Upland Chronicles: Sevier County’s beautiful Mount LeConte
In Sevier County, one mountain looms over the rest. Its dark grey outline dominates the mountain skyline for miles around.
In the winter, it’s frequently covered with a white, snowy veneer. You can see it from miles away as you drive Interstate 40 toward Sevierville, and on clear days it’s visible from downtown Knoxville.
Over the years, this mountain has had various names, ranging from Bullhead, High Point, High Top and Central Peak, among others. When you drive the Parkway from Sevierville looking south, this mountain, with its distinctive three peaks, totally dominates the skyline and looms over all the other ridge-line mountains.
The mountain is now called Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in all of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Mount LeConte is special in many ways. Geographically, it doesn’t follow the usual southwest to northeast trend of the Smokies. Rather, it is a five-mile spur running due north off the main crest of the Great Smoky Mountains.
It has the highest free-fall waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rainbow Falls. Five distinct – and challenging – hiking trails leading to its summit: Alum Cave, Boulevard, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap trails, with Brushy Mountain and the Appalachian Trail as connectors.
The mountain boasts an arch rock, a window arch, and a sulphur-brown bluff called Alum Cave – which is not a true cave, but rather a recess in the bluff wall where various attempts at mining minerals occurred in the past. Even though it is not the highest peak in the Smokies (6,593 feet above sea level, 50 feet shorter than Clingmans Dome), its elevation gain is the steepest of the park’s highest peaks. It rises over 5,300 feet from its base.
It has an historic, rustic lodge near its apex, which hosts tens of thousands of humans who annually hike up to stay overnight in the lodges’ wooden cabins. Tens of thousands more annually make day hikes to the summit and back down, or carry backpacks for an overnight stay in a nearby backcountry shelter. Unlike Clingmans Dome, there is no paved road or paved path leading to Mount LeConte’s summit; one has to fully earn this mountain’s summit by that age-old, honorable tradition of hiking on foot.
Today’s official name of Mount LeConte is generally attributed to Samuel Botsford Buckley. The scientist named it in honor of John LeConte, who helped Buckley take barometric readings of the major Smokies’ peaks in the late 1850s. Another theory is that Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot named it in honor of John LeConte’s brother, Joseph, in the mid-19th century.
These early scientific designations notwithstanding, many of the mountain folk of the Smokies in Sevier County in the 19th and early 20th centuries simply called the mountain by the aforementioned local names. Mountain farmers in Porters Creek/ Greenbrier, Roaring Fork, White Oak Flats/Gatlinburg, Sugarlands, Cherokee Orchard and other areas hunted deer, turkey, black bear and other game in the valleys and ridges of the lower to mid-altitude regions of the peak in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Occasionally, some hardy youngsters from these farms pushed up the mountain now and then, drawn by the allure of what might be “just over the next ridge." But “peak-bagging” was not a luxury activity for folks who labored long hours over six days a week on hard-scrabble farms in rural Sevier County in the 19th century.
There weren’t maintained trails up the mountain like today, so the going was extremely difficult. And mountain hiking just for the sake of hiking used up a lot of precious physical energy, energy that was better used for productive work on the farm. So recreational hiking on LeConte wasn’t common until the 1910s or 1920s, when the newly arrived automobile propelled sportsmen from the cities to the mountains.
But one local man – born on the flanks of LeConte in Sevier County – responded to the lure of the higher reaches of the mountain and became regionally famous.
His name was Wiley Oakley, and he went on to become a popular fishing, hunting and hiking guide. Oakley hunted and roamed the ridges of LeConte in his youth, mostly alone. He learned the lore of the plants and animals from his father and from a Cherokee Indian who lived in Cherokee Orchard. In the early part of the 20th century, Oakley led fishermen and hunters on trips to the mountain as a guide for the Huff family’s Mountain View Motel in Gatlinburg.
Oakley took members of the Smoky Mountain Conservation Association up the mountain to a high camp near Basin Spring near the summit as the movement for a national park developed. He also helped the Civilian Conservation Corps in hacking out the Alum Cave trail to the summit in the 1930s. Oakley wrote about his times in the Smokies in "Roamin’ and Restin’," and in newspaper columns for the Gatlinburg newspaper.
In 1926, Jack Huff of Gatlinburg constructed a few log buildings near the spring and opened the rustic LeConte Lodge to hikers and horse riders. In that year he even carried his elderly mother up the trail on a chair strapped to his back. Today the lodge continues to house registered hikers in its rustic cabins, and serve them hearty breakfasts and suppers.
For those who love the Smokies, and especially the Sevier County part, no better mountain to hike can be found than LeConte. Its trails provide portals to beautiful views such as those from Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. It’s an iconic mountain, more than just a mass of uplifted meta-sandstones and Anakeesta rock.
There’s another world up there, a beautiful mountain world as different from the lowlands as night and day for those physically able and experienced enough to make the effort. It’s a “bucket list” destination for many lovers of the Smokies, and a pleasure to the eye when viewed from on high.
Arthur "Butch" McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com