There are five trails that lead to LeConte Lodge, which sits atop the third highest peak in the Smokies. On perhaps a dozen prior trips to the lodge I had hiked each of them at least once except for Trillium Gap Trail. I hiked that trail on November 11.
This is a wildflower website, so I need to make that connection. First is the obvious – the trail name, “Trillium Gap.” That name certainly implies a potential to be a great place to walk in the springtime. I can attest to the large amount of rhododendron
along the trail, which will provide blooms a bit later in the spring. And on this hike I saw the remnant of many summer and fall wildflowers, so I think a September or October hike would also be well-rewarded. It looks like there could be a lot of wildflowers from about ½ mile above Grotto Falls on up the mountain, really all the way to the LeConte Lodge.
But while there were red partridgeberries along the trail, November is definitely not the season to see blooming wildflowers in the Smokies. My good friends Dave and Bev Ridge invited me to join them at LeConte Lodge the weekend of Nov 11 (I started to say “old” friends, but “old” doesn’t apply to Bev – never will – and Dave might think I’m making a dig at the fact that this LeConte trip was a celebration of his 60th birthday.) I’d joined them at LeConte Lodge for about 10 years in a row but hadn’t made it up for the past couple of years, and when they invited me to help celebrate my good friend’s 60th, I couldn’t resist the walk up the mountain.
I didn’t really hike the entire Trillium Gap Trail. It starts at the Rainbow Falls trailhead at Cherokee Orchards and reaches the top of Mt. LeConte nearly 9 miles later. However, if the Roaring Fork Motor Trail is open (closes for the winter, usually in late November) you can drive on it to the Grotto Falls parking area and walk a quarter-mile connector trail to join the Trillium Gap Trail, and save around 2 miles of walking. I chose this route to save time and strain on my legs. Since this is the shortest route to Grotto Falls, it is also a very busy section of trail.
Most visitors return to the parking lot after viewing (and walking behind) Grotto Falls, so the trail gets less crowded past the falls. The next 1.7 miles up the trail also gets steeper as it climbs away from the falls and on up to the trail’s namesake, Trillium Gap. About halfway between the falls and the gap if you pause along the trail (I did that repeatedly, to catch my breath) you can hear the sound of an underground stream running through the rocks under the trail.
When you reach the gap, if you cross over on that tempting downhill you’ve got 5.5 miles down the Brushy Mountain Trail past Porters Flat to the Greenbrier area. A left turn at the gap will take you on a trail that goes for a bit over a quarter mile onto the top of Brushy Mountain, a bald that provides you with views of Mt LeConte. Since I wasn’t too sure how long it would take me get on up the mountain, and I was tired from a bit of ‘irrational exuberance’ for the first 1.5 miles, I decided not to take that spur trail, and instead, after a brief rest, some water, and a Clif Bar, I took the right turn and headed on up the mountain, with 3.5 miles to go to LeConte Lodge. This part of the trail is long, but really quite lovely with ups, downs, and a couple of small stream crossings. There are several spots where, at least without leaves on the trees, you have a nice view down onto Brushy Mountain, which is how I knew it was a bald.
There are a couple of major switchbacks on the trail between Trillium Gap and LeConte Lodge – one just before reaching a stream with a series of cascades, and the other one as you’re beginning to wonder if you’ve got to walk all the way out to that next ridge up ahead. After that last switchback, the scattering of snow I’d passed on the trail here and there gave way to several stretches of ice along the trail – this could be a very treacherous trail once true winter arrived.
It’s a relatively short walk on to the Lodge after passing the section of trail with the cable handrail, although it felt longer to me – I blame it on the 6500′ elevation rather than my physical condition. If you’re heading to the very top – the highest peak on Mt. LeConte, take a left as you pass the lodge, and a bit more than a quarter-mile up the trail you’ll see the rock cairn marking the high point. It’s on past the reservations-only camping shelter.
This trail past High Point is The Boulevard, which after several miles intersects with the Appalachian Trail a couple of miles north of Newfound Gap. A quarter-mile or so past High Point is a side trail to Myrtle Point, which you might have seen from an excellent overlook on the trail shortly past High Point. Myrtle Point is the best spot to view the sunrise on Mt LeConte, which I did this year for the first time in all the trips I’ve made to the lodge. Clouds, which frequently manifest themselves as a heavy fog on the top of the mountain, also add character to sunrises and sunsets (Cliff Tops, a quarter mile from the lodge, is the place for sunsets.) The fog was heavy for sunset while I was there this time, but there was enough break in the clouds in the morning to make this first sunrise trip to Myrtle Point a success.
Trillium Gap Trail is the only trail up Mt LeConte where horses are allowed. I didn’t find too much sign of horses on the trail, but it’s also the trail used by the llama train that brings supplies to LeConte Lodge three times a week while it’s open. The signs of llama are there, and I looked forward to passing them on my way down. I wasn’t disappointed.
I had planned on making the side trip on Brushy Mountain on the trip down LeConte, but it started to sprinkle rain just before I arrived at Trillium Gap, so I decided to waterproof my camera gear and move quickly on to my waiting car. Fortunately it didn’t start to rain hard, and with the thick rhododendron protecting me from rain and multiple layers of sil-nylon protecting my camera gear, I arrived dry enough after a total about 2.5 hours of walking down from the lodge. It had taken 4.5 hours on the way up.
I like Trillium Gap Trail, and it will definitely be on my list for hiking during the wildflowers season – both spring and fall.