Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Here in the South the mountains are as high as they get in the eastern half of the nation. None of our peaks is high enough to have a snowline (where snow never melts) or even a treeline (where arctic tundra prevails). But we do have mountains that are tall enough to exhibit a great degree of environmental changes between the base and summit. Nowhere is this more on display than in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and no mountain shows this better than Mount LeConte.

LeConte looms above the city of Gatlinburg. It dominates the skyline in a way no other summit can in the eastern USA. For it is the only place here that rises so abruptly above its base to such heights. A person can begin hiking at the city limits of Gatlinburg, walk into the Park and end the hike one vertical mile higher on the very top of the peak. LeConte, rising as it does to 6,593 feet above sea level, is one of the highest peaks in the eastern USA. And it is certainly the "tallest", marking probably the only mile-high wall on this half of the country.

When you start your hike at the base of LeConte, you are traveling in typical southern hardwood and pine forests. It gets about as hot in Gatlinburg as it does anywhere else in the South with summer temperatures routinely hitting the 90s. But by the time you reach the summit of that tallest of eastern peaks, the forests are the same as one encounters in southern Canada, and the temperatures never top 80 degrees on even the hottest of days in the valleys below.

LeConte: the mile-high wall above Gatlinburg.

Just a thousand feet or so above Gatlinburg I moved into a dusting of snow and a different forest type (then dominated by hemlocks seen here, but which are pretty much all dead now from hwa infestation).

About 2/3 of the way up the forests become dominated by spruce trees and the snow is getting deeper with every foot I climbed.

At over 5,000 feet the snow was getting seriously deep.

Just before the top of the mountain. It was still snowing as I got there.

Yours truly, on the snow-covered summit of Mount LeConte, March of 2005.

And then it was time to head down, slogging through 17 inches of fresh snowfall until the mountain's varying climates slowly took it all away from me.


stan said...

Beautiful! On my bucket list as a trail runner is to start in downtown Gatlinburg and run/hike to the summit of LeConte. As you say, the only mountain in the eastern U.S. that rises a vertical mile from base to summit.

James Robert Smith said...

I did the vertical mile. Lots of fun. Tough as a day-hike, which is the way I did it.