LeConte Lodge with Friends of the Smokies

image_preview7Staying at LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on so many hikers’ bucket list. At 6,360 feet above sea level, it is the highest lodge in the East and a most luxurious place to stay. For the second year in a row, Friends of the Smokies organized a stay at LeConte Lodge.  Beyond the hike up and down, Anna and Marielle, the North Carolina FOTS staff, worked on some extra benefits.

Rainbow Falls Trail
Rainbow Falls Trail

Like many Friends of the Smokies hikers, I had gotten to Gatlinburg on Monday evening to get to the meeting point at 8 am the next morning. I spent a while in my motel room packing and repacking what I had packed at home. I discovered that I had been carrying three ballpoint pens and four extra pairs of shoe laces for a while. I took them out of the pack and lightened my load a bit.

We left our cars at the Alum Cave Trailhead and were shuttled by bus to Rainbow Falls, our starting point – first extra benefit. Jennifer Hale, an interpretive park ranger, joined us for the whole trip – second extra benefit. It’s so rare that visitors get to spend that much quality time with rangers in their native habitat.

But still we had to climb about 3,800 feet to LeConte Lodge. No one was going to help us with that.

Jennifer, Marielle and Anna
Jennifer, Marielle and Anna

Rainbow Falls was a great stopping point, where some of us had an early lunch and others just kept climbing. Not too many features beyond the falls –  just several wonderful display of turtleheads. So many turtleheads that we stopped photographing them after a while. Were we getting jaded?

We’re so focused on spring wildflowers that we sometimes forget summer and fall flowers. But not on this trip. We also saw yellow jewel weed, cone flowers, grass of parnassus with its green varicose veins, blue gentians and even tiny white Michaux’s saxifrage, stuck in the rocks.

Once at the Lodge, most hikers sat, talked, drank tea and rested. But I needed to check out the sunrise spot at Myrtle Point accompanied by Chuck and Pat- thank you. I didn’t want to stumble in the dark – literally – as we tried to find the sunrise aided only by our flashlights.

On the way, we passed the actual top of the mountain at 6,593 feet. You can’t miss it since there’s a pile of rocks trying to become higher than Clingmans Dome. Good luck with that.

But the weather, though warm and dry, didn’t cooperate. We couldn’t see a good sunset at Clifftops or any sunrise the next morning. Yes, the sun rose, but a solid wall of fog stood between us and the sun.

LeConte Lodge, 2016 by Marielle DeJong
LeConte Lodge, 2016 by Marielle DeJong

After breakfast and the obligatory group picture, we walked down Alum Cave Trail, with two Smokies trail gurus, Tobias Miller and Eric Wood. Alum Cave Trail? Isn’t it closed? Hah! Another benefit, which deserves a blog post of its own.

PS Never confuse the photographs with the experience! Twenty-six hikers had a wonderful stay at LeConte Lodge. But somehow I lost some of my pictures! I even pinched Marielle DeJong’s photograph (above) of the group.

PPS If you’re counting miles for your Smokies 100 –

6.7 miles for Rainbow Falls Trail
0.4 mile (roundtrip) on Cliff Tops
1.4 miles (roundtrip) for Myrtle Point
5.0 miles for Alum Cave Trail
for a total of 13.5 miles.

Painted trillium

Trail authority

Remember the slogan, “We answer to a higher authority”. This award-winning slogan for Hebrew National hot dogs was meant to be the standard for quality.

When it comes to trails, we can argue about names, distances, and exactly where a sidetrail takes off. So I ask. Which sources do you regard as the authority on trails in the Southeast? Here goes:

* Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy puts out trail guides, data books and other material meant to help you plan your journey. You may not want to carry them all but you should consult them.

MST road sign
MST road sign

* Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail now has trail guides for the whole trail. They were written by hikers who walked the trail for the exact purpose of writing these guides. Some are now available in print, but all are well-designed, well-edited PDFs. Check out the guides.

*Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Great Smoky Mountains Association puts out many guides but the one you want is Hiking Trails of the Smokies.  It describes every trail in the park including distances, elevation, a little history and any challenges. I’ve used the guide to check out my GPS. It’s even more accurate than the trail signs.

image_mini13*Blue Ridge Parkway. Hiking and Traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Only Guide You Will Ever Need, Including GPS, Maps, and More by Leonard Adkins is the book you want. There has been several editions of this comprehensive book but you should get the 2013 edition. Every trail no matter how small is described here.  And you know that Adkins has walked every trail probably several times. Here’s my review.

Now what about my hiking guides, you might ask? They’re authoritative but they’re meant to inspire you, inform you on trails, history, flora and fauna, but they’re not exhaustive. I don’t write about every hike in a park or forest. When I plan to hike a trail, I check the sources above.

I will create a page on my website to make this information easier to find.



Cypress Knees at Barataria

Happy Anniversary, National Park Service

African-American church in CUIS
African-American church in CUIS

A week from today, Thursday August 25, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Here in the Southern Appalachians, we’re blessed have Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. But we have several other national park units so close by.

By August 1916, the Department of Interior oversaw 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and the Hot Springs and Casa Grande Ruin reservations, but there wasn’t a system to take care of them. Only one was in the East, the precursor to Acadia National Park, and none was in the Southeast at the time.  See this site if you’re interested in the national monuments at the time.

But look at the Southeast now. We have over 70 national parks, monuments, seashores, battlefields, and historic sites. Seven are designated national parks: Mammoth Caves (KY), Great Smoky Mountains (NC/TN), Congaree (SC), Biscayne (FL), Everglades (FL), Dry Tortugas (FL), Virgin Islands (US VI).

Elizabeth Johnson's bedroom
Elizabeth Johnson’s bedroom

Less than 60 miles from Asheville, Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN preserves the house and grounds of our seventeenth president.

So he wasn’t the greatest leader; probably all you can remember is that he was the first president to be impeached. The historic site tells such a compelling story of the times after Abraham Lincoln’s death. After visiting his home, vote on whether Johnson was guilty or not guilty of impeachment charges. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch Ranger Dan Luther, a former actor, dressed as Pres. Johnson.

As they say, 90 percent of life is showing up.

Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park

The best way to support our parks is to visit your local national park.

Everybody has a park unit reasonably close by. Hike the trails, walk the battlefield, study that monument. Thank the rangers or volunteers behind the desk for being here. We’ve been hearing so much about how crowded the national parks are going to be this year. Parks are not crowded.

Even in the Smokies, the most visited traditional national park in the country, only the roads and visitor centers are busy. Walk a mile from the trailhead and you’ll see almost no one. Arrive at a visitor center at nine a.m. and you’ll have the ranger’s full attention.

The National Park Service preserves and protects not only the scenery and views but also our country’s history. Each park is unique. There’s a reason why each unit is part of the National Park Service. My most memorable visits are where I was able to engage a ranger or a volunteer in conversation.

National parks in the south aren’t just about war and politics.

At Carl Sandburg
At Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg, a writer, poet and folksinger, is associated with the Midwest. When most men in their late sixties slow down, he and his family started a new life in Flat Rock. Carl Sandburg Home is well known for the goats that romp in the fields. A short trail takes you to where Sandburg was inspired to write:

It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, “Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?

I encourage you to spend some quality time in our smaller park units, take a walk on their trails, and talk to the folks behind the desk.

And wish the national park service a happy anniversary.