Monday, December 12, 2022

Mount Le Conte via Bull Head & Overnight

Smoky Mountains National Park
December 2 - 3, 202

What a trip! Mount Le Conte is my mountain of choice in the Smoky Mountain National Park since I first climbed it with my Friend Greg back in June of 2013. With this ascent, I now only have two more trails (Brushy Mountain and The Boulevard) and then I will have summited Mt. Le Conte by all routes. 

Trail Breakdown: 

Old Surgalands ..................... 0.4 Miles
Bull Head          ..................... 6.4 Miles
Rainbow Falls    ..................... 6.0 Miles* 

* You will see on my recording more miles were logged as I traversed the different sights up top. The next morning, I also had the 0.5 miles on Bull Head to get to the Rainbow Falls junction. My total logged trip was 17.3 miles. 

The plan for this trip was for me to ascend Bull Head for the first time, stay at the shelter, and then descend via Trillium Gap. To my knowledge, this would make the longest loop hike of Mt. Le Conte. I am going to have to try this again as I audibled at the last-minute Saturday morning due to time and descended via Rainbow Falls.  

While I have been down Bull Head a couple of times, once in full summer bloom and the second time in late fall when it recently re-opened after the Chimney Top Fire this was my first ascent. The day was cool, with partly sunny skies turning cloudy but an overall beautiful day do be out in the mountains. I parked and the Rainbow Falls parking area and headed down Old Sugarland's Trail to where it meets up with Bull Head and then started heading up. Right away the elevation gain was apparent, and I knew it was going to be a climb, especially with my overnight pack on.  

As I headed up you could still see all the devastation the fire created with dead trees, fire scored rocks, and deadfall everywhere. You need to be careful on this trail when the ground is wet with high winds because trees can come down easily in those conditions. Green is coming back with a lot of spruce trees popping up, but it will take a long time for the forest to get back to what it was. The fire conditions have created an opportunity for some magnificent views, and I found myself filming at taking pictures at almost every turn of the trail.  

Me Along the Bull Head Trail

After about six miles on Bull Head, you come to the trail junction with Rainbow Falls then you have just over a half mile to reach the inn and shelter. That half mile is a tough climb, and I am not talking about trail obstacles, it is simply good old elevation gain. Passing the inn on my left, that is closed for the winter, I continued up the trail to the shelter on the right. The shelter houses twelve spots for people staying the night and you need to purchase a permit to stay there. When I purchased mine, it was the last one available for this date. To my surprise I was the first one there, so I picked a spot, and laid out my sleep kit.  

I stored my large backpack in the shelter and packed my cook kit, meal, snacks, and beverage in my haversack then head back out. The first spot I wanted to see was Hight Top that is the “true” summit of Mount Le Conte. You know you are there because people have stacked a huge pile of rocks on the location. It is surrounded by pine trees and there are not any significant views, but you must tag the top right?  

After High Top I kept heading up the trail to Myrtle Point which is at the section of the trail where Bull Head turns into the Boulevard. Take a side trail that is marked, and you will reach a rock outcropping with a fantastic view of Clingman’s Dome in the background. Myrtle Point is also the spot to see a Mount Le Conte sunrise, which I have yet to see. Hopefully, my next overnight I will get a clear morning.  

View at Myrtle Point

At this point I was losing daylight and was planning to have my dinner, beverage, and film a time lapse video over on Cliff Top. Cliff Top is another rock outcropping with a view of the Chimney Tops and is the spot for Sunsets. It is also close to the shelter, but I had to hoof it to get there with some daylight left. When I got there the view was good, but clouds were moving in, and the wind had picked up considerably. It was so windy I could not set the GoPro down on the tripod because the wind would just take it away. I tried holding it for a while but with the wind I could not even hold it steady. I figured I would never get water to boil for my meal, so I packed up and headed back to the shelter.  

When I returned to the shelter it was dark and not a sole was there. I saw a total of four people hiking down as I was going up, but it is a long loop no matter which way you go, and it was a Friday so that made since. Most come up the Alum Cave Trail because it is the shortest and I did hear a large group roaming around when I first got up there. I figured at least there would have been a few at the shelter but I would occupy it all to myself.  

The Bull Head Trail - Mount Le Conte
I boiled water for my food and had my beverage but soon it was dark, and I could no longer see unless I had my headlamp on. It was only 8:30 PM but I decided to pack in and hit the sleeping bag since there really was nothing I could do. I slept really well and was never cold even though the wind blew something fierce, and the rain started coming down around 3:00 AM. My Sleep system worked great and the three-season sleeping pad has been one of my best backcountry camping purchases I have made.  

I was awake around 5:00 AM still not being able to see anything, so I dosed on and off until about 7:30 AM then made some coffee. I made two cups and sampled a Black Riffle Coffee pouch and their instant coffee. Both were good though I think I might try two packages next time for the amount of water I used. I had my freeze-dried biscuits and gravy and tried to repack my gear to protect it from the rain the best I could.  

Finally hitting the trail around 10:00 AM and as I headed towards Trillium Gap I decided to turn around and descend via Rainbow Falls. My plan was to get started earlier and by taking this route it cut about four miles off my trip. The rain came down and I would walk through mist from time to time. I was now making good time as my track took me downhill and I did not see anyone on this side of the waterfall.  

When I got to Rainbow Falls I took my camera out to film as I approached but when rounding the last turn the falls were covered in a shroud of mist. Rainbow Falls is one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the park with it being one of my favorites to visit but it did not want its picture taken today. 

Me with Rainbow Falls in the background
The hike up to the falls is one of the parks most traveled trails so it was no surprise that I started running into quite a few people at this point coming up the trail. I felt a little sorry for them slugging through the rain and mud in nice clothes to get a picture at the waterfall only to not be able to see it when they get there. I also have come up with a hat idea, one that reads “Don’t ask me how much further!” as just about everyone heading up asked me.  

After another two and half miles I reached the Jeep, put on my dry clothes, and headed home for a well-deserved beer. This was a beauty of a hike and one if you are fit enough I would diffidently go and try it. Here in the near future, I plan to try the Bull Head / Trillium Gap loop, but I might go fast and light instead of staying the night. Not sure yet, but you can be sure I will let you know how it goes when I get it in. 

3D Rendering of my route via AllTrails

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