Beginning late last week, I started to plan a hike-run to Mount LeConte for the holiday break with friends. We settled on Tuesday, because the weather was clear and relatively warm, with a high of around 45F in Knoxville (and around 30-35F in the National Park). On Monday, we learned that the main (in fact, I believe the only) road to take you to the top of the mountains, Newfound Gap road (highway 441), was closing due to high winds.
So, we had to audible, instead choosing to leave from Elkmont Campground near Gatlinburg. Only Kevin could make it. Our plan was to meet at 8:00 am, (and) so we both pulled in around 8:40 am at the Little River trailhead near the back of the campground. When we left, it was a bit colder than we anticipated; I had to put on the liner gloves in addition to a second, heavier pair I brought, and we started up the Little River trail, which gradually followed the Little River.
At around 4 miles in, we made it to a turn-off for the Goshon Prong trail, which we planned to take back. The next turn-off was around a mile ahead, to the Rough Ridge trail.
We kept going, making it to the end of the Little River trail not because it was an essential part of our loop, but rather because both Kevin and I have aspirations to hike every trail in the park; we’d have to come all of the way back to hike this additional 2 or so miles, and so decided (based on a “coin flip”—in fact, flipping a glove) to run up it today. There were multiple, somewhat challenging stream crossings, but the end of the trail was a secluded backcountry camping site, with Clingman’s Dome far above (and visible) north from where we were.
We ran back, and then up the Rough Ridge trail, climbing a bit more steeply until we reached the bottom of a ridge with the Sugarland Mountain trail above. This ridge is very near to where the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 fire began. It started on the other, far side of the ridge we were about to climb, but made its way partially down the far side of the ridge; the fire primarily moved in the other direction, toward Gatlinburg. Climbing the ridge was unusual. Where we had been in dense forest, this area was barren, apart from a lot of brambles (blackberries?) and some still-standing trees that were scarred by the fire. We rounded a corner and made it to the top of the ridge—and the Sugarland Mountain trail, with an overlook to both the Goshon Prong trail (behind us), Mount LeConte to the east, and the Appalachian Trail and Mount Collins, to the north. We took a break and started up on the Sugarland Mountains trail.
We started to see snow. After around 1⁄2 of a mile, we reached the extent of the fire, and started to see red spruce. This was one of the most memorable parts of any trail I’ve been on. We kept climbing, and it became snowier, icier, and colder. The last portion of the trail ascended steeply, to a water source for the Mount Collins shelter on the ridge line (and Appalachian Trail), and, then, to the shelter. I can’t really describe what the top of the trail was like. It was clear and sunny, bitter cold. The shelter and the trails around it were covered in dense spruce (and I think fir). It was dreamy.
We stopped for a break, and then continued on toward Clingman’s Dome. It became colder and a bit icier, but not much snowier. The climb to Clingman’s Dome was more challenging than I thought. My hands became cold, and I had to stop for a bit, switching gloves with Kevin to warm up my hands. I became a bit tired and a bit discouraged. I was hungry. We kept climbing, and I kept thinking we had almost made it to Clingman’s Dome and the observation tower at its top. We kept climbing up, and finally saw the turn-off for the observation tower, stepping off the trail and climbing (Kevin running) to the top, at roughly 2:30 pm, round 20 miles in. We didn’t stay long; we took pictures, but it was windy and we were cold, so we continued onward.
This next section was memorable in a different way from the previous section. It was rocky, and the trail was thin, with more views (to both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides) than there were earlier. We started to descend, and reached the turn-off to the Goshon Prong trail. This trail was a fast descent, icy and snowy, still, at the top, but soon clear. After a few miles, we reached a creek, with some nice waterfalls, that flowed into Goshon Prong. We reached a backcountry campsite on Goshon Prong trail that told us that we had about three miles to go to the intersection with the Little River trail. It was starting to become dark, and we brought flashlights (headlamps), and so turned them on sometime on this section. At some point near the end, there was a nice, new-looking bridge that crossed Goshon Prong.
It was dark when we reached the intersection of the Little River trail. I grabbed some food, checked the map on my phone, and kept onward, deciding to take a slightly different trail - Cucumber Gap - back. That trail ended up involving more creek crossings and also a bit more climbing than we thought. Around a mile from the end, I stopped at a creek to fill my water bottle, and realized that my phone was not in my pocket. It had fallen out somewhere on he last three-four miles. At this point, it was around 8:00 pm, and, after not having service throughout the day (there are not many places in the park that I get service - Clingman’s Dome was one that I did have service before, but I wasn’t able to send a message when I was there today), I was starting to become a bit concerned that Katie was becoming worried. We were also fairly tired, though probably could have turned back if needed. I also reasoned that I could come back the next day to look for it - that the weather was clear - and that someone may come across it. We continued on the last mile or so, making it to the campground a little after 8:00 pm.
It was, in all, a beautiful day with a great friend. It was one of the most memorable adventure trips I’ve had - not better than those with Katie and Jonah this fall, but memorable for what it was. The distance was around 33 miles. I haven’t, yet, found my phone, in part because of a rough night of sleep from our little one that required an all-hands-on-deck morning the next day. I wish I had the photos, but in some ways not having them made the memory a bit more vivid. I am looking forward to going back.