In the history of sibling rivalry, one name stands above almost all others. LeConte. There are some, including the United States Geological Survey, who believe that Mt. LeConte, the iconic hiking destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was named after Joseph LeConte. Joseph was a physician, geologist, professor at the University of California, Berkley and early conservationist.
The Leconte brothers
Those who believe the third highest peak in the Smokies is named after Joseph LeConte also believe the mountain was named in his honor by Arnold Guyot, a Swiss geologist and geographer for whom the second highest peak in the Smokies – Mt. Guyot – is named. However, it seems in recent years there have been some, including authors Kenneth Wise and Ron Patterson, who wrote “A Natural History of Mount LeConte” who believe the mountain was named after Joseph’s older brother John LeConte, a physicist at South Carolina College.
The story is that the mountain was named by Samuel Buckley after John helped move Buckley’s barometer to Waynesville, North Carolina. Oh, the fights these irascible brothers and college professors who lived on opposite coasts must have had. Also, how nice must it have been to have important friends in the 1800s? You’re just gettin’ mountains named after your buddies willy-nilly. Guyot has mountains named after him all over North America.
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Hiking to Mount LeConte in the Smokies
Regardless of which LeConte is the true namesake, Mount LeConte is an iconic hiking destination in the Smokies with some of the best scenic views in the Eastern United States. At 6,593 feet, LeConte is the third-highest peak in the Smokies and the highest peak in the state of Tennessee. When the push to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was underway, a tent camp was erected near the summit of Mt. LeConte to welcome visiting dignitaries from Washington. On that site, Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer, began building what would become LeConte Lodge in 1926, predating the establishment of the park by about 8 years.
Today, Mt. LeConte Lodge is a fairly hard-to-reach, fairly hard-to-book getaway. For example, the lodge and the peak are only accessible by one of six trails: Alum Cave Trail, Boulevard Trail, Bullhead Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Brushy Mountain Trail and Trillium Gap Trail. Supplies are brought to and from the lodge by pack animals like llamas. Bookings can be hard to come by, depending on the time of year. On pollution-free days, the lodge offers breathtaking views from the high elevation of the third-highest peak in the Smokies.
How long does it take to hike to Mt. LeConte?
The Alum Cave Trail is generally considered the most popular trail. In general terms, factor in 6 to 10 hours, depending on how much you stop and rest along the way. Also, remember to factor in weather conditions. It’s a tough question to answer because there are so many factors involved. For example, your skill level and fitness will factor in as well as the decision on which trail to take.
Is Mt. LeConte a difficult hike?
Again, it’s somewhat relative and depends on which of the six paths you take. To be clear, no matter which route you take, you’re still climbing up a significant grade. The Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is rated at the upper edge of moderately difficult while the others are just rated difficult. I think less experienced hikers would consider the trails very difficult, for example. I’ve seen the Alum Cave hike categorized as strenuous but not technically challenging and that seems about right.
Can a beginner hike Mt. LeConte?
Sure. A beginner in reasonable shape can make the hike. Should they? That’s a different question. I’m cautious by nature and if I was a novice hiker, I might test my mettle on something a little less epic. Maybe plan a hike to the Alum Cave Bluffs, about a 2.5-mile one-way hike from the Alum Cave trailhead. The trailhead is located about 9 miles down Newfound Gap Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. If you handle the Alum Cave Bluffs – which are pretty amazing in their own right – then go ahead and tackle the extra 2.5 miles to the summit of Mount LeConte, also known as High Top.
Can you climb Mt. LeConte in a day?
Yeah, you can. And many people do. Again, it’s a long day. First of all, you’d want to start early and plan properly but it certainly can be done. In addition to the lodging available by reservation at the LeConte Lodge, there are some overnight shelters available through the National Park Service. These require a backcountry pass and reservations. Also, keep in mind the return trip isn’t necessarily easy. A lot of novice hikers think because you’re going downhill, it’s easier. But you’re using entirely different muscle groups and it puts a lot of stress on your feet. You ain’t just rolling back down the mountain.
So, let’s break down each trail in detail. Here are six ways to access Mt. LeConte:
1. Alum Cave Bluffs Trail
According to the National Park Service, it is 2.5 miles one way to Alum Cave Bluffs, which marks the halfway point to the top of the mountain. The trail continues past the Bluffs for a total of 5.0 miles to just below the summit of Mt. LeConte. Some visitors turn around at the bluffs, but you may also continue on to the summit of Mount LeConte to see sweeping vistas from exposed cliffs that the trail follows to the top. It is rated as moderately difficult or strenuous. At the trailhead on Newfound Gap Road, there are two large parking areas. You gain 2,763 in elevation. This one is probably the most popular hike with day hikers.
2. Boulevard Trail
Secondly, there’s the Boulevard Trail. The 15-and-a-half-mile round trip hike is rated as difficult and strenuous. It is not to be undertaken lightly. Start at the Newfound Gap parking area and hike 2.7 miles along the Appalachian Trail to reach the Boulevard Trail. Those who can undertake the difficult hike up and down ridgebacks are rewarded with spectacular views along the very spine of the mountains.
3. Bull Head Trail
Likely the most difficult route you can take to the top of Mt. LeConte, this 14.6-mile round-trip hike starts at a trailhead on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. You climb nearly 4,000 feet in elevation. It’s steep and it hurts. But you’re again rewarded with miraculous views. This trail had been closed for almost two years following the 2016 wildfires. Also, with more exposed pathways, on sunny days, this can be the hottest hike up the mountain as well.
4. Rainbow Falls Trail
Also launching from Roaring Forks Motor Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail is rated as difficult and strenuous, nearly 4,000 feet throughout the 6.9-mile, one-way hike. Like the other trails, the Rainbow Falls Trail offers panoramic views, but it also takes you by the falls for which the trail is named. You reach the falls after 2.7 miles – and for many, that’s the perfect turning-around spot.
5. Brushy Mountain Trail
This 4.9-mile trail connects Porters Creek with a trailhead in Greenbrier to the Trillium Gap Trail. To reach the summit, you must hike several more miles on the Trillium Gap Trail. The total hike is 11.7 miles round trip. It rises 3,000 feet in elevation. It is considered the least difficult and strenuous route up the LeConte, but it still is a significant hike. If you take this route in spring, you will be greeted by an explosion of wildflowers. Also, there are relics of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead – settlers in the Porters Creek Community in the decades before the national park.
6. The Trillium Gap Trail
Finally, also launching from the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, this 13.9-mile round-trip hike covers a 3,400-foot change in elevation. It is also rated as difficult and strenuous. This trail starts with a gentle walk through old-growth forest and wildflowers to the Grotto Falls – the only trail in the Smokies where you can hike behind a waterfall. If you don’t feel like tackling the third-highest peak in the Smokies, this is a good place to turn around. From this beautiful mountain paradise, you start to gain elevation significantly. Also, be prepared to meet a pack train of llamas on your hike. This is the trail chiefly used to run supplies to the lodge. Keep in mind, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail closes in winter. You can hike in, but that will add considerably to your trip.
Have you hiked to Mt. LeConte? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments!