That’s the message I sent to some friends upon my family’s arrival to the Volunteer State. I already have an affinity for the mountains that was birthed in me when I grew up in Oregon, and as November began, with the leaves turned a beautiful golden yellow color, the air carried a crisp - almost cedar tasting - feel to it – and I was loving life. Add to that, the fact that it was my 31st birthday and we were in town for a wedding – and it’s clear to me that the galaxy had offered me a most radical weekend adventure.
I woke up early on Saturday morning, snuck out of the hotel quietly so I didn’t wake my sleeping fiancée, and headed for Rainbow Falls Trail Head. I had about 5 hours to myself before I had to get ready for the wedding so I was going to make it worth my wild and see what these Smokies had to offer.
My path: a variation of a classic loop; Rainbow Falls Trail up to Mt. LeConte Lodge and back down Bull Head Trail.
3.4 miles from traffic light #8 in Gatlinburg you come to Rainbow Falls Parking Area. This is also the trailhead for two other trails; each clearly marked on a large wooden post located at the trailheads. Rainbow Falls Trail starts at 2500 ft. and climbs at a moderate pace. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow. I would recommend starting fairly early; this is a popular trail and will become crowded fast – which I experienced on that weekend day.
The trail follows the river for about 1.5 miles before cutting up into the hills away from the creek. I read in the guidebook that at this point of the hike there are usually an abundance of rhododendrons and other pretty flowers. I was hiking in November so all I saw were some pretty cold looking bushes that looked like rhododendrons.
The trail cuts back towards the river around mile 2 and you have to cross a couple creeks: one of which has a bridge (the rest you can rock hop across, but be careful – some rocks are slippery). Right before you get to Rainbow falls you come across a medium sized falls that I mistook for Rainbow Falls, but incorrectly so. Rainbow Falls is grand, attractive and has a sign indicating you’ve made it to the falls.
After Rainbow falls the trail cuts away from the creek and climbs up the mountain. There are spectacular views of Gatlinburg, the Space Needle, and the Park Vista Hotel. At this point you are fairly high up (about 4500-5000 feet), so the trees get thinner and the slope of the mountain gets steeper. The trail is a single track so be sure to watch your step, it would hurt to fall but I don’t think it would kill you.
Somewhere around 5000 ft. elevation you come across a little trail on your left. I heard that this trail has a nice little spread of wild flowers but since it was November I did not go down it. The trail is very clearly marked so little cross trails like these do not confuse you. Hence, it’s quite easy to stay on the Rainbow Falls trail all the way up the mountain.
At mile 6 you come to the Bull Head trail intersection. You can go left and it will take you up to Mt. LeConte Lodge, which is still the Rainbow Falls Trail. If you take a right then you are on Bull Head Trail and it takes you back down the mountain. It is about a ½ mile hike up to the lodge.
I went up to the lodge and think it is worth the walk. The snow and ice did get a little thick at this point, which was slippery in my Salomon Crossmax. I could still see the trail and pushed on, but I did keep a watchful eye, no fun getting lost in the snow.
Mt. LeConte Lodge is an interesting place. The complex is very well kept, has gorgeous views, and is a superb spot to obtain a hot meal…or so I heard from the people sitting around drinking coffee and chatting. I did not stick around long since I wanted to make it to the wedding, so I headed back down the mountain. At this point, I’d hiked about 6.5 miles with 1 mile increase in elevation.
Heading down from Mt. LeConte Lodge was easy. Bull Head Trail is a clearly marked single track with very few intersecting trails. It is about 6 miles from Mt. LeConte Lodge to the Old Sugarlands Trail, and from there it’s about .5 miles to the Rainbow Falls parking lot.
The Bull Head trail cuts along the ridgeline for a long while, which makes for some spectacular views. It is a gradual decent, easy to run at a slow pace. The downside of running this trail is that it is about 6 miles long and before you know it you’ve run quite a bit and your body can get knocked around a bit, making you a little sore the next day. I did this hike in less than 4 hours and was fairly sore the next day.
All-in-all this was an enjoyable hike. If I was going to do this route again I would change a few things. Firstly, go during the week: It gets busy on the weekend and the last thing I want when I get out in the woods is to see other people. Secondly, slow down: I held a steady pace and was fairly sweaty when I got to the top. It was late-Autumn when I did this hike and my sweat was not ideal when I was standing in snow at Mt. LeConte Lodge. A good reminder to take a couple breaks; keep that heart rate nice and low.
Here are a few other random thoughts worth mentioning. Gatlinburg is only 3.4 miles from the trailhead; it’s hard to say that about many other commercial vacation spots. Gatlinburg is very commercial but has a unique appeal to it. The Smokies encompass this little town and create a European ski town feel, but it’s still 100% country.
Gatlinburg is worth a stop, but the real gem is the Smoky Mountains National Park. Take some time and enjoy what the park has to offer.