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Backpacker Magazine – August 2012

The Other Way In

Hike to life-list hot spots without waiting in life-list lines. These under-the-radar trails deliver everything but the crowds.

by: Brendan Leonard

Hermit Trail (photo by Laurence Parent)
Hermit Trail (photo by Laurence Parent)
Cottonwood Lakes Trail (Chris Werner)
Cottonwood Lakes Trail (Chris Werner)
Angels Landing Trail (Scott Mansfield)
Angels Landing Trail (Scott Mansfield)
John Muir Trail (Londie G. Padelsky)
John Muir Trail (Londie G. Padelsky)
West Face Gully (Timothy Piya Trepetch)
West Face Gully (Timothy Piya Trepetch)
Rainbow Falls Trail (Kurdistan/Shutterstock)
Rainbow Falls Trail (Kurdistan/Shutterstock)
Huntington Ravine (Paul Rezendes)
Huntington Ravine (Paul Rezendes)
Mt. Katahdin (Michael Kormos)
Mt. Katahdin (Michael Kormos)

Mt. Le Conte
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

X    Trade route Alum Cave Bluffs Trail
→   Sneak route Rainbow Falls Trail
Key stats 13.8 miles (one-way), 3,993 feet of elevation gain
Off-radar cred “Rocky tread and a remote trailhead drastically cut traffic,” says one backcountry office volunteer.

Ten thousand hikers head for the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. Le Conte annually. That’s the same as the number that attempt Mt. Rainier each year. The Le Conte crowd comes to soak in the iconic view of tree-studded ridges, which recede in waves for miles—and famously turn smoky blue under a gold-red horizon at sunset. That view is one of the main reasons reservations at the mountaintop LeConte Lodge fill by mid-February each year (the other is the included homestyle meals). Fortunately for solitude seekers, most trekkers take the Alum Cave Bluffs and Boulevard Trails. Your route: The Rainbow Falls Trail, which offers a sweet bonus, an afternoon rainbow produced by the 80-foot eponymous waterfall. 

Do it From the Rainbow Falls trailhead, climb the rocky trail through 100-foot-tall hemlock trees along mossy, boulder-strewn Le Conte Creek. You’ll cross the creek three times before arriving at 80-foot-high Rainbow Falls, the park’s highest, at mile 2.8. Traffic drops off at Rainbow Falls, so enjoy the solitude on the switchbacks that climb to 5,700-foot Rocky Spur, on Le Conte’s northwest ridge. Cross over into the dense old-growth forest on the ridge’s north side and, just before the intersection with the Bull Head Trail (at mile six), look west over your shoulder to see valley towns almost 5,000 feet below. Join the Bull Head Trail for the last (easy) half-mile to the summit—and the LeConte Lodge, if you’ve made reservations for the night (leconte-lodge.com). Staying? Watch the sunset from Cliff Top, a .2-mile hike west from the lodge. Camping is also available at the Appalachian Trail shelter nearby; reserve up to a month in advance (865-436-1231). Returning? Catch the show at Rainbow Falls on your way down.

Get there From Gatlinburg, take Cherokee Orchard Rd. 2.9 miles south to Loop Rd. Reach the trailhead in .5 mile.
Map Buy the BACKPACKER PRO MAP
Permit Required for overnights
Contact (865) 436-1200; nps.gov/grsm




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Back in Colo
Jan 28, 2014

I've done the Hermit trail 3 times. Twice to the river on a day hike. It's a long day, but you earn your burger at Beaver Street Brewery (in Flagstaff). I also enjoyed the Boucher trail. If camping permits are available, you can loop Boucher to Hermit. We did this with a stay at Boucher campground, looped over to Hermit rapids via the Tanto trail and then an extra night at Hermit campground.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jan 24, 2014

Beautiful scenery minus the crowds means less chance of other hikers finding you if you need help but it can still be a safe and enjoyable hike. Why? Because you read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hiked off-trail. A MUST READ for hikers who love to hike where others don't! Learn essential day-hiking skills, including items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Hike Smart and STAY ORIENTED. This book is a fast, easy read that will definitely make hiking off the beaten path safer and more enjoyable! Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart on Amazon.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jan 24, 2014

Beautiful scenery minus the crowds means less chance of other hikers finding you if you need help but it can still be a safe and enjoyable hike. Why? Because you read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hiked off-trail. A MUST READ for hikers who love to hike where others don't! Learn essential day-hiking skills, including items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Hike Smart and STAY ORIENTED. This book is a fast, easy read that will definitely make hiking off the beaten path safer and more enjoyable! Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart on Amazon.

Star Star Star Star Star
sierracanon
Jan 23, 2014

Did this Whitney from the south trip in a all on-trail version several years ago. Went over Cottonwood Pass, through Rock Creek, Crabtree Meadow, and out through Whitney Portal in three days. A good alternative for those who are not comfortable with extended cross-country travel.

imjackhandy
Aug 16, 2012

If you have to take the Rainbow Falls trail take it down and not up. Not a lot of views on this trail but the falls are spectacular. I recommend the Bullhead trail up and Rainbow Falls down. It'll put you out at the same parking lot.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/imjackhandy/sets/72157609867058824/

Nick
Aug 16, 2012

I just got back from a very similar trip where we came down from tenaya lake stayed need sunrise lakes then did clouds rest then staying at the john Muir trail connection. Only had to get up at 4am the make the 2.5 miles to half dome where we beat the sunrise by half an hour and had the entire summit to ourselves for the sunrise. The weather could not have been more perfect. This is the only way to see half dome.

David Dickey
Aug 16, 2012

I did the short hike 3 times last April. The crouds don't get up early so if you start early the hike is croud free. That seems like a easier way to beat the crouds than to spend $39 and 19 miles of hiking. The main point is that it is not that crouded and the last half mile (the chained part) is crouded the same no matter which way you do the hike.

Phil R.
Aug 16, 2012

Did approximately this hike before they started requiring permits to go up the cables. If you want shorter hiking days, consider taking three nights. One additional night at Upper Cathedral Lake is worth considering. Then the second night at mentioned in the article is OK. Consider a third night camped at at Little Yosemite Valley...it is a large backpackers campground, but we enjoyed it. When hiking out the last day you can choose the John Muir Trail or the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail has some wet steps, but you pass by two amazing water falls. You can also consider taking a hike to Clouds Rest. That would add another day.

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