I was recently inspired to start a NEW VIDEO SERIES on Day Hikes of the Smokies by my good friend Will “Redbeard” Wood. I wanted to highlight what I thought were the BEST day hikes and I wanted them to vary in length and difficulty.
As you all know already, Mount LeConte is near and dear to my heart. There is just so much that I love about that mountain. The trails, the views and the altitude simply “do it” for me. And it’s not even a seasonal thing for me. LeConte feels like home no matter what the weather is or time of season. I also know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Many of you, my friends and followers have expressed the same sentiments.
But my favorite route to this magnificent mountain is hands down Alum Cave Trail. I began both #fastestgsmnp900miler and #fastestgsmnp900miler2 with this trail to the LeConte Lodge. To say this trail is as special as the mountain itself would be correct. I personally feel like I’m not hiking alone when I’m on that trail. And I’m not talking about the other tourist or day hikers either.
So the other day my buddy Dewey Slusher asked if I wanted to get a hike in together. Of course I said yes. It had been a while since we had logged some trail miles together. I consider Dewey as one of my closest friends. We share the same passion for the Smokies and hike about the same pace. Important qualities in a hiking partner. Plus there’s no one that knows LeConte better than Dewey. He has logged over 300 trips to the LeConte Lodge. Now that’s impressive!!
On your trip to LeConte there are some locations that you need to know about. On Alum Cave Trail you will pass Arch Rock, Alum Cave Bluff and the Slide. These locations are worthy of a photo opp. Once you’re up on the mountain the LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops are definitely MUST SEE locations. Myrtle Point is the best spot to view a sunrise and Cliff Tops is the best location to view a sunset.
If you plan to camp on the mountain, you will need a backcountry permit to stay at the LeConte Shelter. It’s a very popular shelter so make sure you reserve your permits early, but not more than 30 days out. Also keep in mine the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may temporarily close US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road if winter weather is forecasted. Also the Lodge itself is usually closed from November through Mid March or April.
There’s a parking area on US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road that is used for hikers and lodge guest. This parking area can get very congested so I would get there early. There’s also a restroom there, but it is closed November through March. You can find the Trailhead is located behind the parking area near the stream.
At Alum Cave Trailhead you’ll start out at an elevation of 3,800′ and begin a slight ascent through a mix of eastern hemlocks and hardwoods. Coupled with rhododendrons, this area is very thick and dense. This section of trail also follows along side of Alum Cave Creek which offers the soothing sounds from the stream.
Roughly about 1.4 miles up trail you reach Styx Branch and Arch Rock which is one of the most unique locations on this trail. You will cross two footlog bridges then follow the trail as it passes through Arch Rock like a tunnel. This can get very congested here as there is not a lot of room on the trail as it passes through Arch Rock.
At mile 2.0, the forest opens up to a rocky spur. This location is called Inspiration Point. From this spot you can see down the valley and see other points of interest such as Chimney Tops, Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Alum Cave Bluffs. When hiking up during early morning hours before sunrise. This is a great place to star gaze.
Not far past Inspiration Point you’ll come to a set of wooden steps. This is just a small taste of what you are about to encounter. Just .2 miles up you hit the mother of all stairs on this trail, Stairway to Heaven. For the next .1 of a mile it is nothing but steps. It slows things down here and the congestion of day hikers and tourists can get a little overwhelming at times.
Once you are at Alum Cave Bluff, you’ve made it 2.3 miles from the parking lot. This is a great place to take a break and take in the view. The Cave will be very dusty, almost like a “moon dust”. The climate here at the Cave is very arid and creates the perfect environment for dusty soil that contains an abundant amount of Epsom salts.
When your at Alum Cave Bluff you are roughly at the halfway point. Congratulations! But you still have the other half to climb. As you continue up the trail you will come to a few view spots where you can see Little Duck Hawk ridge and a view of Inspiration Point. But after a short climb, the trail turns the corner and begins a short descent for the next .4 miles. This is a nice break for the legs and lungs before you begin your unrelenting ascent to Mt LeConte.
At mile 3.8 you reach the 180 Stairs. You have roughly 1.2 miles to the trail intersection with Rainbow Falls and Boulevard Trail. This last mile honestly is my favorite part of the trail. You have carved out sections of trail in the rock with cable assists, natural springs that flow nearly year round and open views of the Chimney Tops and Clingmans Dome. As you near the end of your climb you can look above you and see the rock face of Cliff Tops.
Once you finish ascending, the trail make a sharp right hand turn and levels out in to a Fraser Fir forest. This is the area that feels extra special to me. When I make it here, I know my climb is basically over and I’m only .2 miles from the Rainbow Falls/Boulevard/Alum Cave junction and another .1 to the lodge. You can almost call it my happy place.. And here is where I congratulate you. You just ascended 2,600′ while hiking up Alum Cave Trail. You are roughly at 6,400′ above sea level. This is reason to celebrate!!! If the lodge is open, you NEED a cookie!!
Now after getting to the trail junction, make a right onto the Boulevard Trail and go .1 mile. You will come to the Cliff Tops Trail which is not an official trail of the park. It will take you .2 miles up to Cliff Tops. But just a few more yards past the Cliff Tops sign is the steps down to the LeConte Lodge. Now if the lodge is open, go sign your John Hancock in the guest registers in the lodge office….. and go grab that cookie from the dining hall!
Now if you choose to go to Myrtle Point then you will continue to hike straight on the Boulevard Trail another .4 miles up trail to the intersection with the Myrtle Point Trail. It too is not an official trail of the park. But while in route to there you will pass both the LeConte Shelter and High Point, the tallest point on Mount LeConte.
I never in my life imagined I would ever attempt something so bold and so challenging that I’d be pushing #mybeardedself to the edge, both physically and mentally. And to attempt to do this record breaking feat during the hashest months of the year was even more insain. But to most people’s surprise, it didn’t start out as a record breaking hike. I just simply wanted to hike all the trails. How I came to this decision though was a whole nother story.
Thankgiving weekend of 2016, (the same weekend of the Chimney Top II fire) me and a close friend of mine Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog did a short backpacking trip with our kids in tow from Newfound Gap to Mt LeConte. I remember sitting at the Cliff Tops watching the sunset and watching Chimney Top burn below us. It was the first time in my life that I had been to Mt LeConte and I was in total awe! But while I sat there the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies instead. I initially figured it would take me a year. I had no idea how many miles of trails there was or how hard they would be. It was a decision though that felt right. Like it was exactly where I was supposed to be and I couldn’t have been more right. I went home and immediately discussed it with my beautiful bride Ashley, who was completely on board and supportive of the idea. I then began doing my research and planning logistics. I picked up the book “Day Hikers Guide To All The Trails In The Smoky Mountains” by Elizabeth L. Etnier. It became the main reference book of my whole hike. It had the trails already marked and planned out with mileages listed and elevation gains. It was mainly geared towards day hikers, but I simply combined several hikes and made some tweaks to fit my backpacking style. I also used the “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”, but only as a general reference.
Now, as a backpacker I wanted to backpack as much of the Smokies as I could. This would help me trim more “Total Miles” out of my hike. Liz’s book had the overall “Total Miles” listed at 1050 if you followed her book to the T. But I thought if I backpacked as much of it as I could, then I could possibly trim around 100 miles off that number.
My adventure started at the Alum Cave trailhead at 3:am on Dec 31, 2016. I hiked up the mountain with a group of hikers to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to the lodge the wind was blowing pretty hard and the temp was hovering around 9° degrees. A handfull of hikers turned back due to the conditions being so extreme. But a smaller number of us pushed forward towards Myrtle Point (the best spot to see a sunrise on LeConte). My plan was to start with a hike to LeConte and to finish my 900 Miler with a hike to LeConte as well, since that was where I made my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. And as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t have planned that out any better if I had tried. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the history and the trails and there was no better way to do that than to involve some of my “Hike The Smokies” friends that I had met on Facebook. After all it was their posts and pictures that influenced my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. Plus most of them I had never met face to face before, so this was a perfect opportunity to do so. And as time went on not only did I get to hike with some of them, but several helped me out with shuttles and lodging.
The first month (January) I worked 3 days a week at the business I’ve owned since 2002 (Plug-it In Electrical Service, Inc) and hiked the other 4 days. This worked well for what I was doing at the time. I was pushing out about 50 miles per week. I wasn’t getting in any kind of hurry at that time. I did all of the Cades Cove area and part of the Twentymile, Cosby and Elkmont areas during that time. It was during this month too that I experienced the coldest temp of 6° degrees. I was camped out at CS#17 on Little Bottoms Trail in about 4″ of snow. This is why I absolutely love winter backpacking. Everything was frozen and laced in white. It’s the perfect setting for beautiful pictures. I’m glad I had my Black Rock down beanie with me. It is incredibly effective at keeping my head warm in these extreme temps. Plus it’s perfect weather for a good #icebeard. I absolutely love have my beard completely covered and full of ice and snow. There’s just something about it that feels good to me. It also reminds me to not get complacent and how extreme the conditions are that I’m in. Things can go very wrong very fast in these conditions. A life and death struggle is just one bad decision away.
Around the 3rd week of January I decided instead of taking a year to do all the trails. I thought I could get them done by the end of May. This would free up my summer to do family stuff. But a week later I got curious as to what was the fastest time the 900 Miler had ever been done so I contacted the GSMNP 900-Miler Club to find out. They told me the current fastest time was 4 months and 12 days and the record was held by Sharon Spezia. I immediately thought to my bearded self that this was in my time frame. Maybe this would be a good challenge for me and I might be able to break it….. So that’s exactly what I did. That’s when #fastestgsmnp900miler was born. This was the hashtag that I would identify my hike with.
In early February I began hiking with a determination to break a record in big fashion. I began doing bigger miles and started making preparations to start hiking full time. I still had a job or two to wrap up then I was good to go. My focus was strong and I wasn’t going to be distracted easily. On the 4th of February I turned 44 years old. You guessed it. I was out hiking that day. I did hike #17 and stayed at Derrick Knob Shelter that night. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else on my birthday this year. It simply seemed perfect. And even though I was getting older I wasn’t feeling it in the least bit. In my eyes I was just getting started.
As February got rolling, so did I. The weather was unseasonably warm and I was going to take full advantage of it. Because I knew we would probably get a good snow in March. I was just hoping to get done before it hit. I was starting to push out some much bigger mileage. Doing 20+ miles was becoming easier by the day. And with the Tennessee side about wrapped up, my focus was about to be set on the North Carolina side.
Now I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 in shelters). Which left me with day hiking the rest of it. Instead of driving home which was 1 to 3 hours away (depending on where I was in the park). I would drive to a store nearby and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and to resupply if I needed to or simply get some fresh foods for the night like milk, fruits and veggies. I always made a point to purchase my dinner and breakfast from the store where I was staying at. I felt like it was the least I could do for them not kicking me out of their parking lot. Haha
Once March got here I was steaming along and not looking back.
Everything was going good and I was on schedule to finish on the 19th of March. But I was on my way home to visit for a night when the motor in my truck blew up. This wasn’t what I needed then. I was in Pigeon Forge and I was 1 hour from my house. I was able to drive it home, but the next day I had to pick up a rental car for my beautiful bride to use while I used her vehicle. I got my truck scheduled for a new motor while I was back in the woods. That was a close call. It could’ve ended this hike. I’m glad we had the money set aside for such emergencies. Having an emergency fund saved our butts that time for sure.
As most of you know I am a follower of Christ. I’ve not been shy or affraid to share that with people. And as I hike I talk to God a lot. It’s great one on one time with the one who made you and everything around you. But it was on Hike-38 that I truly realized He was still listening to me. I was hiking Balsam Mt trail and Palmer Creek trail but I had to go down Balsam Mt road to catch Spruce Mt trial. On the map it looked like it was 2 to 3 miles down the road. I met a park employee on a tractor at the Palmer Cr trailhead and asked him how far it was to Spruce Mt. He told me 5 to 6 miles. I immediately felt a sense of panic. That was mileage I didnt plan for. So I immediately began to run up the graveled road. After what seemed like forever I come around one last turn and I asked God “Please let the trailhead be here”. And as i came around the turn there it was. I immediately began crying tears of joy and thanking God. The trailhead was roughly about 2.5 to 3 miles from the Palmer Cr trailhead. Right where I initially thought it was.
In the final 8 days I pulled my biggest mileage day at 35 miles. Honestly I wasn’t sure if I could do it but I did. It was Hike-40 and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecasted. Remember me saying earlier about the big snow I expected in March? This was it……. or at least I thought it was. The next morning at the shelter I was surprised to see on 4″ of snow. That was good news for me. That meant I could still get some big miles in that day. I was only expecting to get 10 to 15 due to the high snow fall forecasted. That’s why I pushed for the 35 miles the day before. But this also meant I would be pushing my finish date up 1 day to the 18th instead of the 19th. As the days were winding down and the amount of noise my hike was making in the HTS hiking community, I realized I needed someone who could let the park service know what was about to happen so they could prepare for the extra traffic. Plus they needed to organize the celebration at the finish. That’s when I thought of my good friend Teri Samples. She told me not to worry and that she would take care of it. And she did and then some. Not only did she notify the park service but also all of our local tv channels and new papers. The celebration at the finish was bigger than I had ever heard of or could’ve imagined. But more on that a little later.
On March 18th 2017 I woke up ready to finish my 900-Miler. It was hike (Hike-47). Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. I could not have imagined finishing this #fastestgsmnp900miler hike any other way. The trail was the wettest I had ever hiked in, but we were not complaining. It was good to be able to have my friends with me. We started out at Trillium Gap trailhead that morning at 6:30. It had been raining all night and was still raining. Grotto Falls was absolutely incredible. The water flow was more than it was the first time I’d seen it. As we made our way up to the top of Trillium the water and snow on the trail was unbelievable. So with completely wet feet we were welcomed into the lodge by my friend Phillip Clarkson to dry off and to have a cup of hot chocolate.
After warming up for about 30 to 40 minutes we all loaded up and started down the mountain on Rainbow Falls trail. At the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain a reporter from WBIR met me and interviewed me really quickly. We were already 30ish minutes behind schedule. There were also a couple there that greeted me and wished me well. But we quickly got back to hiking and headed down the Old Sugarlands trail. The last trail of this hike. I was almost done…….. and I was ready. My right quad was cramping real bad, which made it very painful to walk on yet alone to hike. It had given me some problems earlier that week too.
But at about 200 yards from the finish was the moment I’ll never forget. As I was climbing up a short hill I looked up to see no one other than Sharon Spezia. She had hiked in to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we immediately gave each other a hug as she congratulated me. It was such an incredible moment. I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record. But never was able to get in touch with her. The crazy side to this story was we actually met on trail. It was Hike-19 on the Little Greenbier trail. We crossed pathes that day, but I didn’t realize it until I was about a 1/4 mile down the mountain (she was going up). So ever since then I was hoping to see her before I finished. And I finally did.
My hike was just a few minutes from being complete. Sharon and my closest friends went ahead to become a part of the “hiker tunnel” as I hung back to have the last couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and to prepare mentally for what was about to happen. I was just moments from being a 900 miler.
I could feel the anticipation inside me as I started walking towards the hiker tunnel. I had never seen that many people at a 900 Miler celebration before.
The tunnel looked like it was about 60′ long or more. As I got closer I could see Sharon at the entrance. She greeted me once again and told me to “go finish this”. I could hear everyone clapping and cheering as I entered the tunnel. I immediately thanked God for this opportunity, getting me to here and gave Him the glory. As i continued to walk through the tunnel, I seen so many faces. Some I knew and some I didn’t. People reached in to give me “high five”. And some just patted me on the back and shoulder. When I got towards the end of the tunnel. I knew I was getting closer to the one I wanted to see most, my beautiful bride. She had told me by phone that she would be waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. So that was all I was thinking about. And as I exited the tunnel I looked up and there she was. It was eveything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her beautiful face. She met me with a big kiss and warm embrace. It felt so good to have her in my arms again. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed her till then. I had been keeping my bearded self occupied with details of the trail so I wouldn’t think about it.
After I was done catching up with my family. I did a couple of interviews with WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. I also go to spend some more time with Sharon Spezia who also introduced me to Jennie Whited. Jennie was the first female to do 5 maps (900 milers). I had so many people that came up to me to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew and some I didn’t. But either way I appreciate all of them taking the time out of their busy day just to come be there for me. I believe that’s the part that overwhelms me the most. It’s very humbling when I think about that.
But as I sat there it slowly started sinking in. I just finished my 900 Miler. And I did it in the fastest time EVER… Wow! Maybe what I did was a big thing after all. Before I was having a hard time understanding why everyone was making a big deal out of my hike. But now I was starting to understand it. God just helped this ordinary man do something extraordinary. I couldn’t have possibly done this without His help and strength. I leaned on Him for His guidance, understanding and strength each day. I give Him all the glory for this hike. For God was my ultimate trail guide.
Afterwards, you guessed it. We all went to Smoky Mountain Brewery for an Ol’ Smoky burger and a beer. It is my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. It was great being able to sit down and have a big meal and a beer with my closest friends. These guys just came from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have. I’m such a blessed man to have friends like them. I thank God for each and every one of them.
If you would like to see what it was like on that last hike, then go check out the video and write up at Stick’s Blog. Chad captured that moment perfectly and I am forever grateful for it.
A lot of people have asked me what’s my next adventure. Well I’ve decided that in the Fall (2017) I’m going to do it again, BUT EVEN FASTER. I’m shooting to do it in just 45 days total. Which would break my own record of 78 days. I believe I can do it and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. If I’m able to complete it then that will also make me a 2 time 900 Miler in 1 year. Which would tie me with 7 time 900 Miler Sharon Spezia who also has done 2 maps in 1 year. It would be an honor to share that record with her.
In the last hike I used the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900miler and #gsmnp900miler to identify with that hike. This way people could search anything they need to find out about that hike using that hashtag. This time I’ll be using the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900milerx2 and #fastestgsmnp900miler . It should be an extraordinary journey. And I’m looking forward to what God will show me on this hike. After all He is my “Ultimate Trail Guide”.