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Rainbow Falls / Bullhead loop on LeConte January 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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The ice cone had an amazing bluish color

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.

Side branch coming down from 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.

Rainbow Falls with ice cone

There were some good icicles over to the side.

Icicles at Rainbow Falls

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.

Bear prints

The snow banks on the side got higher.

Upper trail section

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.

Made it!

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 love the color of galax in the winter

I noticed some chestnut sprouts at 3700′.

Chestnut sprouts

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.

20-foot chestnut

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.

Seen on upper RF trail---something in the soil, I guess

A week in the Smokies June 21, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Laurel at 5500 feet

Laurel at 5500 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in the land of towering green ridges and plunging stream valleys… six days of being in the Smokies.

The elk in Cataloochee

I visited Cataloochee to meet up with Ray Payne of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and see the herd of elk that have been introduced there.  Ray volunteers with the Park Service as a member of the “Elk Bugle Corps” to give information to park visitors and sometimes keep them from getting up too close to the elk.  The best time to view the elk is dusk, but I got there early and did a stroll on the Caldwell Fork Trail, where I saw a lot of laurel along the stream and noticed a good-sized hemlock. The base of it looked fine, but the top is about two-thirds dead, affected by the adelgid like most of the hemlock in the area.

Base of dying hemlock

Base of dying hemlock

But although I saw a lot of dead hemlock, it didn’t alter the whole appearance of the area as drastically as I had feared.

I connected with Ray at about 4:00.  He drives all the way from Knoxville every couple of weeks, going over the infamous Cove Creek dirt road (which has some good dropoffs without guardrails) to get to Cataloochee.  I’m not sure which is worse, Cove Creek or driving through the Pigeon River Gorge on I-40.  We had a great time catching up on things.  He is the conservation chair for SMHC and continues to do a tremendous amount of work on the North Shore Road problem over on Fontana Lake.

It was raining pretty hard when we first drove up past the ranger station, but we saw three bull elk with impressively large antlers and a separate herd of does.  We saw them in different combinations as we chatted over the next few hours.

The herd of does

The herd of does

Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop

The next day I did a climb up to the top of LeConte up the Rainbow Falls trail and down the Bullhead trail.  The dimensions of the hike are relatively hefty (about 14 miles and 4000 vertical feet), but the going is very easy, at least compared with the 9-mile, 4000-foot vertical hike I did on Mt. Washington the previous weekend.  I picked this hike because I liked the idea of going through all the plant/climate zones on LeConte.  I got into fog at about 3500 feet and stayed in it most of the hike, but that didn’t matter at all.  At Rainbow Falls, there was a catawba rhododendron in bloom right at the top of the falls.

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

I had the falls to myself at about 10:00 on a Friday morning, except for some company that seemed interested in sharing my food:

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

At one spot above the falls, the trail was carpeted with rhodo blossoms.

Rhodo blossoms on trail

The myrtle was just starting to bloom along the Rocky Spur side trail.

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

I was pleased to see that the Fraser firs are looking better on the top of LeConte.  Most of them died 20 or so years ago, and areas above 6000 feet used to have a skeletal, devastated look, but now there are a lot of new firs in the 10-15 foot range.  People are waiting to see if this new crop will survive.

I ran into a number of people between Rainbow Falls and the top, and the Lodge seemed busy.  But as soon as I got down on the Bullhead Trail, I saw not a single person until I was all the way back at Cherokee Orchard.  Sidehilling below Balsam Point, the slope (as opposed to the trail) was very steep, and I couldn’t believe that 20 years ago I rockhopped up the headwaters of Big Branch from the Newfound Gap road with an SMHC group.  But those places always seem impossible looking down from the trail.

Winnesoka from Long Branch Gap

The next day I attended the concert at Cades Cove described in the post below.  One of my poems that was set to music and performed by the Knoxville Symphony was about a solo trip I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap. For the following day (Sunday the 14th)  I had invited some people to join me for another off-trail hike in the area, but it turned out no one could make it.  I decided to go up anyway on my own, back up to Long Branch, but I would head to the other side of the gap, Mt. Winnesoka.  It’s an easier hike, since it doesn’t involve crawling through the heath on Brushy.

I left the Brushy Mt. Trail where it comes close to Long Branch and walked through easy open woods for a while on the left bank of the stream.  I saw this enormous basswood:

Near Long Branch

There was a lot of squaw root:

Squaw root near Long Branch

After the valley closed in I started rockhopping up the stream.  There were plenty of stinging nettles.

Nettles on Long Branch

I left the stream and headed up to the gap through woods that was moderately thick.  That area has lots of dog hobble (leucothoe):

Dog hobble and rhodo

Dog hobble and rhodo

Once I got up to the ridgecrest, I found the ground carpeted with wintergreen (gaultheria) and galax:

Galax, wintergreen near Long Branch Gap

I headed up the slope, tangling with some greenbriers that were lurking in the laurel, and reached the high point of Winnesoka, Lookout Rock, at 4445′.  As you might guess, you have to clamber up the rock to get much of a view.  The post below about the Cades Cove concert has a photo of the view toward Brushy and LeConte.  This photo is a zoom of the same picture to give a better idea of the heath on Brushy, but really there’s no way of understanding what it’s like until you crawl through it:

Heath on Brushy Mountain

I opted not to bushwhack over to the northwest prominence of Winnesoka (Round Top, 4308′) but instead to navigate over to Turkey Rock (4000′), a much easier trip.  I was able to stay on intermittent game paths near the steep north slope of the ridge.  At about the right elevation I found an unimpressive rock, but a bit further on was another rock that I believe is Turkey Rock:

Turkey Rock

Still not terribly impressive.  After touching this point, I continued along the ridge and then dropped back into Long Branch for the trip out.

Roundtop Trail

This trail is hardly used, for two reasons: it has a ford of the Little River at its western end and very restricted parking on Wears Cove Gap road at its eastern end.  Going up to the trail’s high point at Joint Rock made a nice easy hike the day after I did Winnesoka, 5 miles roundtrip and 800 vertical feet.  The first (easternmost) part of the forest had experienced a burn.

Burn on Roundtop Trail

By chance I ran into the trail maintainer, a very nice guy from Chattanooga who is also a 2000-miler on the A.T.  He said the burn had started out as a “controlled burn,” but had gotten a little bit out of control in some spots.  But life was coming back, including this peculiar lichen:

Interesting lichen

Even in the burned over area, there were quite a few wildflowers, especially pippsissewa.  The burn ends past a private house where the trail touches the park boundary.  I saw spiderwort and coreopsis, some lady slippers that had gone by, and some flame azalea near Joint Ridge:

Flame azalea

This trail was also good for mushrooms.


These made me think of a parent and child, though they probably actually sprouted at the same time.

The next day I met up with an old friend from Knoxville for a stroll on Lumber Ridge, a place that seemed noteworthy that day mainly for bugs and mugginess.  But it was good to catch up before I headed home.

What I always remind myself is that these places are waiting, these streams and these waterfalls are still flowing, at this very moment even though I am now far away.