Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rainbow Falls and Bullhead Trails

Trail Miles Completed: 12.9
Trail Miles Hiked: 14.2
Elevation Gained: 4,000 ft!!!
23 June, 2010

I've been wanting to do some longer hikes and to get up high in the Smokies, so yesterday I did both.  I've never been to the summit of Mt. LeConte before and the combination of the Rainbow Falls trail up to LeConte and the Bullhead trail back down made for a good loop hike.

I hit the trail at the Rainbow Falls trailhead around 10:15 am.  Despite the fact that it was a Wednesday morning the trailhead parking lot was already full, and there were lots of folks on the trail.  Many were just going up to Rainbow Falls and back down, but many were hiking all the way up to LeConte to stay at the Lodge.  Rainbow Falls trail has all the things I love about the Smokies - it follows LeConte creek so there's always the sound of running water in the background, it's got BIG rocks and waterfalls, a great diversity of plants, and a good trail.  The fact that it gains 4000 ft in elevation from the trailhead to the summit of Mt. LeConte just makes it a wee bit more challenging that your usual trail...

2.7 miles up the trail you come to Rainbow Falls.  It's a tall waterfall with a narrow falls over a wide rock lip.  I can imagine how amazing it might be right after a big rain!  Supposedly on sunny days you can see a rainbow from the mist of the falls, but i was pretty overcast when I was there, so no rainbow.  It's a beautiful spot nonetheless.

From here on up the trail continuously ascends along the flanks of Mt. LeConte.  The uphill is relentless, although rarely steep.  As you climb you enter into the higher-elevation vegetation and start to see the spruce trees (smells like Christmas!).

This side trail led to a nice overlook - at least it would have been a nice view if the entire mountain hadn't been wreathed in clouds.  Still - it's cool to stand on the edge of a cliff and look out into white nothingness and realize you're standing on the side of a mountain!

As you get closer to the top you reach the junction of the Rainbow Falls and Bullhead trails.  The Bullhead trail was my return route, so I turned left up toward LeConte (the sign here says is only 0.6 miles, but it sure felt like more than that!).

There are several different trails that one can take up to Mt. LeConte:  Rainbow Falls, Bullhead, Trillium Gap, Alum Cave, and the Boulevard.  They all approach from different sides, and of course they ultimately meet somewhere near the summit.  I had actually intended to take the Alum Cave trail yesterday with my friend Tim, but he had to bail at the last minute so I promised him we'd hike it together a different day.

Coming up the Rainbow Falls trail the first sign that you're reaching the top is LeConte Lodge.  It's a collection of small cabins with a dining hall and office, and one can make reservations to stay.  It's a privately run organization within the park.  I don't know that much about it, but I did find it sadly ironic that there are park service signs all over the place telling people to stay on the trails so they don't damage the fragile high elevation ecosystem, yet LeConte Lodge takes up several acres of the fragile ecosystem with buildings and trails of its own.

Continuing on up the trail toward the summit one comes to yet another trail junction: this marks the end of the Rainbow Falls trail where it meets the Trillium Gap and Boulevard trails.  To get to the summit of LeConte you have to head about 0.5 miles up the Boulevard trail.

Along the way you'll pass the Mt. LeConte shelter.  This is the only hiker shelter in the Smokies that is not on the Appalachian Trail* (see below).  It's a typical shelter with two levels of bunks (accommodates 10-12 people) with areas for cooking, eating and gear storage.  Fires are not allowed at this shelter any more because apparently people were chopping down the Fir trees for firewood...  I stopped here for a lunch of tuna & crackers, trail mix and beef jerky.

About half-way between the shelter and the summit there is an awesome view down into the valley looking back toward Sugarlands.  The exposed spruce trees and rhododendron along the ridge are all stunted and windblown (a condition known as krumholtz - thank you Dr. Wallace - I remember that term from your Ecology class that I took almost 25 years ago).

The actual summit of Mt. LeConte (aka "high top") is actually not all that impressive.  In an attempt to raise the height of the mountain people have stacked rocks on the summit over the years.  I added my own and thus raised the summit of the mountain by approximately 2 inches.

From here I turned around to begin the journey back down.  Along the way I took another side trail to the Cliff Tops.

There is a loop trail that leads out to the Cliff Tops, and it's supposed to be an amazing place to watch the sun set.  My views were limited unfortunately by the ever-present clouds.  It was neat though to look down from the sheer cliffs.

The trail on the upper reaches of LeConte is rough and rocky.  Those are the perfect sized rocks to turn your ankle on, so I spent a lot of time looking down at the trail instead of around me.  It's rough on the feet and ankles, but well worth it.

The return trip took me back down the same trail to the Rainbow Fall - Bullhead trail junction where this time I turned down the Bullhead trail.  The "Smokies Trail Bible" says that the Bullhead trail is the least used of the trails to LeConte.  Having hiked it I can see why, and you can see evidence of how rarely it's used.

This is what much of the trail looked like - yes, there IS a trail under all that vegetation!  In many places it is narrow and deeply rutted and the plants seem to be winning the battle.  I felt more like I was wading through plants than hiking!  I don't have a whole lot to recommend about the Bullhead trail.  It has the primeval feeling of the deepest, darkest Smokies which is neat, and I met absolutely NO ONE else on the trail.  There are some neat rock formations including huge rock walls and a couple of rock houses (shallow caves under overhanging rocks).  It doesn't have many good overlooks or other interesting features though so I was just kind of slogging along to get back to the car.

One neat thing on this trail is "The Pulpit" - a rock structure probably 4 feet high x 6 feet wide that was built by the CCC guys that also built the trail.  I'm not clear on WHY they felt the need to build it, but there it is.  Right about the time I passed the pulpit it started to rain.  At first it was just a light drizzle and I rarely even felt a drop being under the trees, but ultimately it started absolutely POURING, complete with thunder and lightning.  Luckily I did bring a rain jacket and had all my stuff in plastic bags.  They always say it can rain at any time in the Smokies (it is a temperate rain forest after all), and you should always be prepared for it.  Luckily I was this time, because I had to hike the last 3 miles in a downpour.

The Bullhead trail empties out at the Old Sugarlands trail about a half mile from the Rainbow Falls parking areas.  After over 14 miles of hiking including a 4000 ft elevation gain I was tuckered out (not to mention soaking wet from the waist down) and glad to get back to my car at about 5:30.  But it was a great hike and a beautiful day to be out, and I'm glad to have finally made it to the top of LeConte.

So, til next time, happy hiking!

* After posting this and looking at my maps I realized that the LeConte Shelter is NOT the only shelter in the Smokies that's not on the AT.  In addition there are the Mt. Collins and Kephart shelters that are close to the AT, and the Laurel Gap shelter (where I had previously stayed!) that's on the Benton MacKaye Trail.


  1. Funny, I did the same hike yesterday, 4/30/2011, and came to the opposite conclusion: I thought Rainbow Falls was, "So-so," but LOVED Bullhead! Tons of wildflowers, much more interesting vistas, cool rocks, varied terrain. I think of time of year has a lot to do with enjoying this, and many other trails. Happy hiking, and thanks for the Blog!

  2. thanks for stopping by! I agree that time of year can have a huge impact on my impression of a trail. I'd love to see what wildflowers were up along Bullhead. happy hiking to you too!

  3. I am hoping to do this loop at the very end of April 2012, nice to hear that may be a good time. I've never climbed that far before, the closest I've come is a little over 3000 ft in Texas. But I've got all day, right?

  4. Just tried the Bullhead yesterday 3/30/13. There was a volunteer ahead of us until mile 3.5, he was clearing blowdown, but no one after that. It was my family 3 kids and my wife. From mile 4 on up the snow got continously deeper until we turned around, the snow was 2 feet deep and our progress was less than 1 mph approximately .1 miles from the rainbow falls junction. Still a good time. M. Lundergan

  5. Wow!!! How cool! Who would imagine 2 feet of snow at the end of March? I'm glad to hear that the trail volunteers are out and about. There's going to be a lot of winter blow-downs to take care of to get ready for the spring/summer hiking season. I was over on Meigs Mtn and Curry Mtn trails a few days ago and there were several downed trees. thanks for stopping by!

  6. Randy,
    My wife and I are beginner trail hikers. We are both in "ok" shape and your trail notes have given us clear mortivation to try our luck trail hiking. The Gregory Ridge Trail sounds very interesting, however, i wnat to be realistic too. Do you think attempting something like that may be over our heads? We both walk about 1 mile a day on fairly level ground. Any input would be appreciated! Thanks.

    1. hi! good to hear that you're interested in getting out on the trails more, and I'm happy that my blog has helped. Gregory Ridge trail is neat, but it's TOUGH! the first little bit is not terribly steep, but from campsite #12 on up it's pretty relentless. I certainly wouldn't start with it as your first big steep hike. and anyway, the best time to visit Gregorys Bald is mid-late June when the flame azaleas are out. it's AMAZING then. I would try some of the shorter and less steep trails first. Places like the Middle Prong trail, Little River trail, Abrams Falls trail are all good trails that offer really nice scenery and some challenge, without being overwhelming. a good website that has links to trails by difficulty is here: Also there are a lot of good books on Smokies trails. I really like Johnny Molloy's books like this one: Hope that helps! Good luck and have fun!