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|Ron P. Metcalfe, daughter Abby, Richard Adams and son Ethan's hike to the LeConte Lodge 7/29/06|
|Full photo album of July 29, 2006, hike, click here.
Pictures from other LeConte hikes, click here.
A couple of weeks after our first hike to LeConte, my daughter Abby and I (Ron P. Metcalfe) got the itch to go back to LeConte as soon as possible. We were fortunate enough to get a reservation through a cancellation, so we made plans to go back on Saturday night, July 29. I had told everybody who would listen about our last trip, including a friend Richard Adams. The room Abby and I secured could sleep four, so I asked Richard if he and his ten-year-old son Ethan would like to go, and he said they would. We decided to take a different route than Abby and I had taken for our first trip (up and down Alum Cave Bluff trail), choosing instead to hike in on the eight-mile long Boulevard Trail and hike out on the Alum Cave Bluff trail. The difference in starting and stopping points meant we would have to arrange for a shuttle to transport us from one trailhead to the other, either Saturday morning when we began our hike or Sunday afternoon when we returned. I contacted A Hike In The Woods in Gatlinburg and made arrangements for a shuttle to pick us up Sunday afternoon. On Thursday when I spoke on the phone to Vesna Plankanis, she suggested we not hike in on the Boulevard Trail. Vesna said the main reason for hiking the Boulevard was for the views, as the trail follows a ridgeline between the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap and Mount LeConte. She suggested, with the amount of haze and forecast for clouds and rain, that we hike in on the Alum Cave Bluff trail (only five miles in length) and then hike out on the Rainbow Falls trail (six miles in length). Her suggestion sounded reasonable and correct, so we made plans for a shuttle pickup around 2:15 PM at the Rainbow Falls trailhead on Sunday.
We again spent Friday night at our base camp at the Douglas Lake cabin. Ethan and Richard came down late Friday night. I spent Friday afternoon and evening packing up all our gear and getting ready to leave. As before, I put everything in a zip lock bag in both our backpacks. This time, I took a bit less along for both of us. I left out an extra t-shirt in both our packs, an extra pair of shorts, and left out the tripod for my camera. It made a slight difference in the weight we would have to carry. I also bought Abby and I an UnderArmor t-shirt, which was lighter weight than a regular cotton t-shirt, and wicks water away from your skin, keeping you warmer and dryer. I laid out our clothes for the morning and double-checked our packs.
On Friday night, a line of strong storms passed just to the north of us, but by 11:00 PM the skies were clear. However, the forecast was for a 50% chance of rain on Saturday and a 30% chance of rain on Sunday. My wife did not stay the night, so I called her at home and asked her to check the latest radar images on the Internet. She said there was a large area of rain in the middle of the state heading east and the forecast was still for a 50% or greater chance of showers in the valley. Great.
Saturday morning, I awoke around 4:30 AM, got the coffee started and awoke Richard. I stepped outside to check the weather conditions. It was cloudy and quite breezy, but it had yet to start raining. Shortly after 5:00 AM I called a friend at the radio station where I work and asked him to check the latest radar images and forecast. He said there was a large area of rain stretching from Knoxville back to the Cumberland Plateau. He indicated that it didnt appear to be heavy rain, just steady rain. I told Richard that we could wait until later in the morning to begin our hike, but that it appeared that anyway we went, we would be walking in the rain. We decided to go head and hit the trail as early as possible. After we got dressed and finished loading the car, we awoke Abby and Ethan and got them dressed and ready for the hike. As we got in the car at 6:20 AM, it was cloudy and breezy and had just started to sprinkle. As we did for our first trip, we stopped at the IHOP in Pigeon Forge for a big breakfast. With my prior experience under my belt, I wasnt the least bit worried about the trail conditions or our ability to make the hike. The weekend before, all four of us had hiked up to the Grassy Ridge Bald at Roan Mountain, a hike just a little less in distance and elevation gain than the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. So this time, my appetite was heartier and I ate all my breakfast without any worries. At 7:50 AM we were at the overlook on the Gatlinburg Bypass and could see the top of LeConte. It was starting to rain a bit heavier, but there seemed to be breaks in the clouds (at least I kept telling myself that). The top of LeConte was shrouded in clouds, although more of the mountain was visible on this day that on our June trip.
Around 8:15 AM we reached the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead. By now it had started to rain steadily. Richard and I quickly donned our backpacks and ponchos and then did the same for Abby and Ethan. At 8:18 AM, Abby and I and Richard and Ethan started our hike. There was a good deal of water standing on the trail and the rain was fairly steady. It also seemed a bit cooler this morning than our first hike. Less than fifteen minutes into the hike, Abby and I decided to take off our jackets, as the heat was beginning to build up inside them. We stopped for a minute and handed our gear off to Richard and quickly took off our jackets and got our ponchos back on. We took only one or two brief rest stops before reaching the Arch Rock at 9:07 AM. We had hiked 1.4 miles in forty-nine minutes. Ethan and Richard had a quicker pace than we did most of the weekend. Abby also said her heel was starting to get a bit sore, in the same area where she had blisters during the first hike, so we decided to check her out at the Arch Rock.
We took a thirteen-minute break at the Arch Rock and had a couple of candy bars and a handful of trail mix. We took off our ponchos and backpacks and rested for a few minutes and took some pictures. Unlike our previous hike in the rain, this time the steps inside the Arch Rock were relatively dry, so we had a place to sit and put down our backpacks. While at the Arch Rock, I took the time to shake out the rain and stow what we had decided not to wear. After packing up our trash and putting our gear and ponchos back on, we hit the trail again at 9:20 AM. Of course, nobody remember to check Abby's blister, so a few yards beyond the Arch Rock we had to stop mid-trail, in the rain, to check and bandage her heel.
At 9:44 AM we reached Inspiration Point. In the half-mile or so between the Arch Rock and Inspiration point, the rain would slacken a bit and then start up again, so we kept our ponchos on. There were nice views again from this area, as clouds and fog arose from between the mountains. We found that the blueberry bushes were full and just starting to ripen, so we had a few. We also heard a rumble or two of thunder, but not near enough to make us nervous.
Three-tenths of a mile more, around 10:05 AM, we reached the Alum Cave Bluff and took our lunch break, having hiked 2.3 miles in one hour, forty-seven minutes. We took off our ponchos and packs, hung them on the step railing, and went to the flat rock. Abby and I had one of our peanut butter sandwiches, some trail and party mix, and some candy bars. I walked over and spoke with a man who, with two others, had caught up to us. He said he had a large group of twenty or more who were heading up to LeConte Lodge for a nights stay. I also spoke with another couple that was headed up to the lodge. They had also stopped for a snack break at the Bluff. Abby and I walked around a bit, kicking up the fine powdery dust that covers the floor. Rested up, we hit the trail again around 10:23 AM.
Still hiking in the rain, we reached the false Gracies Pulpit, just past Alum Cave Bluff, at 10:38 AM. We had hiked about 2 ½ miles in two hours, twenty minutes (including rest time and lunch break). At 11:04 AM we reached the log steps and began the long, steep climb. During this part of the hike, we would occasionally catch a strong gust of wind that would really drive the rain and youre your poncho up. But thankfully we only encountered these gusts around the edges of the mountain. Around 12:25 PM, we turned the corner at Lus Pulpit and were again rewarded with the relatively flat section of the trail before the Rainbow Falls junction. During the portion of the trail that goes through a thick forest, we saw one of the neatest plants along the trip, Indian Pipe. According to a couple of websites I found, "Also known as Ghosts of Summer Woods Indian Pipe, a parasitic fungus is found usually growing in small clumps, the stem is 5 to 8 inches tall, with a single nodding, nearly translucent flower is most often white, but it can be shades of pink, yellow, or even blue. Indian Pipe grows in heavily shaded areas. Indian Pipe can be found throughout the Smokies and can be seen along the trails to Mt. LeConte, White Oak Sinks, and the Spruce Falls Trail during May to September." The picture I took of it makes it seem as if it is glowing. Our shuttle driver told us later that according to legend, a long time ago, before selfishness came into the world, the Cherokee people were happy sharing the hunting and fishing places with their neighbors. According to this webpage "All this changed when Selfishness came into the world and man began to quarrel. The Cherokee Indians quarreled with tribes on the east. Finally the chiefs of several tribes met in council to try to settle the dispute. They smoked the pipe and continued to quarrel for seven days and seven nights. This displeased the Great Spirit because people are not supposed to smoke the pipe until they make peace. As he looked upon the old men with heads bowed, he decided to do something to remind people to smoke the pipe only at the time they make peace. The Great Spirit turned the old men into grayish flowers now called Indian Pipes and he made them grow where friends and relatives had quarreled. He made the smoke hang over these mountains until all the people all over the world learn to live together in peace. The plant can't be picked because its flesh turns black when cut or even bruised. It also oozes a clear, gelatinous substance when picked. Due to these, the Indian pipe is called Ghost flower, Corpse plant, American Iceplant and Fairy-smoke. It was used as a medicine, first by American Indians. They used it as an eye lotion that gave rise to the name, Eyebright. Americans of the last century treated spasms, fainting spells, and nervous conditions with it, which gave rise to the names Convulsion root, Fitroot, and Convulsion weed."
After emerging from the woods, we saw the manmade bridges over the drainage ditches told us we were close, and at 12:10 PM Abby and I and Richard and Ethan arrived at LeConte Lodge. Abby had asked for a restroom break about thirty minutes before we reached the top, but said she could wait a bit longer, so immediately upon arrival, she headed for the bathroom. While Abby took a restroom break, the rest of us headed for the office cabin to check in. We saw several people there who all seemed to be with the previously mentioned party, including the man with whom I had spoken at the Alum Cave Bluff. He was greeting some other new arrivals and telling them where their cabins were. Nobody was in the office to check us in, so I stepped outside to call home and let everyone know we had arrived. While I was talking to my wife Susan, Richard and Ethan came out of the office with one of the staff, Daniel, who had arrived to check us in.
We stayed in Cabin #2 this time, and Daniel said that another party of either two or four would also be there. This cabin had a room to the right and a room to the left, and in the center room were to single sized beds. Daniel said that each of the beds went with the room to which it was closest, and that we were welcome to use them. I suggested that we use at least one of them and both of them if the other party wasnt going to, since sleeping on the top bunk can subject you to stifling heat. Daniel told us, as Trey had on our first trip, where to find the bathrooms, hot water, meal times, and sights around camp. We hung our ponchos outside on the rocking chairs to dry, but had to check them every now and then as the stiff breezes that came through occasionally almost blew them off the porch.
Abby and I took the first turn changing our clothes and hanging our boots and clothes up to dry. We lit our kerosene lamps and went down to the dining hall for some hot chocolate. Checking back in the cabin, I noticed that our heater had not kicked on, so I found Daniel and asked him if he could unlock and adjust the thermostat. While he did so, I asked him about working there. He said each employee gets eight days off per calendar month, which can be taken at any time as long as no more than three employees are off the mountain at any one time. Daniel said that during the winter, all the cabins are locked up, but that a winter caretaker stays up all winter long. He said the only chore for that person is to call in the weather conditions each morning to the National Weather Service. He said that the caretaker usually stays in the cabin closest to the dining lodge, so they wont have to shovel as much snow in order to make it to where they can get hot water and hot meals. He said that most of the employees say theyd like to do it, but that staying isolated for the entire winter isnt as great as you think. He said most of the caretakers are writers or artists who are used being and working alone and appreciate the solitude.
After we got dried off and warmed up, Abby and Ethan and I decided to explore the area for a while. We went to the office where Ethan and Abby took down and played almost every game in the building while I sat on the couch and read some of the books they have there. By then, the rain had stopped so we strolled around in our flip-flops and shorts with a fleece jacket. I suggested to Abby and Ethan that we take the short hike to High Top to lay a rock on the cairn and to be able to claim to have reached the summit of the third highest peak in the state. From camp, the Boulevard Trail goes about one-half mile to the High Top summit. We started out by filling up our hot chocolate and walking up the steps behind camp to the trail. The trail was level and rocky with standing water in most places. We came to the in the intersection of Trillium Gap Trail and the Boulevard Trail and stopped for some pictures. A few yards down the trail we saw a sign for Cliff Top. The sign pointed up hill, and I got a little confused and said we should go that way, but Abby insisted that we needed to keep straight on the trail. She said that Cliff Top is where we watched the sunset and High Top was the summit peak. I figured the sign was wrong and convinced them to go that trail. After a few minutes of climbing, the trail leveled off and turned toward the west, and then I knew that Abby was right. We did a three-tenths mile loop around the top of Cliff Top and in about thirty minutes wound up back at the lodge. Cliff Top was socked in with clouds and fog, but it still made for a beautiful sight. The westerly facing slope of Cliff Top is covered with several heath plants and grasses that catch the windward side of that peak. It looks almost like a green carpet draped over the rocks in some places, or green water flowing over the rocks. We couldnt see beyond the edge of the cliff for the thickness of clouds, but it still made a beautiful scene. The trail was narrow and running with water for most of the way. Our feet were going to get wet anyway since we were wearing flip-flops; Abby and I decided to go barefoot. The water was cold at first, but felt nice after a few minutes.
After returning to camp, we decided to try again for the summit. This time, we kept going past the Cliff Top sign and soon came to LeConte Shelter, a three-sided stone structure about thirty feet off the Boulevard Trail and about two-tenths of a mile from the Lodge. It was so foggy that I couldnt tell that there were people inside until we started to walk up to it. There were young guys who had just arrived and were setting up their gear. One of them was heating some water for oatmeal. The other was hanging up clothes to dry and spreading out his sleeping bag. They said they were from Athens, Tennessee, and had hiked up the Rainbow Falls Trail and were planning on just spending the night at the shelter. They asked us about the lodge accommodations and what they would have for supper, and I felt a bit guilty telling them about the feast we were going to have while they ate oatmeal. As we left, I pointed out to Abby and Ethan the area outside the shelter where you were supposed to store your food. Three tall poles had been set with a cable stretched between them. Attached to the cables were pulleys and cables to which you could attach your backpack and food pack and hoist out of the reach of any bears. Abby noted that the sign inside the shelter warned against cooking and eating in the shelter, as the odors attract bears. After another look around we got back on the Boulevard trail and headed for High Top.
The trail turned to the south and seemed to be following along the edge of a ridge, however the thick clouds kept us from seeing anything more than twenty feet to either side. To our left were trees, but to the right it appeared that heath bushes trailed off sharply down. Along the hike I told Abby and Ethan about the custom of hikers placing a rock on top of a rock cairn atop the summit of Mt. LeConte, so we spent the last few yards trying to decide which rock we wanted to add to the pile. After about a twenty-minute total hike, we reached the High Top rock cairn and took turns posing by the rocks and laying new rocks on top. At 6,593 feet above sea level, Mount LeConte is about forty feet shorter than nearby Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee and in the Smoky Mountains. Visitors to Mount LeConte have started a tradition of carrying a rock to the summit and laying it upon a heap of stones in an attempt to build the mountain up until it becomes the highest peak. Ranger Katie (more on her later) pointed out, however, that Clingmans Dome now has a manmade observation tower atop it that raised its height by another fifty feet. But, she said, purists point out that the structure is not made of naturally occurring materials, and therefore doesnt count. Ranger Katie also said that a mild earthquake recorded close to Newfound Gap about six months earlier could indicate that LeConte is still growing. In their efforts to help the cause, Abby, Ethan, and I added our rocks to the top, and in the process accidentally knocked off a few of the rocks that were precariously balanced as we attempted to place our stones. We helped LeConte grow by about four inches.
Heading back down the Boulevard Trail to the lodge, we went back to the office to play some games and sit outside and watch the clouds rolling by. While Abby and Ethan played Battleship, Risk, Monopoly, and every other game on the shelf (for two to three minutes at a time) I continued my read of a book about the history of the different trails to LeConte. Abby and I went over and looked at some of the souvenirs they sell in the office, and she asked if she could have a sweatband. I bought here a sweatband and a trail medallion to put on her hiking staff. We went outside and sat in the large swing and watched the junco birds flying about, saw a boomer scurry under the brush, and then saw a hummingbird stop to feed on the nectar of the Crimson Bee Balm and Yellow Cut-leaf Coneflowers that were blooming. The bee balm resembled a red octopus on a stem, while the cut-leaf coneflowers resembled a small sunflower with a large cone in the center. The hummingbirds zipped among the coneflowers, but seemed to prefer the bee balm. We stepped back inside the office for a few minutes and sat by the stove in the rocking chairs. Many of those who had hiked up in the rain had hung their boots to dry above the stove. Abby decided to wash up for supper while I stayed behind to finish the chapter on the Alum Cave Bluff trail. At each mealtime, the staff comes outside the dining hall and rings the dinner bell, a large triangle of iron. Just as I had finished my reading and walked out of the office, the dinner bell rang. I met Abby, Richard, and Ethan on our cabin porch, and we filed in line with the others for supper.
We were told our assigned table and joined four other people, a man and his son and another younger man and woman. I assume the staff tries to seat people to maximize the amount of food prepared for the size of appetites. For example, six adults and two children at our table ate almost everything whereas eight adults might have wanted more while a table of four adults and four children might have leftovers. Our tablemates weren't very talkative. They didnt say much to us as we sat down, and didn't have much to say during dinner so we kept our conversation going amongst ourselves. As we arrived at our table, a bowl of soup and half a peach was waiting, along with a glass of water. The table also had a skillet of cornbread (one piece for each person) and some butter. As people are finishing their soups, the (apparent) manager of the lodge comes out to welcome everyone and make any announcements, including what time sunset (8:26 PM) and sunrise (6:22 AM) will be, what time breakfast is served (8:00 AM), how late the kitchen is open for coffee and hot chocolate (9:00 PM), and where the various trails are around camp leading to Cliff Top for sunset views, Myrtle Point for sunrise views, and High Top for the summit. After he finished his announcements, the staff brings out the rest of the dinner food. Each table gets a large bowl of beef and gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, a bowl of green beans, and a bowl of baked apples. In addition, there is a basket of large chocolate chip cookies on the table, and the staff brings around coffee and hot chocolate during the meal. The food was hot and delicious, and the only thing left was half a bowl of green beans. The rest of the bowls were empty. Our table seated eight, but some tables seated ten and had more than one bowl of food to accommodate the additional people and appetites. Midway through dinner, a man at another table stood up and rang his glass to get everyones attention. He asked for a round of applause for one of the guests who had made the hike up the Alum Cave Bluff Trail despite suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. I had seen the lady arrive in camp sometime around 4:00 PM, and we had not seen her on the trail, so they must have started later than we did. She was unsteady on her feet, walked with two walking staffs, and had at least one person accompany her on the hike for safety. (We later sat next to this woman at Cliff Top to watch the sunset and it made me appreciate it all the more.) The only disappointment of the entire trip came at the end of the meal when it would have been nice to sit back and relax and talk of the hike up and what brought each of us to LeConte with the others at the table. But given the lack of conversation with our four other tablemates, we were instead the first ones to leave the dining hall after both supper and breakfast the next morning and went back to our cabin to sit on the porch and relax.
Back at the cabin we noticed that there were several raisins on the porch railing, and the juncos were flying up and picking them up and flying away. Later that evening, our cabin mates were outside breaking off bits of crackers and feeding them. Abby said to me later that that was against the rules.
The ranger we met on the trail during our previous hike had said that the National Park Service had started assigning a ranger to stay at LeConte on the weekends. This weekend Ranger Katie was assigned to LeConte, and during supper she said she would be giving a talk on the history of the area at 8:05 PM at Cliff Top. I told Abby that my only regret from our last trip was that we didnt go up to see the sunset. She agreed, and despite the uniform cloud cover, we decided to hike up and hear the talk. The first time Abby and I went up to Cliff Top on our previous trip, it was breezy and cool, so this time we decided to bundle up a bit and put on our fleece shirts and our windbreakers, and we both put on our long pants. We hiked up and joined a dozen or so people who were already there a bit before 8:00 PM. Ranger Katie was also already there and answered some questions about what birds we kept seeing at camp (juncos), what kinds of trees we passed, what kind of plants were growing on the slopes of Cliff Top, and what we would be able to see if it wasnt cloudy. At 8:05 PM she began her talk about the history of the area and lodge, the original Cherokee inhabitants, the incursion of white settlers, the job of the National Park Service and what we could do to help keep the parks in good condition. A few minutes into her presentation, the lady who was introduced at dinner who has MS made it up and slowly made her way to the edge and sat next to us.
When we arrived, it was completely cloudy, but as Ranger Katie continued her speech, the clouds started to settle. They didnt lift and get higher; they seemed to settle in the valley, then climb their way up to Newfound Gap and over that ridgeline. As the clouds settled, they seemed to get caught on the shorter mountain peaks below us, the West Point and No Name Peaks of Mt. LeConte. One side of the peaks would be clear, but the lee side would have a trail of clouds hanging off them, as if they had torn off part of the clouds. The sun became more and more visible, revealing a beautiful sunset. Abby sat on my lap on the edge of Cliff Top and we watched the sun go down with the two dozen or so people who had also hiked up. The lady next to us began handing out gourmet chocolate bars, and we all broke off a piece and had a bite. Abby didnt care for the orange flavored chocolate bars, but she really liked the milk chocolate one. After the sun sank below the horizon (actually below the low clouds in the distance) and the colors of the sunset faded, we decided to head back down to camp. It wasnt too dark, but Abby and Ethan still used their flashlights to walk back to camp. About halfway down the summit peak at High Top came into view and I pointed out to Abby and Ethan that it was where we had earlier helped the mountain grow. Once down, Abby and I decided to go back to the office and play some more games, and Ethan and Richard joined us. As it got darker, it looked around for a kerosene lamp to use, but the only ones available had not globe on them. I walked back to the cabin and got one of ours, lit it, and walked back with it in the dark. Once back at our table, Abby and I played Battleship for about an hour, until about 10:00 PM. When we went back to the cabin, our cabin mates were at the table in the common area (where the two single beds were) playing cards. I asked them if they intended to use their single bed, but they said the preferred to all sleep in their room (a father, mother, and their two teenage sons.) They said it would be fine if we used both of the beds, so Abby and I offered to sleep separately so Richard and Ethan wouldnt have to suffer the heat of the top bunk in our room. We brushed our teeth, climbed into bed, and blew out the lamp. Throughout the afternoon, we had heard some chimney sweeps that had nested in the chimney. It sounded as if some newly hatched chicks were chirping every time the mother would bring back food, as they would be silent for a while, then break out into constant chirping. That night, rather than chirping loudly at regular intervals as they did during the daylight, they decided to peep constantly most of the night. After a while, we got used to it and dozed off.
I awoke a little before 6:00 AM Sunday to the sound of rain on the roof. I got up and went outside and felt a steady rain. While the rest slept, I took our bucket and got some hot water and stood on the porch and brushed my teeth, washed my hair, took a sponge bath and got cleaned up. I slipped back inside and began quietly packing up some of my gear until around 7:00 AM when I heard one of the lodge crew carrying the hot coffee to the lodge office. I was right behind him with my coffee cup. Around 7:40 AM I awoke Abby and got her ready for breakfast. At 8:00 AM sharp, while we sat on the porch and listened to and watched it rain, the beakfast bell rang. We filed in the dining hall and went back to the same table where we sat the night before. We had the same wonderful food for breakfast pancakes and syrup, scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, grits, biscuits, apple butter, honey, tang, coffee, and hot chocolate - as we did last time, however there were no leftovers this time.
After we finished eating, Abby said she wanted to go play Battleship again and to hear Ranger Katies talk at 9:00 AM about black bears, so we headed up to the office. We sat at the same table as the night before, and because it was rather warm inside, I cracked open a window. As the cool breeze blew in, we could also see fog coming in the open window too. Around 9:00 AM we put up the game and pulled up a rocking chair around the stove for Ranger Katies presentation. She had the skin of a black bear that had been struck by a car and killed in the park, and she passed it around for us all to feel. She told us how bears that come into contact with humans and food could lose their fear of people and become dangerous. She told of the Park Services efforts to relocate bears that have lost their fear of people whenever possible, and that some bears wind up having to be put down instead. After Ranger Katies presentation, we went back to the cabin and packed up all our gear and got ready to leave. I had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the Rainbow Falls trailhead and take us back up to Alum Caves trailhead, so we would get to enjoy a different trail going down. I thought we would need to leave around 10:00 AM, but I also knew that I could call the shuttle and tell them we would be late than expected. (I don't get cell service on the Alum trail, but had before on the Rainbow and Trillium Gap trails.) I had talked to Susan in Mosheim, where it was not raining, and my mother at Douglas Lake (where it was also not raining) and hoped that if we waited a few minutes the rain might let up, or even stop. After a while, we decided to go ahead and start down and hope that we walked out of the rain soon. We put our ponchos on, took one last picture of Abby and me and Richard and Ethan in front of the dining hall and headed out at 10:25 AM. At the edge of camp we met a man walking with an umbrella. He said he had just come up the Alum Cave Bluff trail and had walked in rain most of the way. Despite that, and despite wearing short and a t-shirt and with only an umbrella to keep him dry, he had very little water on him. A short five-minute walk from camp took us to the Rainbow Falls trail intersection, and then another eighteen minutes later we reached the point where the Bullhead trail splits off from the Rainbow Falls trail. We stopped briefly to take a few pictures and admire all the mushrooms and other fungi that were growing on this side of the mountain. This split in the trail is about one-half mile from the top and Cherokee Orchard is about six miles from this intersection. The rain had slowed to a sprinkle, but we kept our ponchos on for a bit longer. About twenty minutes later, around 11:10 AM, we met two girls walking up where the Rocky Spur turns off the trail. They were wearing only shorts and t-shirts and tennis shoes and were soaked. While we were talking to them, we heard their father calling to them from below us saying he was stopping to take a break. After talking to them about the trail we were on and what we could expect, we said goodbye and headed up to the Rocky Spur. Once there, we stopped to rest for a few minutes and have a small snack. I had read that there was a nice view from the area, but knew that we wouldnt be able to see anything because of the clouds. Still, we decided to walk on out the trail a bit to see if it went to an overlook area and terminated or if it swung back around and rejoined the main trail. After a couple minutes walking, it didnt appear that it would take us back to Rainbow Falls trail, so we backtracked and resumed our hike down. Shortly after reaching the Rainbow Falls trail and heading down, we came to another small trail to the side, which we assumed was where the Rocky Spur did in fact rejoin our trail.
The Rainbow Falls trail is different than Alum Cave Bluff trail in that you are rarely walking along the edge of a precipitous drop. At the beginning of the trail, there is a deep washout that follows along, and the trail is cut every few feet to keep the runoff from washing away the trail. The trail seems to be set deeper in the woods with a canopy of trees above in most areas. There are large hemlocks, firs, dozens of different colored mushrooms, and little streams crossing the trail. We walked down through the clouds for more than half the length, only encountering sunshine well past Rainbow Falls. The part of the trail between the Bulls Head terminus and the Rocky Spur curves along the inside of a valley, in the middle of which LeConte Creek begins. Down the mountain, LeConte Creek spills over the Rainbow Falls, so for a good portion of the hike we could hear the roar of the falls below us. At the Rocky Spur, the trail crosses over a ridge opposite the falls, so we couldnt hear them anymore. Beyond the Rocky Spur, the trail comes back around the end of that ridge and resumes a trace along the inside of the valley, eventually crossing LeConte Creek again and then passing by the falls,
At 1:13 PM we reached Rainbow Falls, about ten minutes behind Richard and Ethan. Our shuttle driver, Vesna Plankanis from A Walk in the Woods in Gatlinburg, was to meet us at the trailhead at 2:15 PM, but I wasnt sure we would make it by then. I called and said it might be 2:30 PM or 2:45 PM when we arrived. Erik, her husband, said that would be fine. So we stopped at Rainbow Falls for a snack and a rest. While there we saw a boomer and a chipmunk that apparently had lost their fear of humans. The boomer would come within two or three inches of my leg while I was eating, and I half expected it to jump up on me or Abby and take the food from our hand. So I shooed it away. The chipmunk wasnt as aggressive, but still got close enough that I had to shoo it away. After we finished our sandwich, Abby and I scuttled over the boulders for a closer look at the falls. I asked a woman to take our picture in front of the falls, but instead of using the eighty-foot tall Rainbow Falls as a backdrop, she chose a two-foot waterfall over a rock. We climbed back over the rocks, ate our last candy bars and resumed our hike at 1:25 PM.
We continued to come across huge trees and beautiful mushrooms and fungi as we made our way down. The trail descended at a fairly steady rate, and the walk wasnt too tiring, so we didnt take very many rest stops. When we did stop to rest, we rarely stopped for more than a couple of minutes. Ethan and Richard had moved far ahead of us, and Abby and I took a bit more time to stop and look at some of the scenery. We saw fungi of every color growing on trees, rocks, and rotting logs. We saw a spider web that looked like an upside-down bowl, perfectly domed from the inside with a tiny spider waiting. We crossed LeConte Creek via footlog a couple more times and came across a couple smaller waterfalls. Abby stopped for a picture in front of the largest tree I think we encountered during the entire trip. Toward the bottom I resumed my method of guessing the distance to landmarks by comparing them to distances around our house, as in it would be as far as from our back door to the turkey feeder in our back field and back until we reached the last switchback. At one point, while I had stopped for a restroom break, Abby continued on. Unbeknownst to me, she had made the turn around one of the switchbacks, and when I saw here, I was convinced she had found a side trail and was going the wrong way. Shortly, we came to the place where we had hiked up a few weeks earlier, less than one-half mile from the trailhead. Because of the large amount of foot traffic in that area, people have created short cuts all over the place, so it was difficult to tell where the main trail was. Also along this part we began to meet more and more people out for a day hike to the Rainbow Falls. After one lady, who was wearing plenty of makeup and jewelry, passed us, I asked Abby if she thought the woman would make it the two more miles to the falls. Abby said she didnt think she would. When we passed the next pair of people, they were about two steps behind us when Abby said aloud that they wouldnt make it either. I had to tell her to wait until we had taken at least twenty steps and were out of earshot before we assessed other peoples abilities. After that, we had some fun guessing who would and would not make the entire 2.7-mile hike up to Rainbow Falls.
At 2:38 PM we reached the Rainbow Falls trailhead and met Erik waiting as close to the trail as he could get so we didnt have to take one step further. Richard and Ethan had already put their backpacks in the van, so Abby and I took off our boots, put on our flip-flops and loaded into the van. We had hiked down 6 ½ miles in four hours, thirteen minutes, which includes at least thirty minutes of rest time. Erik took us back up to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and told us some interesting facts along the way, including the history of the Sugarlands area, and about the flora and fauna we had seen on our hike up and down Mt. LeConte.
We arrived back at the Alum Cave trailhead and decided to drive up to Clingmans Dome. Upon arrival at the parking area for Clingmans Dome, Ethan began to feel ill, so we decided against the one-half mile hike from the parking lot to the observation tower. We came down off the mountain and stopped by the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get Abby her trail patches and hiking staff medallions. We spent some time there going through the museum and bookstore and then decided to head back to the cabin. Along the Gatlinburg bypass, we stopped at an overlook to take a final picture of Mount LeConte. I pointed out to Ethan the top of LeConte and that we had just hiked all the way up and down that mountain, and until that time I dont think he realized what he had done.
Arriving back at Douglas Lake, Richard and Ethan packed up their things and headed back to Greeneville. Abby and I told everyone about our trip, and then decided to go out for pizza and go back and stay the night at the cabin. We went to Dandridge to eat and then went back to the cabin, watched Pirates of the Caribbean and went to bed around 9:30 PM. The next morning we awoke early, packed our bags and loaded the car and headed home.
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