The rustic cabins and dining hall that make up LeConte Lodge are perched on a windswept opening in the spruce-fir forest along the northern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a remnant of the last Ice Age, complete with ravens and red squirrels, a place that never gets much warmer than 80 degrees even in the hottest summers.
No one knows this mountain like Tim Line. In 1977 Line started cooking for the LeConte Lodge, and for the last three decades he has managed the facility, which is located just below the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte.
When Line retires this spring at age 65, he’ll be taking with him a scrapbook of memories that come with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the highest overnight guest lodge in the eastern U.S.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Line said. “My knees are starting to wear out and my back hurts. I loved every minute of this job, but it’s time to let someone else take over.”
LeConte Lodge originated in 1926 as a simple log structure built by Jack Huff of Gatlinburg. Today, the facility is operated by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises under a lease agreement with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Every season from mid-March to late November the lodge’s cabins, kitchen and dining hall draw about 12,000 overnight guests. An additional 15,000 day hikers visit the lodge each year by way of any of the five trails that climb Mount LeConte.
Line had not been working at LeConte Lodge long when he met his soon-to-be wife, Lisa, who also had been hired as a crew member. The couple married in 1979, and four years later, Lisa carried their newborn son, Nathan, up the mountain when he was 15 days old. They had two more kids, and they each learned how to scare off bears by age 3.
“It was a great experience for the kids, but a lot of hard work for Lisa,” Line said. “Trying to manage a family with 40 people spending the night and 10 or 11 crew members living up there—I’m thrilled she didn’t divorce me along the way.”
LeConte Lodge employs a full staff of 11 crew members who take eight days off per month. During his career as lodge manager, Line divided his time between the mountaintop and his office in the valley.
Guests may come to LeConte Lodge to kick back and relax, but for Line, life above the clouds meant long days, and a never-ending emphasis on problem-solving.
“If something breaks, you’re on your own,” he said. “Water lines freeze, propane heaters break, and if someone gets hurt, you deal with that. The cabins themselves take a beating from the weather. I figured out early on that it was a long way to the hardware store. I was never bored.”
Unofficially, the record low atop Mount LeConte is minus 32 degrees recorded on Jan. 21, 1985, by the lodge’s winter caretaker. Line said one of the worst weather events he experienced was the blizzard of 1987, which dumped 4 feet of snow on the lodge in early April.
When Line started working in 1977, there was talk of shutting down the lodge due to overcrowding and the negative impacts on the forest from heating the cabins with wood stoves. Panhandling bears were regularly visiting an outdoor pit where the lodge dumped its food scraps, and the Fraser fir trees atop the mountain were just a few years away from showing the devastating effects of the balsam woolly adelgid infestation that was spreading throughout the Smokies.
Today, the cabins are heated with clean-burning propane gas, and nuisance bears are more of an occasional, rather than chronic, problem.
And as for the Fraser firs, Line said they’re finally on the rebound.
“When all the fir trees died, it left toothpicks,” he said. “Now, it seems to have changed course. The smaller trees are surviving. The mountaintop is looking better, but at the mid-elevations, the hemlocks are dying. The forest is constantly changing.”
Line’s favorite trail up the mountain was the 5.5-mile Alum Cave Trail, the shortest, and arguably most scenic, route to LeConte Lodge. He estimates he has hiked the trail up and down about 1,400 times over the last 41 years. For a while, he held the record for the fastest descent, a time of 33 minutes.
Line said he’ll stick around to help the lodge’s new general manager, John Northrup, transition into the job. He said he’ll miss the crew members and guests, but is looking forward to exploring other trails in the Smokies and spending more time with his family.
He said he is especially excited that his youngest son, Jacob, who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, will be a crew member at LeConte Lodge for the first time this season.
“He’s fired up, and so am I,” Line said. “He’s tired of hearing all our family stories about LeConte. He wants to get up there and create some of his own.”