It’s no secret one of my favorite places in the world is a trail deep in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There’s not one trail in particular, but a few definitely outrank the others. Not so long ago, the hike up to Mt. Le Conte seemed a distant dream. I had attempted to hike it a few times, once being thwarted by snow, twice by sickness. I remember the last planned attempt so vividly. My bags were packed, my dad’s new camera next to my bedside. I had promised my life I would protect it on the trail. It was December and cold, but there was no snow in the forecast. I had prayed for that to remain the case. I remember how nervous my mom was for me to hike it alone, and I remember how many times I’d reminded her of the trail’s popularity and that it was Christmas break. The trail was sure to be full of tourists, even in the cold. After all, Gatlinburg is still Gatlinburg. It was hard to fall asleep that night. At long last, I was finally going to climb this trail I’d dreamed of for so long. This trail in my back yard, yet one I’d never traversed.
Then I woke up at 2 a.m. as sick as I have ever been. I don’t remember a time I have been that miserable. There would be no Le Conte that year, and I remember the disappointment so vividly.
I think back to that season and I laugh because little did I know that Le Conte would soon become one of my favorite spots in the Smokies and one I would rediscover time and time again. I’ve hiked it in every season and every weather condition you can imagine. In some cases, I’ve seen the seasons change almost literally as I’ve climbed, and once I had to turn around because of ice. I have seen the top of the mountain so clear you could see the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park in Knoxville. I’ve seen Cherokee and Douglas lakes shimmering in the distance. You can see every ridge and every valley on days like those, but they are few and far between. I’ve also reached the summit to find everything covered in a dense fog and cloudy haze, the more common site that gives the Smokies their name. That mountaintop is a place of solitude and peace and a place of many, many laughs. It’s a place full of memories–a few heartbreaking, but most of them heartwarming. I’ve scribbled many a journal entry along those trails, and I’ve whispered many a prayer.
Now Mt. Le Conte is a place I visit with friends each year as we hike Alum Cave to stay at the lodges. It’s one of my favorite annual traditions, and I hope that part of my life never changes. There have been toasts, tears, laughter and many an inside joke whispered atop Cliff Tops. It’s a place I feel whole and completely connected.
In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it’s so easy to lose my identity–to forget who I am at my core. In the mountains, without noise and distraction, I’m innately connected to the Creator. It’s easy to remember who I am, what I stand for, the things that matter to me. All of that becomes so clear in the wilderness, and I can hear the voice of God as if it were a voice of thunder breaking through silence.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited National Park of them all, and with nearly double the visitors to its runner-up, is likely to stay that way for some time. I was born in this region, and it’s been my home for the majority of my life. There is healing in those mountains, usually via a trail, a tent, a babbling river and the absence of cell-phone service. The greens are bright and numerous, and the snow-caps in the winter months are breathtaking. What truly entrances most visitors is the fall foliage. The elevation changes in the park allow you to view the bright, crisp colors over several weeks. The tops change first and the yellows, oranges and reds slowly edge their way down the mountain as November approaches. If you get lucky, you’ll find fall colors at the bottom and snow at the top.
There’s no bad season to visit, as you’ll find green pines and rhododendron in every season. Winter means less bears and snakes, so I’m inclined to solo-hike in colder months. Spring offers wildflowers in abundance and summer gives way to the best creek jumping and fishing as the shade of the trees keeps the water cool year-round.
Oh this place I am lucky enough to call home. This place that isn’t served justice by my words. I’m so grateful for my Tennessee mountain home.