Rainbow Falls / Bullhead loop on LeConte January 30, 2011Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Bullhead, Mt. LeConte, Rainbow Falls, winter hiking
The temperatures in the valleys were supposed to get up into the 50s with sparkling sunshine. The top of LeConte had 22″ of snow following a fresh storm two days before. What does this add up to? A decision to do a hike with a large amount of elevation change so that I could see all the different conditions—a winter/spring sampler!
I started at 8:00, and apparently that was the time that everyone doing the Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop had decided to start. A pair of college-age guys set off just as I pulled into the parking lot—a woman arrived in a silver pickup, jumped out, and headed up the trail—and then a guy swished into the lot in a late-model BMW sports coupe just as I was starting up. Sports coupe guy passed me when I stopped to put on my microspikes, and I never saw him again—I passed the two guys, who had heavy gear—I passed the woman, but we crossed paths again when I was coming down from the summit, and we had some pleasant conversation. I was pleased to see another woman doing a challenging hike solo. It’s amazing how rare that is.
I found myself wondering about the patterns of hiker traffic on LeConte yesterday. Clearly, the hikers just going to the falls didn’t need to start until much later. When I got back down at 3:00, the parking lot was jammed. But the weird thing was, I only saw three people on the summit, and I think one of them was the caretaker. I’d expected hordes to be coming up Alum Cave. Where were they? Did icy conditions on the trail turn people back? I ran into a couple coming up the Bullhead trail. So, total of nine other humans seen on this very popular mountain on a beautiful Saturday.
I encountered some icy patches below the falls, but I could have done it without the microspikes. It’s just that you can go faster when you don’t have to watch where you put each foot. Just below the falls, at around 4000′, the trail started to be snow-covered. A thin layer, well packed down, and undoubtedly gone by the end of the day. I passed the tributary of LeConte Creek that I and two others descended last May on a traverse of Balsam Point.
I arrived at the falls. The ice cone was distinctly eerie in its radiant blueness, almost as if it belonged to a different dimension and had been superimposed in front of the falls by some science fiction process. It was the same kind of blue that you see sometimes in glaciers. I read somewhere that the blue color has to do with the absorption and reflection of different areas of the spectrum by ice crystals.
There were some good icicles over to the side.
Above the falls, the snow grew steadily deeper, and of course the amount of previous foot traffic dropped off. It looked as though a sort of trough had been created following earlier snow events, and that perhaps one or two people had been up the trail since the most recent snow, plus one set of prints that morning from sports coupe guy. My pace slowed, and slowed, as I worked through the snow. It was a grunt. Not far above the falls I saw a nice crisp set of bear prints mixed in with the hiker prints.
The snow banks on the side got higher.
I stopped for a Power Bar, then ploughed onward. The snow wasn’t horribly deep, but it wasn’t consolidated. Take a step—sink down maybe four inches—take another step. In New England I would have used snowshoes, but they would have been useless here where a narrow track with high walls had been established. The snowshoes are too wide for this situation.
Finally I reached the Bullhead junction and discovered, much to my surprise, that Bullhead had been packed down into a tidy sidewalk. I’d been sure the Rainbow Falls trail would have seen more traffic, but that wasn’t the case. Perhaps a large group had climbed Bullhead the day before. (That’s what’s great about snow—all kinds of puzzles written into its surface.) I pressed on to the Lodge, enjoying the firmer surface.
It was noon. I found a sunny spot and had some hot tea and something to eat, wondering what had become of all of the Alum Cave trail people. It felt fairly wintry up there. The strong wind out of the south that could have been described as a “zephyr” in the lower sections had become not so pleasant. Because of the wind and also because my legs felt like toast at that point, I decided not to do the short climb up to Cliff Top.
The way down was exponentially easier. I looked for the spots where our group had entered and exited the trail on the Balsam Point traverse. After passing the shady sidehill section that crosses the headwaters of Big Branch, I emerged in the lower pine forest that gets strong afternoon sun. There was practically no snow on this section. The galax was gleaming in the sun.
I noticed some chestnut sprouts at 3700′.
Further down, at 3200′, I saw a 20-foot chestnut that had dropped some burrs into the trail. Unfortunately you could see from some branches that had lost their bark that the tree was dying.
Where the trail turned sharply to the east, I entered a zone of shade once again and found that the trail was quite icy. It was only in this section that I would say some sort of traction device would be nearly mandatory. So I put the spikes back on and wended my way down the switchbacks among giant boulders. Some big ice chunks had fallen into the trail off some of the boulders—ones that could kill you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And so, emerging into the sudden congestion of mid-afternoon traffic at the trailhead, my adventure had ended, and a fine one it was.