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Mt. LeConte via phone line route June 25, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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13 comments
Two phone lines in this stretch!

Two phone lines in this stretch!

Added 7/2/13: For further information about history of the phone line, visit this post.

Today I bushwhacked up LeConte Creek, which is the route of the old phone line that once connected a hand-cranked phone in a barn at what is now Rainbow Falls trailhead to a similar phone up top of the mountain. I hiked the trail as far as Rainbow Falls and then took to the stream.

You may notice a method to my madness recently. Let’s just say I’m nearly finished a project that I started casually many years ago, and I have only one more challenge to meet—but that will probably be the toughest of all.

Enough about me. Let’s look into the story behind this phone line. In 1926 Jack Huff started his project of building a retreat on the summit of LeConte. He kept building and adding and improving over the years, and eventually it became a precursor to the Lodge, and people went up there and slept in WWI-surplus army blankets atop fir boughs. Somewhere along the way he installed a phone on the summit—after all, it must be nice to connect with the lowlands every now and then. I don’t know when exactly the phone system was first installed.

One of the purposes of the phones was to coordinate the packhorse operations. Horses were housed in the Cherokee Orchard barn that no longer exists, and they would carry supplies up to the summit along what is now the Rainbow Falls trail. At some point within my experience of the Smokies, the decision was made to use llamas at the Trillium Gap trail instead—lower impact, less traveled trail.

In 1961 Herrick Brown took over the Lodge. He was a member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, and other SMHC members had frequent communications with him. Readers of the wonderful book by Harvey Broome titled Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies will recall a trip the club did in the early 60s, in deep snow in January, up the route of the phone line. They drove from Knoxville on snowy roads, slithering along the way, and when they got through to Cherokee Orchard they called Herrick from the barn to ask him about conditions. He said something along the lines of, “Deep snow! Come on up!”

Harvey described the tough time he had climbing through the snow with his heavy pack. He spoke of the complete solitude that one can experience in difficult conditions. The younger members of the club passed him as he took a step, rested, took another step. It is one of the most poignant passages of the book. I can only say, after my experience hiking today, that the idea of doing this climb in deep snow in January is fathomless to me.

I’ve read a description of following the phone line route that says it’s possible to pick it up below Rainbow Falls where a big rock sticks out of a muddy bank. I looked for a place that met that description and found a few too many possibilities. Anyway, I had little interest in following the lower portion of LeConte Creek as it follows close to the trail.

As I climbed the trail, I passed the spot where I came down with Greg Hoover and Greg Harrell on our Traverse of Balsam Point in May 2010—a pretty cascade.

We started at Ft. Harry Falls, went over Balsam Point, and came down here.

We started at Ft. Harry Falls, went over Balsam Point, and came down here.

Not long after passing the Greg Cascade, I arrived at Rainbow Falls.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls

The falls itself is, in my opinion, the only reason at all to use the eroded, ugly, overused trail that leads up to it, full of damp toilet paper and informal side-trails where people have cut the switchbacks. Sorry for the negativity.

I figured I’d take the trail around the falls to the lowest point where I could reasonably get to the stream. If you use the trail at all, you end up hitting the stream 100 feet or so above the falls. And that requires contouring around from the trail to the stream through dense rhodo. But I got there. I saw a pretty little cascade, but no sign of the phone line yet.

This is a very nice stream.

This is a very nice stream.

I still didn’t see the phone line. I now realize that it was virtually impossible to see unless it was right in the stream or right next to it. The vegetation is too thick. Perhaps others would have spotted it lower, but I finally found it at the junction of two branches of LeConte Creek at 4600′. You are guaranteed to see it there.

My first sight of the phone line.

My first sight of the phone line.

I was relieved. It would have been embarrassing if I hadn’t seen it at all. Admittedly it is difficult under current conditions of vegetation to get up the stream in the first place while spending long hours hunting around for the phone line, but anyway. I found it, and kept seeing it on and off for the next 1000 vertical feet.

In this section the phone line goes straight up the stream.

In this section the phone line goes straight up the stream.

Phone line up mossy rocks.

Phone line up mossy rocks.

Two wires by a small waterfall.

Two wires by a small waterfall.

Most of the time I saw newer wire that had some sort of coating to it (and when I say “new,” I mean “relatively new,” of course!). But here and there I found an older line that was thinner, and bare wire.

Older, thinner phone line.

Older, thinner phone line.

It got harder and harder to find the line as I got up into forest of witch hobble and blackberry. But at least the stream was pretty.

Pretty waterfall.

Pretty waterfall.

It was around this point that a light rain began to fall. It only lasted for 15 or 20 minutes, but that was enough to get all of the brush thoroughly wet and of course me wet as well.

Blackberries in bloom over the stream.

Blackberries in bloom over the stream.

Mossy cascade.

Mossy cascade.

It was a world of water and vegetation. More and more, I believe the world of the Smokies has changed profoundly in recent decades, in ways that have big impacts on off-trail hikers. First of all, so many areas of the mountains were logged in the early 20th century. Of course I’m glad that has ended forever, but in the decades following the creation of the park, the vegetation must have taken a while to recover, making it easier for explorers to make their way through the forest in the mid-20th. Then, more recently, we’ve had devastation of first the balsam firs and then the hemlocks, resulting in numerous blowdowns. On top of that, the extraordinary levels of rainfall this year have resulted in even more blowdowns as trees in high winds and loose, wet soil can’t stay upright.

Perhaps this is only the way I rationalize my own slow pace over ground that the kids working at the Lodge in the 60s used to race over. They’d call up to the summit as they were starting so as to get an accurate measure of the time it took to run from Cherokee Orchard to the Lodge. (I don’t know what those times were, by the way—I’d be interested if anyone can tell me.)

I lucked out and didn’t run into any rhodo hells above about 4500′, but that great blackberry-witch hobble combo was a real pain above that. As much as I could, I stayed in the creek.

I did run into stretches of nice open forest, especially above 5500′.

Clouds alternated with sunshine for a while.

Clouds alternated with sunshine for a while.

The Rainbow Falls trail crossed the stream at 5800′ and again at 6200′. I followed an increasingly small trickle of water and gave up the woods for the trail at the upper crossing.

Headwaters of LeConte Creek just below 6200' trail crossing.

Headwaters of LeConte Creek just below 6200′ trail crossing.

You can see fog on the lens here (and in the next photo). I was so wet and bedraggled at this point that a woman who passed me asked, “Are you okay?” Of course everyone I met near the Lodge was wearing clean, dry clothes—generally shorts and short-sleeved shirts—and I had my long-sleeved clothing, totally dirty and wet. Readers of my Surry Fork post may recall the strange feeling this gave me. But this time I resolved that I would recognize my own superiority 🙂 and no sense of oddness would disturb me. It was kind of funny when I was sitting on the swing at the Lodge and a man and his daughter passed me and he said, “See, she’s wearing gaiters, like I told you about.” I said, “I use them when I bushwhack,” but there was no question or curiosity at all on their part about what this entailed. I’ve decided that makes it even better.

I left a wet, dirty butt print on the swing.

I left a wet, dirty butt print on the swing when I departed.

After resting a bit, I headed down the Bullhead trail, a trail far superior to the Rainbow Falls trail.

All right, on to my final challenge!

Galax in bloom along Bullhead trail.

Galax in bloom along Bullhead trail.