It's been 20 years now since our love affair with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began on Memorial Day weekend in 1990.
In preparation for that first trip to the Smokies, I called the Chamber of Commerce or the Bureau of Tourism or whatever I could find for the area, to inquire as to what sort of lodging was available. I was particularly interested in learning whether any lodging was available inside the national park. I was told that the only options for lodging in the park were the Wonderland Hotel, described as "rustic," and LeConte Lodge, to which the only access was by trail, the shortest of which was five and a half miles.
I asked what seemed like a logical question to me: How do you get your luggage to LeConte Lodge? My informant said (possibly with a smirk in his voice) that most people just carry the few items that they would need for an overnight stay. The general idea is to walk to the lodge one day, stay overnight, and walk back the next day. The lodge provides dinner on the night of arrival and breakfast on the day of departure. And they did have an opening for one of the days we would be in the Smokies. So I booked it.
That left the Wonderland Hotel as the option for the other days. I asked what "rustic" meant. They said the hotel had no televisions or telephones in the rooms. Well, I thought, we can handle that. So I booked a room at the Wonderland for the other days of our stay.
At my first sight of the Wonderland Hotel, my heart just sank. I wondered what I had gotten us into. The building was very old, with paint peeling and a tarp on part of the porch roof, apparently to keep rain out.
The parking area was in the back of the building, so we walked around to the main entrance. As we did, I looked over at Doug, expecting his expression to be a reflection of my own doubts; but I found him smiling like the proverbial cat that had swallowed the canary.
Running along the entire front of the building was a long porch, lined with rocking chairs, and having a beautiful view of Blanket Mountain in the distance.
|Relaxing at the Wonderland Hotel|
|The view from the porch|
We went inside to check in, and everything looked very clean. My hopes rose a little. The first floor included a large lobby, with the reception desk occupying one end and a gathering area occupying the other. The gathering area included several items of comfortable-looking furniture, some game tables, and a fireplace. There was also a ballroom, as well as a dining room. All the lodging rooms were on the second floor.
|The Dining Room|
We were given the key to our room, which was located at the top of the fire escape ladder, leading up from the parking lot in the back of the hotel. We unloaded our vehicle, carrying our things up the fire escape and into the room.
|Our room was to the left of the fire escape.|
The room itself was very small, but clean. There was a sink in one corner. The tiny bathroom appeared to have been a closet at some time, before plumbing was added. It contained a toilet and the smallest shower stall I'd ever seen, with barely enough room to turn around between those two necessities.
|The sink and a peek into the bathroom|
|Notice the lamp on the nightstand|
|The doors may have fit well at one time, but no longer|
The room had two windows: one facing Blanket Mountain and the other facing the fire escape, which was not only the main access to the lodging rooms but also a place where some guests would stand and smoke or just visit with each other. The window coverings were nothing more than sheer curtains. So, to avoid being seen by the constant traffic on the fire escape, it was necessary to undress in the dark.
All that separated our bathroom from the bathroom of the neighboring room was a thin sheet of paneling. And both bathrooms shared a window. The paneling dividing the two went to the windowsill, leaving a gap that you could put your fingers through and wave at the person on the other side, if you were so inclined. And you could hear every sound from the other room, some of which would send me into a fit of giggles.
But we found ourselves falling in love with the place. It was quaint. It was charming. It was peaceful. It was in a beautiful setting, and there was even the sound of a cascading river wafting up through the trees.
We spent a couple of days, just enjoying the Wonderland Hotel and exploring some of the beauty of the national park. Then it was time to go to LeConte Lodge for our one-night stay there.
You know, in our part of Indiana, the thought of walking five and a half miles isn't really that daunting. You have to look long and hard to find a hill where we come from. On the other hand, in the Smokies, you have to look long and hard to find a flat spot. So the realization began to dawn that the hike to LeConte Lodge was going to be UPHILL!
There are several different trails leading to LeConte Lodge. We chose one that was seven miles long because it was said to be less steep. Well, let me tell you, it was HARD. Neither of us had ever done any hiking, and we weren't prepared for a hike of this magnitude. We didn't even have the right footwear...just tennis shoes.
But we made it. After that grueling hike, I didn't want to walk another step, but the scenic view that was one of the main reasons for making the hike was another half-mile or so. It was worth it, though. Magnificent view.
|Enjoying the View from Mount LeConte|
Later, as it began to get dark, we went to our cabin to settle in for the night. The cabin was furnished with double bunk beds, a wooden table with a wash basin, a kerosene lamp, and a kerosene heater. We decided to put our things on the bottom bunk and sleep in the top one.
|Our Cabin at LeConte Lodge|
|Inside our LeConte Lodge Cabin|
When we returned to the cabin, after enjoying the view from the cliffs, we found one of our candy bars on the floor. It had apparently fallen off the bottom bunk, where we had left all our gear. Doug put it back, and we got ready for bed.
After we got all settled in and things got quiet in the cabin, we heard a thud. With the aid of a flashlight, we saw that the candy bar was back on the floor. Doug got down from the upper bunk, put it away; and we settled down again. Pretty soon, there was another sound. Long story short, we had a mouse (or mice). Doug got up and took all the food items and placed them on the wooden table, under the metal wash basin. Then he hung our backpacks on hooks on the wall. When he came back to the top bunk, he brought our shoes with him.
Poor Doug was awake all night. We don't know if it was multiple mice or just one very pesky mouse, but we were terrorized all night by them or it. Finally, about four in the morning, Doug spotted a mouse on one of our backpacks, hanging on the wall hook. Doug used to play a lot of baseball, and he's got a pretty good throwing arm. He took one of his shoes and threw it at the mouse on the backpack. We never found the little guy, but he left us alone for the remainder of the night.
Our night on Mount LeConte also included a big storm with strong winds and things bumping against the outside of the cabin. Then, after the storm, I needed to go to the bathroom, which was down the path toward where we had seen a black bear earlier in the evening. So Doug escorted me to the facilities and back.
The next day, we hiked back down the trail to our car; and I think the hike down was worse than the hike up. By the time we made it down, I was in tears. My feet and legs were so sore. Finally, we were in the car and heading back to the Wonderland Hotel for our last night's stay in the Smokies. And then we pulled into the Wonderland's parking lot, and I saw the fire escape, which we had to climb to get to our room. The thought of dragging my poor aching body up those steps was enough to make a grown woman cry.
When we came down from Mount LeConte, we said we'd never do anything like that again. But we did. We went out and bought better shoes, and we've been hiking the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ever since.
The Wonderland Hotel is no more. The National Park Service did not renew its lease after 1992. It sat in progressing stages of decay for 15 years before being demolished a few years ago. A new Wonderland Hotel was built just outside the park boundary, but that has now been sold and is being used for other purposes.
We have continued to visit our beloved Smokies a couple of times a year since that first visit and have hiked many of its trails, being rewarded with beauty around every curve and over every rise.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), we've never managed to get another reservation at LeConte Lodge. We have hiked up there a couple of times, though, going up and back in the same day.
|This is a picture of Doug on the Alum Cave Bluff Trail on a later hike to Mount LeConte.|