Trillium Gap is the longest Mt LeConte trail with Bullhead in second place. Starting at the Rainbow Falls trailhead off Cherokee Orchard Road, you can create a big loop hike up to Mt LeConte and back down Bullhead to land on Old Sugarlands Trail (0.4 miles back to the parking lot). I'm not sure if there is a more difficult hike you could do to go up to the lodge and back, but it's incredibly rewarding in it's own way.
Trillium Gap Trail: 8.8 Miles
Trillium Gap Trail is best known as the route to get to Grotto Falls, but there is much more to this long hike up the mountain than the short 1.4 miles to the waterfall. The most commonly used trailhead no matter the hiker's destination is the Grotto Falls trailhead off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, but there are actually 2.3 miles of the trail before that.Trillium Gap Trail
From The Rainbow Falls Trailhead
Most hikers will tell you to start this trail from the Grotto Falls trailhead for a 6.7 mile hike up to LeConte, as the miles before that don't have very much to offer. However, to create the loop hike we wanted, we had to do this part of the trail at some point. We decided to start the morning off with it instead of finishing the day with those 2.3 miles - and it was lovely. A leisurely walk in the woods with plenty of fall colors to offer made for a nice warm up for this big hike.
Grotto Falls Trail
While the first bit of this Mt LeConte trail is not heavily trafficked, as soon as you reach the Grotto Falls parking lot you will find many other hikers. This is practically the only crowded part of the whole hike up. The route to the waterfall has a bit of an incline, but it's a fairly easy hike for kids and families.Grotto Falls
Up To Mt LeConte Trail
The rest of the trail is beautiful and blank. I don't think we saw more than 3 or 4 other hikers until we reached the lodge. It was a lovely hike for late October with leaves of many colors coating the ground and our surroundings along the way. It was a cloudy day, but you could still see lots of beautiful views through the trees. The remaining 5.1 miles to LeConte are mostly moderate with a steady incline along the way. The last 1.5 to 2 miles are where things get tough.
The Final Leg: 3.6 Miles
After a brief 0.4 mile jaunt up to Brushy Mountain, we started the last long stretch up to LeConte Lodge. There's a lot of beauty in this portion of the Mt LeConte trail. Pushing our way up into the foggy October sky revealed a beautiful autumn scene - many sights that looked like they came straight out of a fairy tale. This is an excellent fall hike if you're up for the long climb. More photos of the trail and its colors below.
Beware The Switchbacks
A couple miles into this part of the trail, you'll find your first fairly steep switchback. The worst is yet to come. I was completely blissful and loving this trail until this point. From here on you'll encounter a lot more slope, plenty of rocks and roots, and lots of little (kind of adorable) footbridges and steps. These seem to have been put in place to help the pack llamas walk the trail more easily; there are very short little railings installed in many places so the fuzzy creatures don't walk off a cliff.
LeConte Llama Train
With LeConte Lodge being over 6,000 feet up in elevation, special transportation of supplies are in order. Originally the LeConte crew used horses to carry their loads back and forth, but they made too much of an impact on the trail. In 1986 they switched to pack llamas. We caught them heading down the mountain with their packs filled with garbage and linens. On the way up they bring food, and after their long trek they're rewarded with pancakes! You can watch a video about the pack llamas here.
Finally we reach LeConte Lodge. The first glimpse of a building on green grass and the sound of a water pump are sights and sounds for sore eyes and tired legs. Overall I really enjoyed this trail; it was challenging in the best way possible with many worthwhile Smoky Mountain views and interesting forest landscapes. Stay tuned for upcoming content on about the history of LeConte Lodge and of course our hike back down the mountain via Bullhead , the least used Mt LeConte trail.
And the hike didn't stop there, of course. Read more about another hiking trail to Mt. LeConte that we took to get back down the mountain: Bullhead Trail.
Caroline's GSM Hike Log