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Day and Overnight Hikes: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Includes 13 day loop and 10 overnight loop hikes, as well as recommendations based on winter, solitude, easiest, wildlife & most scenic hikes.

Trails Illustrated map for the Eastern Smokies. Includes Mt. LeConte, Cataloochee, Big Creek and Clingmans Dome.

Mt. LeConte (via Bullhead Trail)

Trail Features: Panoramic Views mt leconte
Trail Location: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roundtrip Length: 14.4 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3993 Feet
Avg. Elev Gain / Mile: 555 Feet
Highest Elevation: 6593 Feet
Trail Difficulty Rating: 22.39 (strenuous)
Parking Lot Latitude 35.67582
Parking Lot Longitude -83.48527

Directions to Trailhead:

Starting from Light 8 in Gatlinburg, turn onto Historic Nature Trail / Airport Road. At 0.7 miles, veer right onto Cherokee Orchard Road, at which point you'll enter into Great Smoky Mountain National Park. After driving another 2.2 miles you'll enter the one-way Cherokee Orchard Loop. Drive roughly 0.6 miles on the loop to reach the trailhead leading to the Bullhead Trail, which will be on your right (if this parking lot is full, there's an auxiliary lot about a tenth-of-a-mile further down the road).

Trail Description:

If you're trying to decide which trail to take to Mount LeConte: the Rainbow Falls Trail or Bullhead, I would recommend taking the Bullhead Trail because of the views along the way, (unless, of course, you specifically want to see Rainbow Falls). However, because this trail is much more exposed than Rainbow Falls, Bullhead might be a fairly hot hike in the summer, especially along the ridge that leads from Balsam Point to Mount LeConte.

If you were doing a loop hike, especially during the summer, I would definitely hike up Rainbow Falls Trail and then descend via Bullhead.

To get to the trailhead you'll have to walk back to the locked gate blocking an old gravel road just before the turn into the parking lot. Hikers will follow this gravel road, which is actually the Old Sugarlands Trail, for approximately 0.4 miles before turning left onto the Bullhead Trail.

balsam-pointAt just over a mile into the hike the trail begins to ascend more rapidly as you begin to climb the Bullhead. Over the next mile or so, hikers will pass many rock cliff faces. At roughly 1.5 miles you'll pass two small caves created by overhanging rocks.

After climbing the Bullhead the trail begins to level off and you'll begin to catch glimpses of some of the surrounding mountains. Almost directly in front of you will be Balsam Point. Over the course of the next two miles the trail will take you up the north face of this mountain, before exiting onto the ridge to the right of the mountain (see the photo on the right).

Almost 3 miles from the trailhead hikers will pass a cairn built by the CCC back in the 1930's. By standing on this cairn you'll have some decent views of the mountains to the east and northeast of you.

balsam-ridge-viewHikers will exit Balsam Point and onto the aforementioned ridge at roughly 5.3 miles. For the next half mile or so you'll have outstanding views towards the north. To catch the best view of the mountains to the south you'll need to look to your right, just as the trail begins to level off and exits onto the ridge.

At roughly 6.3 miles hikers will reach the Rainbow Falls Trail junction. Hikers should continue straight here to reach the top of Mt. LeConte.

In another 0.4 miles you'll reach the Alum Cave Trail, which branches off to the right. You'll have your first views of the LeConte Lodge at this point as well.

Many people will end their hike at the lodge; however, to reach the summit of Mount LeConte, you'll still need to walk almost another half-mile.

Before reaching the summit the Trillium Gap Trail will branch off to your left at 6.9 miles. The summit, better known as High Top, will be at 7.2 miles. You'll know you've reached the highest point on Mt. LeConte when you've reached the large cairn just off the main trail on the right.

At 6593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in theSmokies. However, measured from its immediate base to its highest point, Mt. LeConte can be considered the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, rising 5301 feet from its base near Gatlinburg.

There is considerable controversy over which member of the LeConte family the mountain was named after. Most people, including the USGS, assume that Joseph LeConte, the famous geologist and charter member of the Sierra Club, is the man for whom the mountain was named. However, that claim has been challenged in recent years. The authors of A Natural History of Mount Le Conte, and the Georgia Encyclopedia, both claim the name honors Joseph's older brother, John, who was famous as a scientist and as president of the University of California, at Berkeley.

Cliff TopUnfortunately you won't have any views up at High Top. However, there are two places on the mountain that afford outstanding panoramic views.

One is at Myrtle Point. To get to Myrtle Point you'll have to walk another 0.4 miles by continuing on the main trail, which has now turned into the Boulevard Trail. Roughly 0.2 miles from High Top, take the spur off the right side of the trail to reach Myrtle Point, which is another 0.2 miles from this junction. Myrtle Point provides nearly 360 degree views, and is the best location for sunrises on Mt. LeConte.

The other place for outstanding views is known as Cliff Top, which is near the LeConte Lodge. You will have passed two side trails to Cliff Top (on your right) as you made your way up to High Top. Cliff Top is the best location for sunset views.

One of the unique things about the hike up to Mount LeConte is the lodge and overnight cabins at the top. Hikers have the option of spending the night in the historic cabins which can accommodate about 50 guests a night (you will need to make reservations well in advance). For more information you can visit the LeConte Lodge website.

The idea for the lodge was created when Paul Adams, an enthusiastic hiker and explorer, led an expedition up the mountain with some dignitaries from Washington to show them the rugged beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, and to help promote the cause for national park status. The group spent the night in a large tent. The following year Adams built a cabin on that same spot, which eventually led to the establishment of the LeConte Lodge.

Adams is also credited with helping to blaze the trail from Alum Cave to the summit of Mount LeConte.