This rustic lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park can only be reached on foot. And reserving a stay is a lot tougher than it used to be.
The Extra hike was worth the strain on my sore muscles. My husband and I were standing on Cliff Tops, an overlook close to the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte. That day, we had hiked up the mountain, the third highest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to stay at LeConte Lodge, a collection of primitive cabins and multi-room lodges near the overlook. Energized after dinner at the Lodge, we’d set out again to watch dusk fall over the park from this exposed rock.
Tucking away the hair the wind pulled from my ponytail, I studied the forested mountains that stretched below us to the pink horizon, the green of the trees on the closest ridges fading to shades of blue in the distance. Looking down on how far we’d hiked, I was relieved and proud; my doubts and worries about this trip had been unfounded.
The day had been stressful from the start. We’d planned on trekking the Trillium Gap Trail, one of six leading to the Lodge, which can only be reached on foot. But we weren’t sure how long it would take us to cover the almost seven miles to the top, and we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to check in by 4:30 p.m. We had also been concerned about parking. Grotto Falls, a popular waterfall, is on that trail, and we’d heard the small parking lot fills up fast.
So we woke up at 3:30 a.m. to travel to the park. We made it to the lot with only one space already taken and thought our worries were over. In the dim light of dawn, I pulled out our parking passes and looked them over. My heart sank. Since March, the park requires anyone parking for over 15 minutes to display a parking pass, and each pass must show the license plate number of the car that is parked. When we purchased the passes months before, we entered my husband’s license plate number but forgot and took my car. These non-transferable passes were worthless.
We needed new passes quickly. Waiting a few hours for visitor centers that sold passes to open meant forfeiting parking at the trailhead. We knew from the Lodge website there were shuttle services we could use to park elsewhere and still get to the trailhead, but that would take even more time. We might even be at risk of missing our check-in.
It’s not like we could easily reschedule either. I had tried for a year to get a reservation at LeConte Lodge. Due to its popularity, the Lodge uses a lottery system to book guests. In late summer, staff post a form on the Lodge’s website inviting interested hikers to submit every date they’d be available during the next year’s eight-month season.
On the first business day of October, two employees split the almost 4,000 online applications between them, and the reservations manager takes bookings by phone. Each independently registers guests, and, with only 15 rooms to rent each night, the calendar fills quickly.
The waitlist is the next option for unsuccessful applicants. Posted on the Lodge’s website in December or January, applicants can request a limited number of dates. The benefit of entering the wait list is that staff will inform an applicant of availability at least 30 days ahead of the stay. Anyone with a more flexible schedule can call the office or check the Lodge’s social media to see if there are any openings from someone canceling with shorter notice. But when an applicant is offered a date from the waitlist, whether they accept it or not, they are then removed from the list.
We had been on the waitlist for the second time when we were offered this stay and didn’t want to jeopardize this opportunity. Miraculously, our phones had a signal, and we learned that the closest automated fee machine, a vending machine for parking passes, was outside the Sugarlands Visitor Center. We reluctantly abandoned our spot and hurried to get our passes. We made it back to the Grotto Falls parking lot about an hour later. It was only a little after 7:00 a.m., but the parking lot was almost halfway full.
It was an unfortunate start, but we still got to enjoy Grotto Falls without the crowds. As we climbed higher on the shaded trail, I tried to ignore the growing pain in my hip and lower back. I needed frequent breaks to catch my breath, and we marveled at runners speeding down the trail and eventually passing us again on the way up. Frustrated by my slow pace, I refused to consider that I might not make it.
To my surprise, we arrived at LeConte Lodge only half an hour after the office’s noon opening. By now, my painful hip and back made each step a feat of will. In the office, we joined the long line of overnight guests waiting to check in and day hikers waiting to buy “I Hiked It” t-shirts, only available at the Lodge office. When it was our turn, a staff member showed us around the property.
Exhausted and hurting, I was intimidated by my new surroundings despite knowing what to expect. Our stark one-room cabin did not have electricity, and our guide showed us how to use the propane heater and something more common in museums and period movies: a glass kerosene lamp. I watched as the guide removed its tall globe, struck a match, and held it to the wick above the crimson kerosene. A long flame surged from the lamp, and he turned a small knob shortening it before replacing the globe. In the old wooden cabin with its all-wood furniture, I decided I wouldn’t risk lighting the lamp myself.
We learned how to use the communal pump to get fresh drinking water and were shown the bathrooms with flushing toilets, a luxury only accessible with a key kept in each cabin. Because there were no showers, we were given a bucket to collect hot water from a spigot for a sponge bath.
After a long nap to wait out the afternoon fog that poured into camp, we joined the rest of the guests at the dining hall for dinner. Before taking our assigned seats, we put all of our hiking snacks and wrappers in large metal trash cans in the hall as instructed to prevent rodents from invading our cabin at night, my true nightmare scenario. Some guests had paid to enjoy unlimited wine during the dinner hour, and we enjoyed the parade of hot comfort foods served family-style, fueling our evening hike to Cliff Tops.
The next morning, the relief I felt on Cliff Tops grew. I hadn’t been terrorized by the sound of animals trying to get inside the cabin. I had heard an overnight thunderstorm and knew rain was forecasted for our hike down, but when I left the cabin, I saw I wouldn’t need my poncho. With coffee from the dining hall, we stood on the office balcony and watched the sun rise in the clear sky before breakfast.
After buying to-go lunches, we began our trek down the mountain and met the Lodge llama train on their way up. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the llamas trek the Trillium Gap Trail, and other than the supplies delivered by helicopter at the beginning of each season, the Lodge relies on these llamas for essentials.
The llamas were one reason I decided we should take Trillium Gap. I expected this to be my only visit to the Lodge and didn’t want to miss out on seeing them. But as we easily sped down the mountain without a hint of yesterday’s pain despite the additional hike, I reconsidered; all of my fears had been unfounded. Maybe I’ll try my luck in the next lottery; after all, I still need to face that kerosene lamp.
Cover Photo: The view from Cliff Tops. photo by Maggie Gigandet