dish over to the adjacent table and told them we would be honored if they would all enjoy a piece and pass it around to all the tables in the dining hall. Later, the pan returned with only one small sliver of cake left in it. Several people came by to wish Jackson and Happy Birthday and congratulate him on his achievement and to thank us for sharing the cake.
After dinner and cake, we decided we wanted to hike up to Cliff Top for the sunset view and to hear Ranger Jennifer (Hale) who was stationed at LeConte that weekend. When Abby and I went in July, the presentation was scheduled at 8:00 PM, but now a month later it was scheduled for 7:30 PM. I wonder what they do when sunset falls around suppertime? Do you have to choose between eating and the view? We stopped by the cabin to grab a jacket and our flashlights and took the trail behind camp up to Cliff Top. Ranger Jennifer was already there along with two other people, so we began peppering her with questions about different flowers we had seen, where exactly the Alum Cave Bluff trail was (right below us), and other questions. It was pretty cloudy off to the west, but the clouds had broken toward the north affording us a good view of Clingmans Dome.
As other s arrived, Ranger Jennifer took time to answer everyones questions. She pointed out the Chimney Tops which were barely visible above the clouds below, and she told of a bear that had been tranquilized around the bathrooms back at the lodge just a few weeks earlier. She said after the bear workup where they give the bear two tattoos (one on the leg and one inside their lip), a tag in both ears, and pull a tooth for study, the bear was awakened and scared off and hasnt returned. She stressed the importance of making sure no food was left inside our outside our cabins during the night. The sun was visible above a large bank of clouds in the far distance, and the nearby clouds started to dissipate. But the sun dipped below those clouds, probably somewhere along the Cumberland Plateau, and emerged just in time for us to see it disappear below the horizon. We posed for a picture, taken by Ranger Jennifer.
After the sun was below the horizon and it was starting to get dark, we headed back down to the office. By the time we reached it, it was dark enough that we needed to light the lanterns to see to play games. Jackson and I went back to our cabin and got our lantern from there to give some more light. On the way to the office, we stopped at the dining hall to thank Allyson again for the cake and ask that our heater be turned on. Jackson gave Allyson a big hug and she said she would send someone up right away. At the office, while Jackson and Abby played Battleship, a college-aged couple sat down at the other end of our table. They played Parcheesi while we played Battleship. After playing that a bit, Jackson and I worked on a Dexters Laboratory puzzle while Abby and Susan worked on another puzzle. But Jackson was captivated by the Parcheesi game. So when the couple finished playing and we finished our puzzle, we asked if we could play and if they would like to join us.
This is when we met Courtney and Steven, both from Florida and both students at Florida State University. Courtney said she had played Parcheesi all her life with her sister and mother and proceeded to show us how to play. Jackson, of course, rolled first and moved his first player out. As the rest of us took turns and moved around the board, Courtney explained the rules, how to move, what spaces we could land on, and where the safety spaces and home zones were. As we kept playing, Jackson pointed out to Courtney and Steve where the other hazards were things like the giant saw, the huge fan, the swirling tornado, the earthquake zone, the bear cave, and anything else he could think of. Courtney and Steven seemed to get a kick out of learning all these new parts to Parcheesi that they had never known. Courtney said she couldnt wait to get back and tell her mother and sister about the new rules she had learned.
We finished up the game around 10:35 PM and headed back to the cabin to turn in for the night. I was surprised when we stepped outside and discovered that it had started raining. Jackson and I made a dash for the cabin, walking briskly but carefully since I was carrying a burning lantern. Susan and Abby had left a few minutes earlier and were already in bed, so Jackson and I changed into our night clothes and decided that we better make one more trip to the bathroom before calling it a night. The rain had picked up quite a bit in just those few minutes, so we slipped on a jacket, grabbed our flashlights and ran for the bathrooms. Back at the cabin, we dried off and climbed up into bed. Jackson crawled under the covers and I pulled the sheet up and we listened to the rainfall as we said our prayers and lay down to sleep.
I awoke a couple of times during the night to find it was still raining, around 1:00 AM and again around 4:00 AM, but when my alarm went off at 6:00 AM it had stopped raining. Instead of getting up, I decided to roll over and fell back asleep for another hour or so, and then got up and went to the office for some coffee. Not only had the rain stopped, but some of the stone steps along the walkway had already started to dry off, although it was still pretty socked in. I went back to the cabin around 7:40 AM to wake everyone up and get ready for breakfast. After getting dressed and cleaned up a bit, the breakfast bell rang and we headed down to eat.
We sat again with Diego, Barbara, and Kelby, but were also joined by Ranger Jennifer, which was a real treat having your own park professional sitting with you to answer all your questions. Jennifer told us about her job and about different areas of the park, like the more rugged Greenbrier section and the little visited and isolated Twentymile area. Ranger Jennifer said that she and Ranger Katie alternated weekends at LeConte, and I realized that I now recognized her as the Ranger we met on the trail as we made our first trip. Jackson wolfed down his two pancakes and one of mine, and drank all his orange juice, while Abby enjoyed a little bit of everything. I think, however, I was the only one at the table to eat any grits.
After breakfast, we went back to the cabin and finished packing and decided to go back to the office to relax a bit before starting our hike. Barbara, Diego, and Kelby all came by to shake our hands and say goodbye as we played some more games. Shortly after they left, we decided to head out also, and at 9:24 AM we posed for our picture in front of the dining hall and hit the trail.
Because of the rain overnight, the trail was a bit damp in some places, so we took extra care and caution, especially along the rocks and areas with safety cables. We reached the Grassy Slide in about forty minutes, passed by Lu's Pulpit, then the first log steps at the switchback in just over one and one half hours, and the halfway point, Gracies Pulpit in just over two hours. We had stopped a few times to take some pictures, but otherwise had kept a fairly steady pace, stopping occasionally also to talk with people on their way up. As we stopped at Gracies Pulpit we began to feel a few drops of rain. I hurriedly got everyones packs on and suggested we try to reach the Alum Cave Bluff before the rain got too hard and soaked us, but in just a couple of minutes, the rain started to pick up to the point we decided we better break out the ponchos. We had gone just a few feet beyond Gracies Pulpit and still managed to get our heads pretty wet before we got our ponchos on. The next twenty minutes of hiking to the Alum Cave Bluff brought some pretty strong showers, and the water began to flow down the middle of the trail. Jackson didnt mind it so much because I told him he didnt have to take care not to step in the puddles, so he walked right in the middle of the little impromptu creeks.
We reached the Alum Cave Bluff right at 12:00 Noon and headed toward the dry area. We were going to stay for a while but all the good sittin rocks were occupied, so we stood for a few minutes with our ponchos on. While we were there, we heard a loud thump, like someone dropping a large stack of magazines on the floor. I looked around in time to see a pile of rocks crashing to the floor in a cloud of dust. Apparently the rain had loosened them just enough for them to come loose and a chunk the size of a dorm refrigerator had crashed to the floor. The debris landed about thirty feet from where we were stood. While were werent in any danger where we were standing, I couldnt help but think that if anyone had been standing there, they would have been killed instantly. Knowing that we had to briefly walk under the ledge as we left, I decided we should probably get going just in case. So we left, quickly walking through the area directly under the ledge.
Fortunately, the rain had stopped and we proceeded on down to Inspiration Point. Right before that, we came upon a young man and his mother who had stopped for a snack. They had hung their packs on some limbs and were eating something from a can. She said they had never been to LeConte but were excited about their upcoming two-night stay. I told them a little about what laid ahead of them, and told them that they were only about fifteen minutes max from the Alum Cave Bluff where they could rest in the dry. They said they knew it was along the trail, but didnt know how much further. We told them how great the Lodge was and wished them a happy hike.
Just before 1:00 PM we reached the Arch Rock where we decided to take a long break. We pulled out what was left of our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (Abby and Jackson got a half each, Susan ate a whole one, and I ate the leftover crusts that nobody wanted from the day before). We spent about twenty minutes resting and exploring and Susan changed out of her boots into her Croc flip-flops, since the remainder of the trail was relatively level and rock free. I also let Jackson start carrying his backpack again and offered to carry Abbys for her until from the last footlog (1 mile from trailhead) until we reached the next to last bridge before the parking lot. Abby and I walked together ahead of Susan and Jackson and talked about the trip and made plans for our next hike. She told me she was very proud of her brother for making it all the way without complaining. We reached the Lightning Tree about 1:30 PM and I knew we had less than a half-four left in the hike, and Abby asked to carry her own pack from there on down. We waited there for Susan and Jackson to catch up with us, and we again put Jackson in the lead and told him to be on the lookout for a bridge, which meant we were almost back at the car. I noticed the large flat stones in the middle of the trail, and remember having read their significance, but can't remember it now.
At 1:50 PM, Jackson starting yelling and running and exclaimed that we were back, and sure enough we crossed the last bridges before the parking lot. We stopped for pictures in front of the trailhead sign and after a four hour, eighteen minute hike reached the car. On the way down, we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get Jackson his LeConte patch for his backpack, and as we exited the car we saw Ranger Jennifer standing at a kiosk outside the doors offering information to new visitors. When she saw us coming down the sidewalk she began to smile and wave and yelled You made it! We stopped to speak with her a bit, went inside to buy our patches and take a tour of the stuffed animals in their museum and then headed down to Gatlinburg. We drove just inside to the Happy Hiker store where we bought Jackson a couple more patches (for Myrtle Point and Cliff Top), took the Gatlinburg bypass out of town and had one last look at Mt. LeConte (which was obscured by clouds) and then headed back to Douglas Lake.
Back at the lake cabin, we shared pictures and stories of our hike with my parents and then packed up our van with our other clothes. Abby and I have a bit of a tradition of going into Dandridge to Grand Slam Pizza Parlor, so we decided to do that. Abby, Jackson, and I took about a thirty-minute ride on the family float boat back to Swanns Marina where Susan met us in the van. We went to have pizza and headed home.
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