“Ok, look,” I said to the cat. She was mostly asleep in a shoe box next to me, the opposite of riveted by our conversation. I’d been sitting in front of my computer for an hour with a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread between us as she snoozed and offered an occasional tail swish. I was researching trails, trying to figure out which ones I wanted to hike, and, emboldened by the cat’s lack of interest, I felt ready to make a decision.
“I think I’m going to hike up a mountain,” I told her. “I’m going to hike to the top of Mount LeConte.”
The cat didn’t move. I don’t even think her eyes were open at that point and it was clear she didn’t care. Still, the decision felt significant. The hike to the summit of Mount LeConte was five and a half miles, making for a roundtrip scamper of 11 miles, far longer than the five and six mile hikes I usually attempt.
As I sat there thinking about it, agonizing over which trails I wanted to hike, arguing with myself over how far was too far, I realized I was being ridiculous. I realized I was holding myself back.
I am a chronic under-estimator of my own strength and endurance. Part of it is wise caution, especially given my propensity for solo jaunts into the wilderness and an unending love of true crime podcasts. But some of it is just a lack of confidence.
“You can’t,” is a thing I tell myself sometimes. Not often, not always, but every now and then, just often enough to keep me grounded, I guess. “You can’t run that fast, you can’t hike that far, you can’t go there alone.”
There are things I can’t do. Lots of things. But I’m training for a half marathon, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and I can hike 11 miles.
So I did.
I woke up early that morning, the morning I hiked to the top of Mount LeConte. I ate breakfast, brewed some coffee, loaded my pack with snacks and headed out before the sun was up. I made it to the Alum Cave Trailhead, just west of Newfound Gap, by 8:30 a.m.
I rummaged around in the car for a bit, refilling my water bottle, downing the last of my coffee, loading my pack with additional snacks and then, finally, I was ready.
I cussed a lot on this trail. I cussed because the toilets were closed for the winter season, because I had to start my hike with a full bladder, because finding the perfect spot and moment to pee is always an adventure when you’re a solo girl in the woods. I cussed because I repeatedly almost fell on the ice that lined the trail up above 6,000 feet. I cussed because the second half of the hike, up above Alum Cave, was steep, rocky and challenging. I cussed because there were loud people on the trail, because I kept finding the corners of snack food packages on the trail, because my back hurt for absolutely no good reason.
I also cussed because it was beautiful. In fact, I mostly cussed because it was beautiful.
“Holy fuck,” I said over and over again. Also, “Are you fucking kidding me, how is this real?”
I cussed at the bridges and at Arch Rock. I cussed at Inspiration Point where the Smoky Mountains presented themselves in all their misty glory. I cussed at Alum Cave, a concave bluff 80 feet high and 500 feet long with water dripping off the upper ledges that sparkled in the sunlight. I cussed when the trail evened out and opened up into a dense spruce-fir forest dappled with sunlight. And I cussed when I got to the pile of rocks that marked the highest point of Mount LeConte, at 6,593 feet. It’s the third highest peak in the Smokies and can also be considered the tallest mountain in the Eastern U.S. if measured from its immediate base to its highest point.
It took me almost exactly three hours to walk the 5.5 miles to the top of Mount LeConte. It was hard, especially after Alum Cave where the trail gets rougher, rockier and requires the careful navigation of a few ledges. And it was worth it. It’s always worth it.
At the top, I found a spot in the sun to sit, eat and enjoy my trail beer, a Daycation IPA from Highland Brewing Company out of Asheville. I love this part of every hike, the part where I sit down, open a beer and ask nothing of myself. It’s a ritual, a moment of zen.
Almost an hour later, I started back down the trail, retracing the 5.5 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation I’d conquered to get to the top.
I often look for loops when I hike. I reason that I want to see something new every step of the way, but that’s not fair to an out and back. The up looks different from the down, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains where the ever-changing mist makes for a different view from minute to minute.
I took my time on the way back, just like I had on the way up. I stopped at Alum Cave again, just to watch the water catching the sunlight on the way down from the bluff’s ledges. I stopped at Arch Rock too, because it’s insane and magical to look at. I stopped whenever I felt like stopping, whenever I wanted to take another picture or run my hand under the water dripping off the rocks along the trail, whenever I wanted to gaze at the moss growing up and over downed trees and rocks. This is the thing I like about going alone. The only one I can annoy with my moss gazing is myself.
I made it back to the trailhead at 2:37 p.m., six hours after I’d set out.
“You just climbed a fucking mountain,” I said to myself as I slipped my pack off. After that whole absolutely useless conversation with the cat, I’d done it. I’d climbed the mountain.
For more information on climbing to the top of Mount LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail, this article is really helpful, as is the official park website. If you’re not up for the full hike to the top of Mount LeConte, which is rated as strenuous, the hike to Alum Cave is pretty great and is rated as moderate with roundtrip mileage of about 4.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee border and is America’s most visited national park. Admission to the park is free and it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The park has three visitors centers as well as a visitor contact station at Clingmans Dome. Some roads and attractions within the park are closed during the winter months and inclement weather can cause additional road closures. Check the park’s official twitter account for the latest closures.