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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.

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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