Bullhead Trail is the least trafficked of the 6 routes to LeConte Lodge. The 5.9 mile trail zigzags south of the summit of Balsam Point with an array of switchbacks around the mountain's slopes. It is frequently combined with Rainbow Falls Trail to Mount LeConte to create a loop hike, but I combined it with Trillium Gap Trail to create an extra long LeConte excursion.
Bullhead Trail From LeConte
One of the reasons Bullhead Trail is not heavily trafficked is because it is quite the challenge to climb. We chose to explore the trail on our way back down from LeConte Lodge. While the trail itself is just 5.9 miles, the entire journey to or from LeConte is 6.9 miles with a little extra time on Rainbow Falls and Old Sugarlands trails.Bullhead Trail to Mt LeConte
Through The Fog
It was a very cloudy day, and at the Bullhead trailhead from Rainbow Falls we were treading through an actual cloud. This went on for at least a mile and make us a bit delirious; however, it was wonderfully eerie. At this point there isn't too much going on with the trail. It looks much like many others; just kind of a foresty tunnel. But after a couple miles in we started seeing what this trail was all about.
Gatlinburg Fire of 2016
Suddenly we realized we were walking through an area that the 2016 fires had damaged significantly. In fact, Bullhead Trail was closed for two years after the damage was done. And purely by coincidence we were hiking exactly two years after the date (October 25, 2018) that it reopened. If you're unfamiliar with the Gatlinburg fire in 2016, our friends at Hiking In The Smokies explain it well.
On November 23, 2016 two juveniles started a wildfire near the summit of Chimney Tops. By November 28th the fire grew to 500 acres. After several months of exceptional drought conditions, and winds gusts reaching more than 80 mph that afternoon, the fire literally exploded. Over the next several hours it burned almost 18,000 acres, including 11,410 acres within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From Chimney Tops the fire raced north, passing around the edges of downtown Gatlinburg and reaching the outskirts of Pigeon Forge. Before it was brought under control the fire killed 14 people, injured more than 176 people, and damaged or destroyed at least 2460 structures at a cost of more than $500 million.Hiking In The Smokies
The Views Behind The Burn
The crazy thing about the effect the fire had on this area is that before November of 2016, the whole trail was still that "green tunnel" that many Smoky Mountain trails are. Most of the surrounding beauty was hidden from sight. But now the stark contrast between the beautiful mountain views coated in fall colors and the burnt and twisted trees framing the view behind them seems to create this post-apocalyptic dreamscape.
Bullhead Trail & The CCC
Bullhead Trail was constructed in the 1930s by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. At the time the area was padded with shrubs and trees, so there were only so many places on the trail that you could find great views of the surrounding mountains. That's why the CCC boys who built the trail decided to stack a bunch of rocks on top of each other so they could climb up and see. The stone cairn they built is now commonly referred to as The Pulpit.
Beauty Under The Clouds
When we finally got under the clouds some of the best views of the day appeared. Bullhead Trail goes back and forth around the curve of the mountain. For a long time it didn't feel like we were actually getting any lower to the ground, but we could look across the way and see where we just were on the trail a little higher up. By the time we finally approached steadier ground my exhausted hiking companion said that walking was too hard and it was actually easier to just "throw her legs around in little circles."
Back To Old Sugarlands
The bottom of the trail is very woodsy and not too difficult to walk through. It was a relief to see the distant trail marker for Old Sugarlands. We took a right there and headed back 0.4 miles to the Rainbow Falls parking lot. This was a wonderful hike and definitely worth the difficulty if you're up for it. Below I've included some more photos of the trail being constructed from the Open Parks Network.
Caroline's GSM Hike Log
Click here to read about more of Caroline's hikes