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The Sweetsers, Mary and I begin my final trail in the park.

The big day is here, I’m hiking my final trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Susan and Allen Sweetser, Mary McCord, and I leave the Sweetser’s house northwest of Knoxville before dawn in two cars. We park one at Alum Cave trailhead on Highway 441 and take mine to Newfound Gap, where we begin at 8:22 a.m. To reach The Boulevard Trail, we must hike 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail, gaining 1,000 feet in elevation. All of us are more than a little out of shape, but we keep a steady pace without pushing ourselves and cover this demanding stretch in two hours.

Inconspicuous side trail to The Jumpoff

The Boulevard Trail follows a ridge line of the same name trending northwest to Mt. LeConte and represents one of five trails that converge on the third highest peak in the park. Since this trail begins at high elevation, it does not require the sustained upward effort to summit LeConte like the other trails. The ridge line presents moderate ups and downs to break up the monotony inherent in one long climb or descent. Aside from the steep 0.8 mile ascent near the end, this is not a difficult trail.

For the last mile on the A.T., I walk ahead of the group in order to visit The Jumpoff, a side trail to an expansive view on The Boulevard. Susan, Allen and Mary have all been there at one time or another. This is my first opportunity. The Boulevard’s junction with the A.T. comes on the broadly rounded top of Mount Ambler at 6,000 feet. The Jumpoff side trail is a quick 0.2 mile from the junction.

Panoramic view from The Jumpoff

The Boulevard Trail

Fortunately, there’s a sign and arrow to point the way, otherwise it would be very easy to miss. The half-mile trail begins as a scramble straight up an eroded tangle of roots and rocks between two hapless trees and doesn’t resemble a trail at all. It follows a rocky ditch that looks like a dry stream bed up the slope of Mt. Kephart, over the summit, through a shallow saddle, and up to a rock outcrop overlooking the Porters Creek watershed. The view is impressive with Charlie’s Bunion visible to the far right. Mt. Kephart’s slope at The Jumpoff falls away in a vertiginous drop, though it is largely masked by summer’s foliage.

The silence of the mountains rings deep up here. I stand still and drink it in, so still a little Junco begins hopping all around me, gleaning imperceptible insects from the ground and foliage and giving me no more mind than the jagged slabs of Anakeesta slate jutting from the soil. After a bit, I head back. The Sweetsers and Mary have left a sign of their passing on The Boulevard. Now I’ve got to catch up.

The switchback east of Anakeesta Knob

Mt. LeConte stands apart as something of an outlier north of the procession of peaks centering the park. The Boulevard’s ridge line moors LeConte to the east/west Smokies crest. The trail, once past the flank of Mt. Kephart, adheres faithfully to this ridge, skirting it only during the final steep climb. The Boulevard Trail descends 600 feet on Mt. Kephart in just under a mile, then works slowly over the next three-plus miles to gain it back, peaking east of Anakeesta Knob at a sharp switchback and dipping through Alum Gap. The next 0.8-mile climbs 600 feet to LeConte’s 6,593-foot summit, and the final 0.4-mile descends to the trail junctions with Trillium Gap and Rainbow Falls next to LeConte Lodge. At 5.4 miles, The Boulevard is one of the shorter trails emanating from LeConte, but the A.T.’s 2.7-mile trek between Newfound Gap and the trailhead bumps the total to 8.1 miles.

Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus

Never dropping under 5,500 feet, the trail’s vegetation reflects high elevation communities, predominately characterized by Northern Hardwoods and Spruce-Fir forests. However, tucked among the larger forest types is a seepage community containing a rare-in-the-park species, Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia). It is in full flower as we trudge our way up LeConte’s side, taking a welcome rest to gawk and photograph. Large patches flow down the steep slope and concentrate at eye level.

Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus

Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus is one of three Parnassia species found in the southeastern U.S. Six more species are found to the north and west, including two with several named varieties. One of the Southeast species occurs sporadically along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The other two, Kidney-leaf and Large-leaf Grass of Parnassus, have much wider distributions, but all are obligate wetland species like their six-plus North American cousins elsewhere.

Anakeesta Slate at the landslide scar

Detailed county data shows Kidney-leaf GoP primarily limited to the Appalachian Highlands region — Blue Ridge and Appalachian Plateaus physiographic provinces from the Virginias southwest to Alabama and Georgia — with spotty occurrences in AR and TX. This mountainous habitat correlates to the plant’s preference for acidic soils. In contrast, Large-leaf GoP is found in association with calcareous soils, which places it within the limestone-rich Valley & Ridge province and Middle Tennessee among other widely scattered occurrences throughout the Southeast and especially the Ozarks.

Southern Bush Honeysuckle

Nothing indicates acidity more than the iron-rich Anakeesta slate girding Mt. LeConte and parts of the Smokies crest. Disturbance of the rocks in this geologic formation can render streams unlivable for a majority of fish and other aquatic life. However, absent polluting disturbances, acidic soils at this elevation support a number of plant species adapted to such conditions, like the lovely Kidney-leaf GoP.

Liverwort Scapania nemorea

Basal leaves feature the reniform, or wider-than-long bean shape, of the common name. Solitary flowers rise above the foliage on a separate stalk with a small leaf hugging the center of the stem. Flowers are white with green veins striping the five petals that each narrow to a thin ‘claw’ where attached. Five white functional stamens are interspersed with groupings of three joined “staminodes” or sterile stamens topped with yellow glands.

Final rocky climb with mossy trailsides

We see several other high elevation plants, some common, some not: Southern Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia), Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum), Pin or Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), Piedmont or Carolina Rhododendron (Rhododendron minus), Sand Myrtle (Kalmia buxifolia), and Michaux’s Saxifrage (Micranthes petiolaris).

I’m quite taken with the mosses and liverworts. At this elevation, moisture is ample, and the lush, colorful carpets are eye-catching. Dark red, medium green, and lime green Spaghnum mosses mix with light green Plume Moss, amber Delicate Fern Moss, and dark green Haircap Moss. Liverworts Millipede Weed (Bazzania trilobata) in drier areas and Scapania nemorea/nemorosa in wet seeps form thick colonies. Bold crustose lichens on the rocks command attention too.

LeConte’s peak

The trail surface is relatively smooth until the latter half of the LeConte climb, when it becomes very steep and rocky with chunks of rusty Anakeesta. One brief section crosses a landslide scar. A wire cable bolted firmly into the bedrock offers the faint of heart something to cling to while they admire the open view facing east.

At last, The Boulevard crests LeConte and passes the Myrtle Point junction where early birds from the lodge and shelter go to greet the morning sun. The Boulevard continues over the tallest point where people have been stacking rocks for years in a fool’s errand to push LeConte’s height past Mt. Guyot into the #2 slot behind Clingmans Dome. From here, it’s all downhill past LeConte shelter to the trailhead and lodge where the four of us will spend the night in celebration.

Our cabin

The Sweeters and Mary have enjoyed an evening at the lodge before, but tonight is my first. The office attendant signs us in, grabs a galvanized bucket, and leads us to one of the first structures built on LeConte, a late-1920s log cabin featuring three bedrooms, a common room, and a long front porch with rocking chairs. The bucket is to collect hot water from a faucet off the dining hall for bathing. Our room contains two bunk-style double beds, one chair, a tiny table, and a kerosene lamp. A small mirror, box of matches, four mugs, and wall propane heater round out the amenities. We have two windows, one on either side of the room and just enough space to encircle the stacked beds on three sides. Four people with four packs fill the room floor to ceiling.

Enjoying the porch before dinner

Room mugs allow guests to partake of coffee and hot chocolate available in urns in the dining hall during the afternoon. The hall’s large open room easily accommodates more than 40 guests at several tables seating 6 to 8 people. Dinner and breakfast are served home style with platters and bowls of hot food. It costs extra to enjoy a “bottomless” wine glass during the dinner hour.

There are functioning flush toilets on site, but the stalls are locked with keys accessible only in the cabins. I guess this keeps out dayhikers and those slumming in the shelter!

Evie

A tame doe named Evie wanders among the cabins grazing on tender shoots of grass. Tall wands of Monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) lean into the dining hall’s walkway. Shortly after dinner, a heavy rainstorm squashes any plans for a hike to Cliff Tops at sunset. Some of our cabin mates play cards in the common room for a while, but everyone is ready for sleep soon after nightfall.

Monkshood

It’s quiet up here at night, and the bunk beds are creaky. I’m in the top bunk on the side opposite the ladder and have been trying to ignore a certain urge for nearly two hours. Unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, I move as gently as possible, yet the bed wiggles and pops continuously. On the floor at last, I tiptoe to the door only to have it groan open like something in a horror movie.

Dinner

Outside, clouds have moved away from LeConte, leaving a black dome full of bright stars and planets with the Milky Way arching overhead. Pigeon Forge and Sevierville shine even brighter at the mountain’s base. Occasional lightning dances among clouds on the northeast horizon. I linger for awhile enjoying the various light shows. In the morning, clear skies reveal a lovely sunrise. I don’t walk the 0.7 mile to Myrtle Point but still get a colorful impression of the soft rose and peach tones easing into the eastern sky.

Dawn

After breakfast, we pack up and head down Alum Cave Trail where we find more Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus on the wet upper slopes along with another wetland obligate, Narrowleaf Gentian (Gentiana linearis). Upright tubular flowers in a rich, deep blue cluster at the tips of stems.

Alum Cave was recently renovated as part of the Smokies’ Trails Forever Program. Work focused on installing new cables in ice-prone areas, siting drainage channels to manage erosion, adding and improving steps, rebuilding bridges, and smoothing the roughest surfaces. Yet, it remains a demanding trail both up and down. It’s a lovely day that warms quickly as we descend, and we take our time, enjoying the alum rockhouse, eye of the needle, and Arch Rock along the way.

Narrowleaf Gentian on Alum Cave Trail

Back home, I send my $15 and application form to officials with the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. I ‘fessed up’ and let them know I have only hiked a small portion of the 0.7-mile Fontana Lake access to Hazel Creek Trail, yet I did hike 13 additional miles around the park covering the Quiet Walkways and Nature Trails. They accepted my application in a congratulatory email with this quote, “The trails and miles are merely an end that provide the means to see and experience the Great Smoky Mountains intimately.” I could not agree more. My 900 Miler patch, sticker, and certificate are on their way.

900 Miler

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