As big as Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be, there are few places to stay within the boundaries—and nearly all them are either campsites or backcountry shelters. The lone exception is LeConte Lodge, a collection of cabins and small lodges with a central dining room/lodge. It’s only accessible by hiking in, so you have to be dedicated to stay there.
Just below the 6,593-foot peak of Mount LeConte is the only true lodging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the LeConte Lodge (865/429-5704, Mar. 21-Nov. 22, adults $140, children age 4-12 $85, includes lodging, breakfast, and dinner). Like the mountain’s summit, the lodge is accessible only via the network of hiking trails that crisscross the park. And if the accessibility limitation isn’t rustic enough for you, this collection of cabins has no running water or electricity. What it does have is views for days and the seclusion of the Smoky Mountains backcountry.
For the most part the environs harken back to the lodge’s 1934 opening. LeConte Lodge has no hot showers. In every cabin there is a bucket for a sponge bath—which can be surprisingly refreshing after a hot day on the trail—that you can fill with warm water from the kitchen, though you need to supply your own washcloth and towel. There are a few flush toilets in a separate building, and the only lights, aside from headlamps and flashlights, are kerosene lanterns. Your room does come with two meals: dinner and breakfast. Both are served at the same time every day (6pm for dinner and 8am for breakfast), and feature food hearty enough to fuel another day on the trail.
The lodge doesn’t lack for charm, but it does for comfort, so if you’re the five-star-hotel, breakfast-in-bed type, this may not be the place for you. Catering to hikers who are happy to have a dry place to sleep and a bed that’s comfier than their sleeping bag, it’s short on luxury amenities, and rooms are, in truth, bunk beds in small, drafty cabins. But if you’re a hiker or if you just love to have a completely different experience when you travel, this is a one-of-a-kind accommodation.
Accommodations for LeConte Lodge are made via lottery. The lottery is competitive, but it’s easy to enter; simply go to their website and fill out the online form, including your desired dates and the number in your party. If your application is chosen in the lottery, you will receive an invoice with your accommodation information. Booking information for the following season becomes available online in midsummer, so keep an eye out and get your application in early.
If you want to stay at LeConte Lodge, but you’re late to the lottery party, try to get on the wait list. The process is the same, but the dates are limited—typically weeknights and the larger cabins are all that’s available.
You can try one other method: calling (865/429-5704). Cancellations made with less than 30 days’ notice skip the wait list and are instead offered to the first inquiry that matches availability. Frequent calls are a good way to snag these last-minute reservations.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (open Mar.-Nov.) at the foot of Mount LeConte is the starting point for a trio of hiking trails that lead to LeConte Lodge. Bull Head Trail is a 6.8-mile trip from the trailhead to the lodge, as is Rainbow Falls Trail. (Bull Head and Rainbow Falls Trails share a trailhead at the designated parking area on the Motor Nature Trail.) Trillium Gap Trail, the trail used by the lodge’s pack llamas, passes by the beautiful Grotto Falls on its 6.7-mile route (the trailhead is at the Grotto Falls parking area on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail). Each of these three trails requires a four-hour hike to reach the lodge from the trailhead.
Three other trails lead to Mount LeConte from various points in the park. Alum Cave Trail (5 miles one-way) enters from Newfound Gap Road; it’s the shortest and easiest to access, but it’s also the steepest.
Alternatively, The Boulevard connects the Appalachian Trail to LeConte Lodge (13.2 miles from Newfound Gap Overlook). The Boulevard is relatively easy with little elevation change, but there’s the issue of exposure on this trail—the rock path has more than a few dizzying drops right beside the trail. These drops, combined with The Boulevard coming in from the Appalachian Trail, deters most day- or overnight-hikers from its use. Brushy Mountain Trail (11.8 miles round-trip) leads to the summit from the Porters Creek Trailhead off Greenbrier Road (closed in winter). Despite the significant elevation change, this is a relatively easy trail.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park.