Onward and upward! Man! That phrase was directed at me so many times last Thursday as I struggled to summit the third highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Mount LeConte – at 6,593 feet above sea level. Hikers of the Himalayas would laugh at its puniness, but to my bursting lungs, it might as well have been Everest.
My supervisors are trying to make my training as interdisciplinary as possible so that I have a broad knowledge of the park and its operations. To that end, they let me accompany the park’s Concessions Specialist and another SCA intern studying structural fire management to review LeConte Lodge at the top of the mountain. The lodge is only accessible by trails and gets its supplies delivered by llama or helicopter.
We approached the lodge via Alum Cave Trail – one of the park’s most popular hikes, and the shortest route to the top at five miles. Five STRENUOUS miles. Luckily, I was saved a lot of embarrassment as I gasped like a fish out of water. The trail is currently closed to the public Monday through Thursday for restoration. My two companions and I had the whole trail to ourselves aside from the occasional group of workers!
It took us about five hours to reach our destination and we saw many amazing things along the way. We followed a beautiful creek swollen with rain, we strolled through rhododendrons in bloom, we passed grand mountain vistas, and we were entertained by the antics of a squirrel as we stopped for a snack. My favorite moment by far was seeing three Peregrine Falcons. The Peregrine Falcon is my favorite bird with the astounding capability to stoop (dive) at speeds up to 200 miles per hour!
After unloading our gear in the NPS barracks and grabbing a quick bag lunch, we went about our missions. I helped evaluate the lodgings and other facilities for their cleanliness and comfort. We also assessed the games and books available for entertainment to see what additions might need to be made. We talked to lodge staff about requests they get from guests and observed them in action to see the quality of service provided. As guests pay $150 per person to stay at the lodge, we want to ensure that they are receiving a high-quality experience.
My favorite task we faced was having to assess the quality of the food. I went about this job with gusto! Dinner consisted of soup, cornbread, roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, roasted apples in cinnamon, peaches, and chocolate chip cookies. That meal was the best meal I’ve had since I’ve been in this park! Some may find that surprising as a lot of the food came out of cans. After a hike like we did, I’m sure most anything tastes good, but truly, it was delicious!
The atmosphere was wonderful as well. Since there is no electricity up there, we ate by the light of oil lamps. Conversation was lively at our table between us and the family we shared it with. A feisty and highly competitive 10 year-old challenged us to an UNO tournament following the meal. We played into the evening, losing over and over to that boy, as it rained and thundered. It cleared up just before bedtime and we were able to watch the fireworks from Dollywood amusement park in the valley far below.
After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, biscuits, scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, and grits, we began our trek back down the mountain. As Alum Cave Trail was now open for the weekend, we made bets on how many people we would encounter on the hike. Mine was 108 people with the other bets being 125 and 135. We were all blown away. In all, we counted 345 people! And that’s just in the three hours it took us to get back by noon!
While I may have been questioning my decision to undertake this adventure during our ascent, I’m very thankful I did. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience. It probably doesn’t occur to the average visitor how much work actually goes into running a National Park. It didn’t occur to me! While the visitor center and interpretation staff are usually the ones on the front line, there is so much going on behind the scenes by administration, maintenance, resource management, concessions, information technology, etc, to make sure our parks run smoothly and provide those high-quality experiences for visitors. I’m really glad that I had this opportunity to gain more insight into that side of the National Park Service!