SHOW #67 August 2, 2015
This week on Episode 67 Smoky Mountains Radio, the history of the the Smokies greatest mountain, Mount LeConte! Let’s go!
It is Sunday, August 2, 2015 and this is Episode 67 of Smoky Mountains Radio. Yes, I am still alive. It has been quite some time my friends. Yes, life got in the way as it so often does as and I have been unable to get in front of the microphone. Thanks to Randy, Wes, Jill, Jeff, Curt, and everybody else for checking in and making sure I hadn’t been eaten by a bear, left marooned on a trail, or held hostage in a t-shirt shop. I am alive and well and ready to get back to it. I hope everybody has had a good summer. I haven’t talked to you in just over a month, so it has certainly been the longest time away since I started the show almost two years ago. But i’m glad to be back with all of you, and i’m going to pick up where we left off. I am hoping to make some changes to the show as time goes on, but as promised back at the end of June, this show will be primarily about the great Mount LeConte. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit. To those of you who have just found our show, i’m Mike, and i’ll be your guide around the 800 plus square miles of the Smoky Mountains and the 150 square miles of towns that border the parks. If need info about coming to the Smokies, you will find it here. Put my 40 years of experience to work for you to have the best vacation possible. Thanks for making Smoky Mountains Radio part of your week, and I hope you find something in the show that you can use on your next trip.
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Now, let’s get on with the show!
History of Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte stands 6,593 high and dominates the landscape of the Smoky Mountains. It is the most well known mountain in the Smokies, and the very best in the 800 plus square miles of the area. Yes, it is actually the third tallest in the Smokies. But from the base to the summit, it raises over 5000 feet, which is by far the tallest in appalachian range. Even the famous mountains to the northeast including Mount Washington and the famous Mount Katadin do not rise higher than LeConte. It has more routes to it’s summit than any other, and offers the most diverse ecosystem on one trail than anywhere else in the eastern United States.
LeConte was named for a member of the LeConte family in the 1800’s, but accounts differ as to which member of the family it was named for. But the naming of the mountain doesn’t really tell us too much about the history or that important of a detail. By most accounts the earliest settlers to the area were Native Americans. The largest group in the area where the Cherokee. The Cherokee are obviously still around on the other side of the mountain in Cherokee, NC but most vanished throughout the years due to removal or bloody battles throughout the area. LeConte mountain is certainly not the most accessible or fertile area, so there was not a lot of settlement even in early days. The weather can be harsh with nearly 80 inches of precipitation through the year and temperature changes of up to 20 degrees from base to summit. As you ascend, the wind also whips much higher gusting at times at more than 50-75 miles per hour.
There were numerous marches throughout the area of the Smoky Mountains during the Civil War. There are many battlefields north, south, east, and west. Two things happened at the Smokies and LeConte during this time. Deserting soldiers found a safe haven in the mountains of TN, VA, and GA, and several specifically wanted to find places where they could not be found, so they retreated to higher elevations including the mountains in the Smokies including LeConte, Guyot, and the area now known as Newfound Gap. After the war many of the former soldiers stayed in the area and raised families around the area until the land was purchased by the federal government. As is the case after any war, the time after the civil war found many people looking for a way to put the horrors that had been seen and experienced during those years of bloodshed behind them and one of the ways that it was done then was to get back to nature and quite literally, “Go take a hike.” We have seen a lot of the same kinds of things happen following both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and our most recent wars in the middle east. In fact, Earl Shaffer became the very first thru hiker on the Appalachian Trail after he returned home in world war two. But let’s get back to Mount LeConte specifically.
Tourism and trips to the the Smokies and Mount LeConte was truly not something that occurred until after the Civil War ended. However, little by little, those that had seen these areas started making there way back, especially as transportation opportunities increased. By 1880, people began coming to the Smokies as recreation. Mount LeConte specifically, started guided hikes in 1885. Locals that were passionate about the area and looking for extra income started taking visitors up the mountain.
Most of you are likely familiar with LeConte Lodge. It is the only place inside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains that you can overnight in your own little cabin and be provided with food and restrooms. The cabins are huddled close together around the main dining room near the summit of Mount LeConte. The cabins today have no electricity or showers and feel quite rustic, but compared to how it all began, they are positively state of the art. More on that in a minute.
As we moved into the early 1900’s, people started coming in large numbers to visit the mountains. The first hotels in the area started popping up in Gatlinburg for family guests, dignitary visitors, and finally for tourists. T-shirt shops luckily would not be seen for another 60 years. BUT, the trend of people coming included what many would consider some unwelcome visitors; logging companies. Some of the largest and oldest trees in the park were cut down, logging roads cut through the landscape, and devastation and scars began to dot the landscape. Locals and visitors became quite concerned and rumblings about making the Smoky Mountains a national park began to be heard.
One of the people that advocated for the mountains in large ways was a man named Paul Adams. He began taking dignitaries, politicians, and all other kinds of influential people up the slopes of Mount LeConte in hopes of showing them the value of saving and preserving this area as a national park. His overnight trips with these groups began in the spot where LeConte Lodge now sits. However, back then it was a single tent. As years went on, they built a single cabin. This became two cabins, then three, and so on. These guided trips were a major contributing factor to the money that would be given to create the park and the political muscle to make it happen.
As many of you know, FDR was a huge supporter of the national park and even drove to the Smokies for its dedication. If you haven’t seen that, drive to Newfound Gap and you will find the plaque and platform that was used for his address. What is less known, however, is how much he wanted to hike. If you know anything about FDR, you know that by the time he visited the Smoky Mountains, the polio he contracted had made his legs essentially useless. That said, he took great interest in the high peak of Mount LeConte during his drive and pondered what it would be like to be able to climb that peak.
He was passionate enough about it than when the Civilian Conservation Core was formed and began the huge amount of work that done, a lot of the early work involved the trails and roads that gave access to, and led to, Mount LeConte. Many trails and roads were not ready in the early days of the national park, but access to LeConte was. And when the lands around the Roaring Fork were added to national park lands, even more ways to reach the Smokies greatest mountain were available for the public.
As you might expect, the numbers of visitors skyrocketed in subsequent years. Before the official creation of the national park, the numbers could be measured in the thousands. That number jumped to the hundreds of thousands, and quickly to the millions. Literature that advertised the park included postcards of the trails and peaks of Mount LeConte and the visiting areas. Since the park was dedicated at Newfound Gap and those roads were among the most accessible, that place was the most popular and busy in the entire national park. And since two trails along that area led to Mount LeConte, that trail had more visitors than the entire Appalachian Trail during the 40’s and 50’s.
You can still see hints of the influence of those involved in popularizing the LeConte area in Gatlinburg and surrounding areas including Huff Lodges and restaurants. Jack Huff was the main man in building the iteration of the LeConte Lodge that we know and love today. There are also places named for Adams, Roosevelt, and several others. Those early folks dreamed of what the place has become today and there are several places dedicated to them around the park if you care to spend the time to find them.
In the decades that have followed, all five trails have been opened and maintained to get to the summit of LeConte including Alum Cave, Boulevard, Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap, and Bullhead trails. A Shelter was added near the LeConte Lodge. The LeConte shelter is one of only two shelters in the Smoky Mountains that is not actually located along the Appalachian Trail. LeConte has become so well known that of those hikers that thru hike the Appalachian Trail, it is estimated that one in fifteen take Boulevard Trail off the AT just to see that peak. On a trail over 2000 miles, and thousands of thru hikers each year, it is a testament to the greatness of that mountain that so many people add more than 10 miles to their totals just to see it.
Today, the mountain is more popular than it has ever been. It receives so much use that both the Trillium Gap Trail and Alum Cave Trail have had to undergo major renovations in recent years due to trail erosion because of the massive amounts of people. The park service estimated that nearly 70% of the people that hike at all in the Smoky Mountains get on at least one of the trails that lead to Mount LeConte. It is certainly THE great mountain in the Smokies!
News From Around the Mountains
Well obviously there has been a ton of news in the month that I have been away, but we will just hit a few of the highlights here. Let’s start with good news.
- Attendance in the Smoky Mountains is up roughly eight percent in the first half of the year compared to last year. If you have been on any of the roads either inside or outside the national park, i’m sure you have felt the increase in traffic. But it is great for the park and for business, so keep them coming!
- According to a story reported by the Charlotte Observer, the Smokies have the highest rescue rates in the southeast and are fourth in the country. Only the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Lake Mead had more. Rangers site the sheer number of people as the main culprit. I guess the numbers are decent considering the Smokies receives more visitors than any of those places. Still, I would say that only about 1 out of every 5 or 6 that I hear about are rescues that could not have been prevented with better planning. Don’t get me on that soapbox though. You all know how I get!
- Bear activity had closed several trails and over a dozen campsites at the time of the last episode. Nearly all of those have now been lifted. However, you can go out to nearly all sections of the park and see bear warnings. They are still quite active in the area, but at least you can get out there now.
- Pollution continues to plague the Smoky Mountains. It has effected weather, vegetation, and animals negatively. It had been getting better in the last decade, but as more visitors flock to the Smokies, we are seeing the problem get more pronounced. Visibility on a clear day is approximately 46 miles. That may sound good until you realize that it should be more than double that amount. Still lots of work to do to get that situation resolved. So save those pictures you took in the 60s and 70s where you could see for two hundred miles or more. They may be collectors items some day.
- The new Dreammore Resort that has been in construction for the last two years is finally opened. The new resort hotel the resort home for the Dollywood and Splash Country theme parks. It is a nice looking resort. Part modern, part victorian, and all very relaxed. Dollywood has taken a page from the Disney and Universal playbook by offering guests free transportation to the parks, early entry on selected days, and cut wait times at attractions. They have even brought a general manager from the Orlando area to run the place. I’m curious to see whether or not the pricing will be competitive enough to lure in guests from the hundreds of hotels within a couple miles of the park. On the surface though, this is certainly among the nicest hotels in the Pigeon Forge area and one of only a couple to offer on-site entertainment, restaurants, a spa, and transportation to the parks. It should be a contender. I’ll definitely be checking this one out on my next overnight trip.
- Cassicus Cash, the Superintendent of the Smokies, is working to bring in and involve younger generations in the Smoky Mountains. That appears to be one of his big focuses as he begins his term. I have seen changes personally in the demographics in the area in the last several years, but its great that he wants to get so many people here and involved in the park. He was famous for doubling the attendance at the last park he managed. Could you imagine if he pulled that off in the Smokies? It would be like Manhattan at rush hour. YIKES! But I like his strategy to get more young people involved. Get them interested while they are young and they will be better stewards of the mountains.
- Finally, don’t forget that the rehab for the Alum Cave trail is underway, so be sure to check and see if it is open before you come. And Newfound Gap Road still is under a very large rehab, so traffic is still pretty heinous, especially on weekends and the middle of the day. Give yourself some extra time if you head out that way.
And that is going to do it for your news from around the mountains this week.
Thanks for listening this week. Glad to back with you all once again. Spread the word about the show if you like what you hear, and let your friends know that we are back here at Smoky Mountains Radio. It has certainly been far too long my friends. Be sure to contact me with any questions or comments you have or if you just want to chat about the Great Smoky Mountains. I really enjoy my conversations with you all. That’s going to about wrap it up until next time, but stay tuned for the next one. I promise it won’t be a month away like last time. I’ve already started the content, so stay tuned. But until then, grab a whole lotta water, wear some moisture wicking clothes, and GO TAKE A HIKE!
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