Friday, October 12, 2012

Trillium Gap Trail

New Trail Miles Completed: 3.6
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 14.6
Elevation Gain: ~3,400 feet
11 October 2012

Ahhhh....  Fall in the mountains.  It really doesn't get any better than this.  It's Fall Break at UT so I took the opportunity to head out for a day hike.  I wanted to do something up high so I could get some good views of the fall foliage.  I've done the lower section of Trillium Gap trail before (once just up to Grotto Falls, and once up to Trillium Gap), but needed to finish the upper section to the top of Mt. LeConte.

Trillium Gap trailhead

Out of the house by 7 am and at the trailhead by 8:30 am, the parking lot was surprisingly empty - only one other car!  In fact, on my whole 6.7 mile hike up the trail I saw only one person which is crazy for a fall day on such a popular trail.  Of course it was a different story on the way back down later that afternoon...  [I did get stuck in a bear jam on Cherokee Orchard Road on my way in - cars stopped in the middle of the road in both lanes and people sticking their heads and cameras out of their cars]

Trillium Gap trail is VERY popular because it leads to a unique waterfall in just over a mile of hiking.  The trail shows the wear and tear of being loved to death - the skeletons of trees roots that used to be well underground are now exposed by foot travel (and llama travel) and erosion.  There's going to have to be some serious trail maintenance done here one of these days.

exposed tree roots due to erosion on Trillium Gap trail

The trail to Grotto Falls is easy.  It climbs fairly steadily, but not at all steeply and the trail is wide.  It's often muddy and laced with tree roots (which just makes it wider as people try to go around the tree roots).  There are a couple of short creek crossings that you can easily rock-hop.  Realistically, the hardest part about this section of the trail is usually finding a parking spot!

The pay-off for most folks is Grotto Falls - the only waterfall in the Smokies where the trail actually goes behind a waterfall.  Usually the falls are packed with people, but I actually had it to myself this morning.  It was quite pretty in the early morning dimness.

Grotto Falls

From Grotto Falls up to Trillium Gap is a little less than 2 miles as it winds its way around the northern flanks of the lower parts of Mt. LeConte.  There are big trees and nice views along here.  I was hiking in cool, dim light for most of this section as the sun hadn't made it over the ridge top yet, but you could see it shining on the mountaintops further north which made for nice contrasts.

Trillium Gap itself was formerly known as Grassy Gap - while not quite as poetic it is probably a much more appropriate name.  This gap is a saddle between Brushy Mountain to the east and the much taller Mt. LeConte to the west.

trail sign at Trillium Gap

From here I headed UP, and into new territory for me - the 3.6 mile section to the summit.  The total elevation gain from the parking lot (~ 3,200 feet) to the top of LeConte (~ 6,600 feet) is about 3,400 feet and the steepest part of the trail is between Trillium Gap and the top.  That said, it was a well-graded and well-maintained trail for the most part and I never felt like I was about to die from the steepness.

In several spots the trail has been maintained by building "boxes" that are filled with gravel - presumably these are in places where the trail was eroding badly.  They make for challenging hiking at times, but they're definitely better than deeply rutted trail.

trail improvements on the upper reaches of the trail

It was odd though to come across the remnants from the trail work just laying along the side of the trail: pallets, broken bags of gravel and discarded gloves...  I was trying to imagine how that all got up there in the first place!

The other thing that was obvious was the llama presence.  The Trillium Gap trail is the route the llamas take to resupply the LeConte Lodge each week.  Originally this was done with horses, but they switched to llamas because they are better adapted to these sorts of trails and their hooves don't do nearly as much damage to the trail as horse shoes.  The evidence of the llamas passage was clear however - you could make out hoof marks in the mud, and massive piles of llama poop all along the trail.

llama poop

Along the upper reaches of the trail I succumbed to the "I must be almost there" mantra a few times.  The trail twists and turns over the ridges and a couple of times I thought I was at the top only to find I still had quite a ways to go.  There are beautiful views from the trail here, and some of my favorites were looking back down on the top of Brushy Mountain where you could clearly see the trail to the top and the fact that it's a heath bald - no trees, but covered with low-growing rhododendrons, laurels and myrtles.

view of Brushy Mountain summit from Trillium Gap trail

The trail tops out at the junction of the Trillium Gap, Boulevard and Rainbow Falls trails near the LeConte Lodge.

dining hall at LeConte Lodge

I stopped at the Lodge briefly to refill my water bottle and then headed out to Cliff Tops.  This is an outcropping of rock about 0.2 miles north of (and up from) the LeConte Lodge that provides amazing panoramic views to the north and west of LeConte.  I stopped here for about an hour to soak in the views, eat some lunch and to just be grateful for living in such an astoundingly beautiful place...

These pictures don't even come close to doing justice to the beauty of the Smokies.  The fall colors were gorgeous - reds and oranges and yellows.  The rows upon rows of mountain ranges.  The crisp, clear sunlight and the cool breezes.  It was simply beautiful.

But alas, I couldn't stay forever.  I packed up and turned back down the way I had come.  Soon enough I found myself back at Trillium Gap and decided that since I was so close I'd go ahead and go the extra 0.4 miles up to the top of Brushy Mountain to see what the views were like from there this time of year.  I had been to the summit of Brushy in June of 2011 and remember thinking at the time that it would be a good spot to see the fall foliage.  Brushy Mountain is a heath bald - no trees, but covered with a variety of shrubs in the heath family: rhododendrons, laurels and myrtles.  The lack of trees means there are good unobstructed views.

From here back down to the parking lot I took my time and ambled along.  Unlike the solitude of the rest of the day the trail was packed - especially at Grotto Falls and below.  I took pictures for families at the falls and chatted with other hikers on the way down.  It was an awesome fall day and there were lots of folks out taking advantage of it.

I've now completed four of the five trails that lead to the top of Mt. LeConte:  Alum Cave, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap.  I'm leaving the Boulevard trail for last - and I mean really last.  My plan is to finish my quest to hike all of the trails in the Smokies on the Boulevard trail and then spend a night or two at the LeConte Lodge to celebrate.  Who knows how many years down the line that will be, but I keep it in the back of my head anyway.  Mt. LeConte has become symbolic for me - and every time I visit fall more and more in love with the place.  Seems like a fitting place to finish the quest.

I hope you are all getting out and taking advantage of the wonderful fall weather!  Til next time - happy hiking!

p.s. - our family went to Cataloochee last weekend and stayed in the campground.  we got up early on Saturday morning and headed into Little Cataloochee Valley in search of the elk.  we didn't have to go to far to find the herd - one LARGE bull and several does and we got to hear the bull bugle.  if you haven't had an opportunity to visit Catloochee and see the elk during the rut season I highly recommend it!