I’m taking a different approach to hiking to Mt. Le Conte this year because of Covid-19.
Usually, I drive more than 500 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spend a few days in Gatlinburg, and then put on my hiking boots and hike to Mt. Le Conte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.
I made my first hike to Mt. Le Conte in my early teens with my church youth group. For years I’ve been fortunate to hike to Mt. Le Conte at least once a year, hiking one of the five trails to the top – Alum Cave, Boulevard, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls or Trillium Gap trails.
Rewarding to hike to Mt. Le Conte
Most of my hikes to Mt. Le Conte have included the treat of spending the night at LeConte Lodge, which you can only reach by hiking. The lodge is a cluster of cabins with running water but no electricity. (Note that the spacing differs between Mt. Le Conte and LeConte Lodge.)
All the trails to Mt. Le Conte are popular with hikers, with the Alum Cave Trail being one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Alum Cave Trail includes log bridges, Arch Rock, Alum Cave Bluff and great views of the mountains.
Depending on the time of year, you can see rhododendron, mountain laurel, trillium, and dozens of other wildflowers.
Covid-19 changes hiking plans
But the Covid-19 pandemic has changed many of our daily activities and plans, including vacations. One of the changes for me has been canceling my LeConte Lodge reservation and my Gatlinburg hotel reservation.
Hiking the Alum Cave Trail to Mt. Le Conte would mean passing several hundred hikers on the narrow trail. The other trails also would have trail sections where it would be necessary to step to the side to let other hikers pass by, almost touching shoulders. We’d be breathing heavily as we climb, so there’s the viral load to consider more than the pack load.
Social distancing on the trails would be difficult. And social distancing would be impossible in Gatlinburg, with crowds filling the streets, restaurants and hotel elevators.
Alum Cave At-Home Adventure
Instead, I’ve hiked to Mt. Le Conte virtually by joining the Friends of the Smokies Alum Cave At-Home Adventure.
The event encourages supporters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to put in their mileage by walking in their neighborhoods and raise funds for GSMNP projects. Participants can register for the 4.6-Mile Round Trip Alum Cave Virtual Hike or the 10-mile Mt. Le Conte Round Trip Virtual Hike. The Park Bench Virtual Sit also is a category for those who would like to make a donation to GSMNP but not do the hiking.
There’s still time to register for the virtual hike. The deadline for putting in your mileage and raising funds is June 6.
Since registering, I’ve put in enough miles walking to have hiked all five trails to Mt. Le Conte and back.
On some of my walks around my neighborhood, I’ve envisioned where I might be if I were hiking to Mt. Le Conte – stopping to take photos of the rhododendron, listening to the peregrine falcons flying near Alum Cave Bluff, and admiring the trail restoration completed on Alum Cave, Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap trails by the FOTS Trails Forever crew. I know first hand what great restoration work the crew does as I have been a volunteer on the restoration of Alum Cave and Chimney Tops trails.
I’m looking forward to receiving my Alum Cave At-Home Adventure T-shirt and finisher medal for having completed my mileage and fundraising.
I’ll miss not hiking to Mt. Le Conte this year but am glad that I can help support Great Smoky Mountains National Park projects through this FOTS fundraiser.