Part One - Trailblazers
|Mt. Le Conte in winter, as seen from Brushy Mountain. ©Twisted Ridge Photography|
At an elevation of 6,593ft, Mt. Le Conte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Towering above Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the undulating ridgeline of Mt. Le Conte has had a magnetic effect on hikers and visitors to the Smokies for more than a century. As part one of a three-part series examining the allure of Mt. Le Conte, this post summarizes the trailblazing efforts of early-twentieth-century “Le Conte enthusiasts” whose profound love of the mountain fueled the movement to preserve its awe-inspiring beauty for future generations.
Today, hikers can access the summit of Mt. Le Conte via one of five distinct trails: Boulevard, Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap, Bull Head, and the most popular route, Alum Cave. However, during pre-Park years, access to the top of the mountain was limited. Two trails were commonly used by pioneering hikers to reach the summit. At Bear Pen Hollow, located close to the present loop along Newfound Gap Road, hikers trekked up what author and founding member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Carlos C. Campbell, described as “barely a beaten path” that led to Le Conte’s West Point. This was a rather difficult route for even the most experienced hiker of the period. In his memoirs, Paul J. Adams explained that people would often climb tall trees next to the path in order to read the lay of the land and locate their next objective. After clambering through, and sometimes over, thick patches of tangled laurel and rhododendron, hikers would then follow the ridge from West Point to the summit. Because Newfound Gap Road had not yet been built, one’s journey to Le Conte from Bear Pen Hollow actually began in Gatlinburg. From there, hikers reached Bear Pen Hollow by walking (or riding horses) along the old Thomas Road, the first wagon road over the Smokies, which was located about a mile and a half to the west of the current highway.
|Bear Pen Hollow and Mt. Le Conte’s West Point (upper left) as seen from Chimney Tops, ca. 1920-1940. ©Thompson Brothers Digital Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections|
The second, more accessible early hiking trail on Mt. Le Conte was located southeast of Gatlinburg at Cherokee Orchard. This route began near a barn at the rear of the orchard where a sign post once indicated a distance of four miles from Cherokee Orchard to Cliff Top. There, a rugged path known at the time as the “Mill Creek Trail” (later renamed Le Conte Creek), followed a boulder-strewn route to Rainbow Falls where hikers would often rest before continuing up the mountain.
The old Mill Creek Trail once used by Adams and other hikers has since fallen out of use, but Rainbow Falls remains a popular destination for Park visitors. Today, hikers can head to the top of Mt. Le Conte from Rainbow Falls by following the Rainbow Falls Trail for an additional 4.2 miles. The current trail, constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the early days of the Park, crosses a footbridge over Le Conte Creek and leads away from the 80ft high waterfall. A switchback brings you above the falls where you can continue the steady climb up the mountain. However, in the 1920s, hikers undertook a more adventurous route in order to regain the old Mill Creek Trail above Rainbow Falls.
On August 6, 1924, Adams and Wiley Oakley, the famed local mountain guide from Gatlinburg, led a group of twenty-five individuals, including two members of the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee, to the summit of Mt. Le Conte from Cherokee Orchard. It was the hope of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association who organized the hike, that the two committee members would be so impressed by the grandeur of the mountain that they would support the growing movement to create a national park in the Smokies. Prior to the hike, workers cleared large blow-downs and heavy underbrush along the route in an effort to improve trail conditions. While this may have simplified matters for the group on the day of the hike, Adams recorded the daunting scene that unfolded when the hikers reached Rainbow Falls.
Back then, one needed both strong legs and arms to gain the top of Rainbow Falls. The ‘trail’ went up a leaning [hemlock] tree near the bluff, about 100 feet west of the falls. Helpers at the base of the tree helped some of our less agile guests to reach the first tree branches. Others at the top helped them from the tree to solid ground. But everyone had to climb the middle distance under his own power.One has to wonder what the Park Committee members from Washington, D.C. were thinking as they scrambled up the fallen tree to the top of Rainbow Falls. Fortunately for the GSMCA, no one was injured and the hiking party was able to reach a rough camp established near Cliff Top.
|Cherokee Orchard as it looked in 1933 (Mt. Le Conte in the background). ©Albert "Dutch" Roth Digital Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections|
Two weeks before the Park Committee hike, the influential leader of the Smoky Mountains national park movement, Col. David C. Chapman, along with Oakley and a dozen other men, blazed a trail on the south-face of Mt. Le Conte which served as the descent route for the group. According to Adams, the trailblazers spread out and began searching for a ridge that connected the crest of the mountain with Alum Cave Bluff. After locating the ridge about a half-mile below Cliff Top, the men began the tedious work of cutting a new path. This they linked with a pre-Civil War trail leading from the bluff to Grassy Patch, now the site of the parking area for the Alum Cave trailhead. The present Alum Cave Trail, graded and redirected by men of the CCC, crosses the old, disused path several times along its length.
Alum Cave Bluff presented members of the 1924 park commission hiking party with another tough challenge as they descended the newly blazed trail from the summit of Mt. Le Conte. On the previous day, the group had to scramble up a tree to reach the top of Rainbow Falls. The next afternoon, they had to negotiate the 80ft high, 500ft wide overhanging cliff before carrying on to Grassy Patch. Campbell explained that several members “climbed down a tree, the top of which reached just above the upper edge of the cliff.” Others, he noted, managed to slide down the “almost perpendicular slope” to the side of the rocky outcrop. As time went on, a cable was secured near the top of the bluff to assist hikers coming down the mountain. Today, however, Alum Cave Bluff makes for a pleasant, rather than intimidating rest stop for hikers heading to and from the summit area. The cable has long since been removed, and the current Alum Cave Trail bypasses any serious difficulties near the popular location.
|A narrow section of the Alum Cave Trail leading to the summit of Mt. Le Conte. ©Twisted Ridge Photography|
By the mid-1920s, Mt. Le Conte had become the focal point for influential Smokies enthusiasts who tirelessly promoted the idea of creating a national park in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Combined with the assistance of experienced guides such as Paul Adams and Wiley Oakley, the trailblazing efforts conducted during this period by the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association and members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club (organized in 1924) helped to make that idea a reality. On several occasions, potential park supporters, along with National Park Service commissioners, were led to the summit by means of the old Mill Creek Trail where the lush beauty of the virgin forest and the spectacle of Rainbow Falls “brought high praise” from participants of the hike. After visiting the summit, hiking parties often descended Mt. Le Conte via the newly cut trail on Alum Cave ridge which provided alternative access to Alum Cave Bluff and the viewpoint known as Inspiration Point.
Although they were rough and rugged, the earliest trails leading up Mt. Le Conte allowed an ever-increasing number of hikers to reach the top of the iconic peak. Part two of this series will examine the important activities undertaken by Paul Adams who, in 1925, established a camp for fellow Le Conte enthusiasts near the summit.
Andy Drinnon is an avid hiker, a historian, and a photographer. You can visit his Flickr page by clicking here.