Story and images by Arthur “Butch” McDade
Mount Le Conte may not be the highest peak in the Smokies, but its impressive hulk looms over the Tennessee side of the national park. Here’s what writers Ken Wise and Ron Petersen say in A Natural History of Mount Le Conte: “Mount Le Conte is the crown jewel of the Great Smoky Mountains. A mighty sentinel, it stands apart from the main mountain chain, looming like an unyielding vanguard to the north.”
That assessment can be verified by driving south toward Sevierville, Tennessee, on a clear day. From that vantage, Le Conte looms over the surrounding mountains. Its lofty ridgeline with its distinctive points dominates the central skyline. In winter the mountain is also frequently covered with snow, giving it an alpine glow. You can even see Mount Le Conte from downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, on a clear day.
Over the years, local mountaineers had several names for the mountain, but many referred to it simply as “Bull Head.” Today, the official United States Geological Survey (USGS) name is Mount Le Conte, with its dominant points being Myrtle Point, High Top, Cliff Top, and West Point, east to west. Arnold Guyot, a pioneering geographer of the mid-19th century Smokies, reported that Samuel Botsford Buckley dedicated the mountain to Professor John Le Conte, who assisted in measuring some peaks in the Smokies. In the 20th century, the USGS officially measured Le Conte at 6,593 feet above sea level, making it the third highest peak in the Smokies behind Clingmans Dome and Mt. Guyot.
Mount Le Conte is geographically special. It doesn’t follow the general southwest to northeast trend of the Smokies. Erosion of less-resistant rock on its eastern and western flanks over eons has sculpted a terminal spur running north off the main Smokies divide. From the northern point of Le Conte, you look down on the foothills below, with the Valley and Ridge province in the near distance.
Mount Le Conte has other notable features. Down its slopes, the highest free-fall waterfall in the Smokies—Rainbow Falls—follows the course of gravity. The mountain boasts an arch rock, a window arch, a sulphury-brown bluff called Alum Cave, and a rustic lodge. It also provides hikers with very demanding trails to its summit: Alum Cave, Boulevard, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls, and Trillium Gap, with Brushy Mountain and the Appalachian Trail as connectors.
There are many outstanding hikes in the Smokies, and Mount Le Conte isn’t for beginners. Only experienced and physically fit hikers should attempt its trails. But one doesn’t have to be an accomplished hiker to appreciate Le Conte. Outstanding views of this grand mountain can be had from the Gatlinburg Bypass and Newfound Gap parking lot.
Mount Le Conte is an iconic mountain. A fitting summary of it comes from Wise and Petersen: “Within its domain, Mount Le Conte harbors the greatest concentration of notable geological features in the Smokies...and masking the slopes of this remarkable mountain is a rich and varied concentration of flora absolutely unmatched by all but a few regions of the earth.”
For backcountry hiking information in the Smokies, visit www.nps.gov/grsm.
Arthur “Butch” McDade retired as a park ranger from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is the author of Old Smoky Mountain Days, The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork, and is a contributing writer to The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.