If you measure a peak’s worth by elevation alone, then Mt. Le Conte falls short to Clingmans Dome. Tennessee’s nearby high point beats Le Conte by 50 feet. But by other measures–scenic ridgewalking, heart-stopping exposure, hiking challenge, soaring peak-and-valley views–Le Conte’s 6,593-foot summit towers over its technically taller neighbor. Plus, unlike drive-up Clingmans, you’ll earn Le Conte’s see-forever vistas. The Appalachian Trail-Boulevard Trail combo never dips below 5,000 feet, pairs airy ridges with dense spruce-fir tunnels, and yo-yos up and down for a total elevation gain of 3,700 feet in 8.1 miles.
Jump on the AT at Newfound Gap and climb 2.7 miles to a northwest turn onto the Boulevard Trail. Don’t miss the 0.5-mile spur, just beyond, leading to The Jumpoff, a 1,000-foot cliff with vistas back toward rocky Charlies Bunion and deep Porters Creek Valley. Pass Anakeesta Knob at mile 5.2. This ledge of slate glitters with streaks of rusty yellow fool’s gold. From here, you’ll drop 300 feet to Alum Gap, then ascend 800 feet as you curve around Le Conte’s northern flank to a vertigo-inducing, 200-foot traverse of an old rockslide. At mile 7.5, you’ll pass the spur to Myrtle Point, an outcrop overlooking a chain of hazy peaks, then hit High Top, the true summit.
There’s one more feature that elevates Le Conte above its neighbors: sweet digs. Camp at Mt. Le Conte shelter, or pad another half-mile to 1920s-era LeConte Lodge, a hiker-only cluster of cabins. Reserve the shelter up to one month in advance (free, 865-436-1231) and the Lodge starting October 1, for the 2010 season (lecontelodge.com).
Score more Smokies delights by descending Le Conte via the six-mile Rainbow Falls Trail. You’ll hit the 80-foot falls at mile 3.3 and cruise through dense hardwoods to your shuttle car at Rainbow Falls trailhead.
Balsam Mountain Campground, in North Carolina, is the park’s highest at 5,310 feet ($14).