VIPs hike LeConte to celebrate park’s anniversary

For three quarters of the last century people have come from all over the world to enjoy the hiking trails, campgrounds and wildlife of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

This year marks the official 75th anniversary of the park. To celebrate the occasion, this writer and photographer Leslie Karnowski joined a group of Blount County residents for a hike up Mt. LeConte.

Making the trek in this group were Dan and Gaynell Lawson, Dr. Bob Lash and Kathy Wilbanks. Decade’s worth of individual and combined experience has given each of them considerable knowledge of the park and its history. In addition to having spent years exploring the park on their own, the Lawsons and Wilbanks are also members of Volunteers-in-Parks, a group that gives time and expertise to helping educate the public about the park and work in the park on a volunteer basis.

The hike started as a chance for the four to share their experiences with us and to express how important the park is to them and everyone in our area.

“The park’s success is really tied to the surrounding community,” Lash said. “Without the support of everyone living around here, it can’t hope to last.”

Support comes in a variety of ways. From donations to the park to observing safe driving practices to, as Dan Lawson said, “carrying your trash out of the park with you when you leave.”

All who joined us that day stressed how important it was for those who make use of the National Park to remember how fragile its continued existence really is. As people celebrate the park’s 75th anniversary this year, they said everyone should remember to preserve the legacy. If this generation’s great-great-grandchildren are to grow up with the same experiences in the park, this generation must care for the park today and preserve the park and all of the wildlife it holds.

Boasting some of the best hiking trails in the Smokies, Mt. LeConte stands 6,593 feet tall and is regarded by many to be the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. While Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Guyot both top out at higher elevations (6,643 feet tall and 6,621 feet tall, respectively), the secret to LeConte’s claim is in its base. Starting at 1,292 feet above sea level, LeConte stands 5,301 feet from top to bottom, giving it an advantage over both Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Guyot.

In addition to its size, Mt. LeConte also features some of the most picturesque views and geological marvels available to visitors of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are five different trails leading to the lodge at the top of the mountain, and while they all have their own highlights many hikers consider the Alum Cave Trail to be the best and most scenic.

Starting at the junction of Alum Cave Creek and Walker Camp Prong, Alum Cave trail is the shortest of the Mt. LeConte trails at only 5.2 miles. This, coupled with multiple points of interest along the way, is why it is one of the most popular hiking trails in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For around three quarters of the first mile, the trail repeatedly crosses and re-crosses Alum Cave Creek. The next mile of the trail runs parallel to Alum Cave Creek as well as Styx Branch Creek.

Approximately a mile and a half from the trailhead, hikers are treated to the first of many natural wonders: Arch Rock. Wilbanks said that one of the biggest misconceptions about Arch Rock is that it was formed by water.

“There is no way this was formed by water,” she said. “Typically, that type of erosion is marked by smooth rocks like what you’d see in the river.”

Dan Lawson agreed. “The rocks here are far too jagged,” he said. “It’s more likely that Arch Rock was formed by the process of freezing and unfreezing over time.”

As one climbs the man-made staircase through Arch Rock, they are treated to an up-close view of what nature can do given enough time.

Years of contracting and expanding have left the face of Arch Rock rough yet beautiful. After climbing through the arch and proceeding down the trail, the next major site is Alum Cave Bluffs.

The Bluffs tower far overhead and are covered in a brownish powder that smells faintly of sulfur. While the view from the Bluffs is impressive, hikers who turn back at this point are robbing themselves of some of the most breathtaking views the park has to offer.

After Alum Cave Bluffs, Inspiration Point is next on the list of attractions. Offering another amazing view of the surrounding ridges, at the right time of day hikers can catch a glimpse of two small arches on the opposite ridge. Also a product of many years of freezing and unfreezing, these two bridge-like formations stand out most in the later hours of the afternoon when the shadows from neighboring mountains fall across them, giving a clear glimpse of the sunlight on the other side. The larger of these two gaps is known as the Eye of the Needle.

From Inspiration Point the trail winds back and forth along the side of the mountain. Until reaching the top, there is nothing that can outdo the views available to hikers on a clear day. Mountains stretch out like the ocean, seeming to go on forever.

The remainder of the trail features include Gracie’s Pulpit, a strange formation of rocks that marks the halfway point of the trail. In addition to the spectacular views, hikers can see several different species of plants and possibly even wildlife. Red squirrels and even the occasional bear have been known to show themselves to hikers of the Alum Cave Trail.

After reaching Lodge LeConte, it isn’t difficult to see why so many people return year after year. But as the number of visitors to the park grows, so does the level of wear on the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains.

“We are literally loving this park to death,” Wilbanks said. So many people attend the park annually that many of the roads and trails are falling into disrepair.

The volunteers said that the biggest reason for this is lack of funds. Every year the budget is smaller than the year before and there just isn’t enough to maintain all of the trails and roads. “If you’ve got two major trails in an area and only enough money to keep one maintained, you’ve got to make a choice as to which is going to get taken care of,” Lawson said. As the years pass more and more of the hiking trails of the Smokies return to their natural state.

Members of the Volunteers-in-Parks program work diligently to help keep the trails safe for visitors as well as complete a number of other services like reintroducing native plants whose numbers have dwindled due to disease or insects. In addition to park maintenance, the volunteers also help to educate those in the surrounding areas about the park through activities such as Experience Your Smokies, a program designed to give people a hands-on, behind-the-scenes perspective on the park.

Volunteers are needed throughout the park, and interested parties should contact the VIP Coordinator for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 107 Park Headquarters Drive in Gatlinburg, Tn., 37738, or by phone at 865-436-1265.

For visitors to the park who want to help out but don’t have the time to volunteer, Wilbanks had a suggestion: “Those Friends of the Smokies boxes have this little slot on the top that was meant for money to be put into. People need to realize that even a dollar really helps out.”

With nearly nine million visitors to the park annually, if each of those visitors were to donate just a single dollar, the park would have money to introduce new programs and to expand existing ones, not to mention helping with much-needed maintenance, Wilbanks said.

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