To climb Mt. LeConte, you have to strike out with some intention, some resolve, and at least some sense of adventure. It’s the tallest mountain fully contained within the state of Tennessee, and the way up (to an altitude of 6,594 feet) includes plenty of heavy breathing and sore calves. It’s not something you do on a whim—unless you’re one of those crazy people who run up mountains for fun. But for me and the women I climbed with, LeConte was something we had to say “yes” to, even it it was only possible because of some no’s.
My mom had planned a trip up LeConte for a few of her friends, both men and women, and reserved a cabin at LeConte Lodge well in advance of the trip. But long story short, those plans fell through and the men weren’t able to go. Not willing to lose her coveted LeConte Lodge reservations, my mom reshaped the trip into a female excursion and invited me and my mostly college-aged friends to go with her and the females from her original party. We gave our exuberant “yes” and started planning our trip to the summit of Mt. LeConte via the shortest and most popular access, Alum Cave Trail. This trail takes hikers up through Arch Rock, past Inspiration Point, and under the tall overhanging cliffs of the Alum Cave Bluffs. There was just one problem: the trail was closed for the season for maintenance. Another “no.”
Luckily, there are six different ways to get up LeConte, and after a little bit of research, we opted to go up the Rainbow Falls Trail and down the Bullhead Trail on the northwest slope of the mountain.
The Way Up
We arrived at the trailhead for Rainbow Falls on a brisk October morning, all 11 of us making a final check of supplies and ensuring that we have snacks, water, and cameras (iPhones) available for easy grabbing along the hike. Once everyone had tied theirs boots and secured their packs, we congregated excitedly around the weathered wooden trailhead sign. After a friendly fellow hiker took a pre-adventure picture of our group, we set off into the bright yellow maple-laden forest toward our first destination—the trail’s namesake, Rainbow Falls.
The first portion of the hike was a scenic 2.7 miles, and we dawdled a bit to our first checkpoint, getting lost in conversation and the beauty of the peak fall colors around us. After about two hours, we rounded the bend and were greeted by Rainbow Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. After a short lunch break congregated on boulders near the falls, we made up our minds to pick up the pace. None of us wanted to miss sunset from the summit. We set off from the falls with full bellies and determination to tackle the next four miles.
The next section of the hike was a steep and rocky 3.2 miles to the Bullhead Trail junction, but the scenery was breathtaking. We emerged from the yellow maples into fiery orange and red leaves and eventually reached the cool, moss-laden pines and blue spruces higher up. The trail was canopied with trees for most of this section, but there were vistas from which we took in the view of the valley shrinking farther and farther away below us. As we climbed, the underbrush started to dissipate, and rocks abounded as the waft of moist leaves shifted to drier scents of clean pine.
As we came upon a fork in the road, we encountered a sign that indicated the convergence of the Rainbow Falls, Bullhead, and Alum Cave trails and, most importantly, informed us that our destination was only 0.6 miles away. We were all feeling the strain in our legs and backs and were suddenly flushed with thoughts of the comfortable chairs and creamy hot chocolate awaiting us at the Lodge. The next 0.6 miles went quickly as we observed the magical quality of the forest around us. Before long the trail opened up and we spotted a few rustic cabins, and then a few more and then a few more. Then we saw the simple wooden fences and the steps up to the dining hall and we knew we’d made it to LeConte Lodge.
We entered the dining hall and sat down around a hot propane fire with hot chocolate, coffee, and LeConte Lodge’s famous no-bake cookies. We took in the quaint wooden dining hall, conversed with a fellow hiker for awhile, and then stepped outside to enjoy the view off the back deck of the towns far below. The Lodge’s staff is busy in the kitchen and point us to check-in at the Main Office cabin, which has a simple gift shop, two guitars, a wrap around porch with rocking chairs, hot coffee, board and card games of all types, a loom with a partially woven blanket, and containers to hold all food packed up the mountain. The staff explains that they keep all food in bins in the main office because bears will smell any food (or gum, or cough drops) in the cabins.
We check in and take our packs to our assigned cabin. Our cabin has a deck with a view of the valley, a main room with a fireplace, and three rooms with bunks. The bunks sleep two on top and bottom and are garnished with heavy wool blankets. We turn on the propane heater before heading out to dinner, so our room will be warm when we return later that night.
Dinner is a home-cooked meal with an option for wine (and refills) for $10. We walk in to a community table set with cornbread, peach halves and a brothy broccoli cheese soup. Once the first course is devoured, family style pots of baked apples, green beans, mashed potatoes, pork, and gravy greet us. Naturally, pie is served for dessert. The delicious food tastes especially good after a day of hiking.
Around 6:20 we head up the rocky trail to the Cliff Top overlook about a half-mile away. The rocky cliff top provides a panoramic view of the horizon, perfect for watching the the sun slip down below the mountains into twilight.
In the morning, we wake up at 7 a.m. to make the 0.7 mile walk to watch the sunrise at 7:50. We get a cup of coffee from the Main Office cabin, and troop to the sunrise spot at Myrtle Point. It’s a bit far, but totally worth the experience.
When we arrive back, a hot breakfast awaits. The smells alone indicate how good the food will be. The staff brings an endless supply of fluffy pancakes, apple butter, maple syrup, honey, scrambled eggs with ham, biscuits, coffee, hot chocolate, and orange juice.
The Way Down
After breakfast, we browse the gift shop and then pack up. Around 9:15 we start back home down the Bullhead Trail. Unlike Rainbow Falls, this trail offers views of the mountains almost the whole way down. We pass back through the high altitude pine forest, through trickling streams, and eventually a damp fall smell greets us as we emerge into bursts of color once again. The hike down Bullhead is 7 miles from LeConte Lodge, and takes about 3.5 hours hiking at a good pace.
I would recommend this hike to everyone who is able to do it. Including the sunset and sunrise trek, the hike totals 16 miles in two days. Although it is not for the faint of heart, the soreness is well worth it.