Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Mount LeConte via Rainbow Falls Trail

Okay, I admit it. I am obsessed. Not to sound like a broken record, but it was yet another beautiful fall day and so I just had to get out for a hike. Today I would be headed to what I think might be my most favorite spot in all of the Volunteer State: Mount LeConte. I have hiked up LeConte twice before. The first time was back in 2006 when Noelle and I hiked up the Alum Cave Trail. Then, back in February, I hiked up via the AT and the Boulevard. Today I would make a grand loop by hiking up the Rainbow Falls Trail and down the Bullhead Trail.

I arrived to a somewhat empty parking lot at a little after 8:45. I used the restroom, gathered my gear and then hit the trail. There was a bear warning posted at the trailhead,
bear warning
but I would not see a bruin, or even any evidence of them, on the trail. It is starting to get past peak for the fall foliage even in the lower elevations now. There were lots of leaves down on the trail.
leaf
The hike started off by closely paralleling LeConte Creek past lots of small cascades.
leConte Creek 2
Soon I came to a small waterfall.
small waterfall
Could this be Rainbow Falls? Of course, it was not. A short time after my little "False Rainbow Falls" I found myself at the real thing.
Rainbow Falls
Even though there was not much water flowing down, it was still impressive in a large amphitheater of rock. I ate a snack at the falls and then continued on up the trail.

Soon I came to the site where a large tree had lain across the trail. Sawyers had removed the portion of the trunk which blocked the trail and someone had done a little dendrochronology and counted the rings. They marked off increments of ten rings for a total of over 270 of them.
270 year old tree
That is one old tree! It's too bad it did not survive any longer. Not only was there plenty of lingering fall color on the trail, I also spied the very last of the season's wildflowers. There was a little bit of aster, goldenrods, and this blue flower in bloom in a few places along the trail.
last flowers

I continued to ascend up the trail,
Eric on Trail (2)
gaining about 4,000 feet in elevation. That is an impressive amount of altitude gain for an eastern mountain! I eventually arrived at the signed Rocky Spur Overlook
Rocky spur sign
which led out to a heath-covered section where the first spruces and firs shown themselves.
mountain views
There were nice views out over the lowlands below and the monstrosities that are Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
looking down on Gatlinburg
From certain vantage points I could even get a glimpse of yesterday's destination: Brushy Mountain. After another short break and snack, I continued on to the summit.

Soon the ecosystem started to change a bit. There were still deciduous trees, but the rocky path wound through a largely coniferous forest.
stony trail
At one point a tree just off to the side of the tree had blown over and erosion had washed a deep (about 5 feet) rut into the trail.
huge washout
There was a precarious ledge one could use to skirt around the deep pit, but I would hate to be the hiker who fell into that thing. Shortly after the "Bottomless Pit" I found myself at the junction with the Bullhead Trail for the last .6 mile to Mt LeConte.
Bullhead junction

Before I knew it I was at LeConte Lodge,
LeConte lodge
arguably one of the most interesting places to spend the night in the Eastern US. I headed straight for the porch of the office where I relaxed on one of the rocking chairs
view from office porch
and struck up some conversation with a hiker from Kingsport, TN. The view from the porch was lovely and the temperature was perfect.
view from porch
The thermometer on the wall read 64 degrees Fahrenheit.
over 60 degrees
After eating a snack I headed over to the dining hall to photo document this trip's date.
sign on dining room
I then moved on to visit the actual summit of the mountain.

It was a quick jaunt over to the large summit cairn. I snapped another photo of myself standing next to it
on summit
and then headed back towards the lodge. The views from the trail here were pretty nice,
mountainside trail
1st great view
another mountain view (2)
but I still opted to head over to Cliff Top to see the view from there. I would not be alone in admiring the view from the lofty perch.
folks relaxing at cliff top
After a few minutes I decided to move on. I headed back to the rocky trail
rocky trail
through the piney-scented forest of spruce and fir and began my descent. I was sad to say goodbye to this remarkable place. This is the one place in the southeast that I think feels the most like the way I think a mountain should feel. Even though there is a lodge on top, it doesn't seem (at least not to me) to detract from the setting. The mountain views are remarkable and the smell of the air is unforgettable. Still, I was not a guest at the lodge and I had to get back home to feed and walk Parker.

The hike down the Bullhead Trail went pretty quickly. There were not as many views as I had expected on this trail and so not much of a reason to stop. The trail bed itself is one of the more remarkable aspects of the trail. It is carved into the side of the mountain creating the feeling of hiking along a cliff in many areas.
headed down
One of the other interesting sites is a stone cairn that I have heard referred to as "The Pulpit". It was supposedly built by the CCC during the Great Depression. I photographed myself standing on it
on pulpit
and then continued on my descent. Eventually I arrived at an interesting rock shelter which looked like an interesting spot to wait out a rain storm.
cave

At the end of the Bullhead Trail I was surprised by the sight of an NPS pickup truck parked at the junction with the Old Sugarlands Trail.
NPS truck
I was even more surprised by the two man lounging in the back of it when I passed. I continued on the Old Sugarlands Trail, which is a closed gravel road, through some of the last remaining foliage still on the trees,
lady hiking
and back to the car.                              

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