01 Sep Mt. LeConte Hike
This hike included 2 difficult climbs of Mt Le Conte in hot humid weather. I carried a fully provisioned backpack including a food filled bear vault up the Bullhead Trail. A bicycle was used to travel the short distance between trailheads of Grapeyard Ridge and Porters Creek of this near loop walk. The hike covered nearly all hiking trails in the triangle formed between Greenbrier Road, Mt Le Conte, and Gatlinburg.
Total hike (44.8 miles, including a mile down and up Roaring Fork Road in wrong direction.)
Day 1 (August 29, 2014) – Night hike – Grapeyard Ridge (Greenbrier Cove Road) trailhead to campsite #32. – 3.2 miles.
Day 2 (August 30, 2014)- Grapeyard Ridge Trail to Roaring Fork Motor Trail – 4.4 miles, Baskins Creek Trail – 2.7 miles, Old Sugarlands Trail to Bullhead Trail – 1.0 mile, Bullhead Trail – 6.4 mi, (Total 14.5 miles)
Day 3 (August 31, 2014) – Trillium Gap Trail then Rainbow Falls Trail to Le Conte Cliffs, High Top and Myrtle Point
Day 4 (September 1, 2014) – Trillium Gap then Brushy Mountain top, then Brushy Mountain Trail to Porters Creek trail to Greenbrier Rd, then bicycle to car parked at Old Settlers trailhead.
Follow Greenbrier Road northeast of Gatlinburg up the Pigeon River and park alongside the road near Grapeyard Ridge trailhead or across bridges to left at one of the pull off spots near Old Settlers trailhead.
Day 1 – “Night hike over 5 stream crossings”
Night hike – Grapeyard Ridge (Greenbrier Cove Road) trailhead to campsite #32. – 3.2 miles
I dropped my bicycle off at the Porters Creek trailhead just as the last light of the day was vanishing. As usual, it was hidden in the woods and locked to a tree. A short while later (8:41 PM) I had started the hike. Having read of 5 (sometimes wide enough for wet feet) creek crossings, I chose to hike in Chaco sandals. To mark my progress and to avoid missing campsite 32 or straying onto crossing paths and roads, I had reviewed the trail elevation profile with creek crossings marked along the profile with “x’s”. Never entirely comfortable with lone night hikes I moved fast as I counted off crossings. I had one scare. A rabbit jumped out of the undergrowth and ran down the trail toward me.
There were actually 8 crossings of water, however, only 5 of these rightly deserved mention as true creeks. The creeks were low making the Chaco’s an unnecessary precaution. By 9:45 PM I had reached the sign for campsite 32 where I found a family with young children already settled in for the night. There were a couple of tents pitched and a couple of hammocks. I set up my tarp in a grassy spot not far from the bear lines. My left “next to pinky” toe had a puncture or bite of some kind. It was painful with an infected red puffy look. As I tried to sleep I discovered that the young children were not quite asleep yet. An owl hooted nearby. The young children hooted back. It was quite some time before they settled down. It is a nice feeling to be safely in camp after a long drive from Roswell, GA and a 3 mile night hike.
Day 2 – “Hurtful humid climbs”
Grapeyard Ridge Trail to Roaring Fork Motor Trail – 4.4 miles, Baskins Creek Trail – 2.7 miles, Old Sugarlands Trail to Bullhead Trail – 1.0 mile, Bullhead Trail – 6.4 mi, (Total 14.5 miles)
Reaching Roaring Fork Motor Trail, I turned right along the paved road. According to my National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, Baskins Creek Trail was down Roaring Fork Road about a quarter mile or so. After a half mile of following Roaring Fork Motor Trail with no luck (the road crossed the creek, leaving it on the wrong side of the road in relation to Baskins Creek trail), I turned around and headed back toward Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Still not finding Baskins Creek Trail, I kept going, this time the other direction on Roaring Fork Motor Trail. I found the well marked trail with its own parking lot to the left (direction against Motor Trail one way traffic), not to the right as indicated by the map. It was only about 100 feet from where Grapeyard Ridge trail intersected Roaring Fork Road. My map is out of date. The trail re-location makes sense. It avoids a creek crossing and climb while moving the Baskins Creek trailhead much closer to the Grapeyard Ridge trailhead. It would be nice to have a sign or two directing hikers in the correct direction to the next trail.
Baskins Road trail is relatively tame until you reach the turnoff for the falls. After that point it begins a long steep and brutally hot climb back toward Roaring Fork Road. I saw a great many weekenders including children, youth, families, and elderly hiking toward the falls. They all asked how far. I told them 20 minutes. Most didn’t appear to be carrying water. Given the heat and the climb back from the falls, I wondered how much suffering there would be later on.
After having already been wiped out by Baskins Creek trail, I soon had to start climbing Bullhead trail with a full backpack. My muscles were sore and I plodded on. I checked my progress by checking elevation using my Iphone’s GPS app. With Bullhead starting at 2500 feet and the intersection with Rainbow Falls trail at 6000 feet, I logged my progress. I was a sweaty mess while freshly showered nice smelling and well coiffed Le Conte lodge residents regularly passed me on their way down. About halfway I stopped at a cool place where water streamed down rocks. I soaked my shirt in the cold water and put it back on. I lay on a flat rock and stared up at the branches of large oaks where tiny squirrels chased each other along branches and across trees. The squirrels ran down the large trunks faster than the free-fall of gravity. If one had fallen, the other would have literally been at the bottom of the tree first, waiting to catch his buddy. These tiny mountain squirrels are much faster than my fatter backyard squirrels. Very entertaining. It even took my mind off the exhausting climb.
Day 3 – “A mother dear and doe”
Trillium Gap Trail – 8.9 miles, Rainbow Falls Trail – 6.7 miles, Le Conte Cliffs – 0.4 mi, and Myrtle Point 0.4 mi (Total – 16.4 miles)
I was surprised to wake to the early light of dawn. Evidently, I had been sleeping hard. I had dreamed of park rangers trying to rouse me from my sleep to the point of pulling me along by dragging my sleeping pad. After breakfast of maple and brown sugar oatmeal with apricots and coffee, I packed my day pack and began a loop back down Le Conte via Trillium Gap with a return up the Rainbow Falls trail. I didn’t see anyone until well past Trillium Gap. A few people had early starts to the Le Conte lodge via the Trilliam Gap trail. Upon arriving at Grotto Falls I would encounter large numbers of people for rest of the day. Most people were climbing to either Grotto Falls or Rainbow Falls. Beyond those points, the people thinned out. The trail leads behind Grotto falls. One of the lower falls had an inviting pool of water, but I decided not to take a swim.
Near the end of Trillium Gap trail, a young couple appeared in front of me. I was moving fast on this level trail and at first I thought I would catch and pass this couple. They walked faster, then began running. I stayed close enough to see them still ahead on the beginning section of Rainbow Falls trail. Later I met them at Rainbow Falls. It turned out that they were both in the Army and were used to running. This couple was the exception. Most people were struggling on the climb up to Rainbow Falls. The crowds were so large that they actually slowed down my pace as a waited to pass slow movers. On the way up a few of us were entertained by a doe and fawn deer. The doe was licking her fawn. Very motherly.
As a precaution, I carried about 2 liters of water, but I found plenty of water sources along this trail.
The previous day I did not spend much time on Mt. Le Conte. I had carried a full pack and was worn out. This day I made good time and arrived at the top about 3 PM. I could have made it much sooner, but purposely slowed down by taking a long lunch break and Rainbow Falls and taking a side trail to a ridge overlook somewhere around 5200 feet elevation. With an early arrival, I climbed to the cliff tops and ate again. I took off boots and socks and tried to nap on the rocks. I continued on the trail where I saw the Le Conte shelter and Myrtle Point.
There were plenty of bear activity and warning signs near the lodge. I thought it was a little overdone with mention of bear attacks. They are going to scare these lodgers to death.
Day 4 – “An early starter is an early finisher”
Le Conte to Trillium Gap – 3.6 mile, Brushy Mountain top round trip (0.4 mi), Brushy Mountain Trail (4.7 mi), Porters Creek trail to Greenbrier Rd (1 mile) Total (9.7 miles)
Walking down Trillium Gap trail from the top of Le Conte, it was only a little after 7 AM when I surprised a man on his way up. He wore running shoes and gear and wore a headlamp. Before I reached Trillium Gap (9 AM), he had already climbed to the cliffs on Le Conte and caught back up with me. I expect that he would be back at the Grotto Falls parking lot well before 10 AM. Now that is a early round trip hike (or run) up Mt Le Conte!
The 0.2 mile spur trail to the top of Brushy Mountain, actually the last portion of the Brushy Mountain trail, provides nice views. Looking back toward the southwest, Mt. Le Conte was obscured by clouds. Toward the east is a good view of Mt. Kephart. Although I had descended a great deal from Mt. Le Conte, I was still at 4600 feet on Brushy Mountain.
Descending Brushy mountain trail from Trillium Gap, I quickly entered areas of giant dead Fraser Firs and Red Spruce. With the sunlight now streaming in, stinging nettle and other sun loving plant life had grown alongside and over the trail. Brushing by the nettle on Brushy Mountain trail produced irritating stings on my legs. I had to stop several times to scratch the sting away. Everything on the upper half of Brushy mountain trail made for tough walking. Seemingly dry rocks were slippery. I skied down one flat smooth rock that I had misjudged as having a gripping tread. It was a relief to reach the clear and easily walked 2nd half of Brushy Mountain trail.