Trillium Gap Trail to Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This 13.4 mile hike takes you past Grotto Falls and up to LeConte Lodge.
When we were first thinking about going to the Smokies, we learned that the only lodging in the park was a rustic place atop Mount LeConte. After doing some research, I found out it was very difficult to get a reservation. LeConte Lodge does reservations by a lottery system. Rooms are typically available March-November, but weather occasionally dictates a shorter season. When entering the lottery, you can submit three dates you would like to stay. Then they do a drawing to determine if you have spot. The lottery drawing happened in October (the year before our proposed stay). We were really disappointed when we didn’t get a spot for any of the three dates we requested. I kept calling daily to see if a spot had opened up. I finally asked when the deposits to hold the reservation were due. Once I got that information, I called the very next day and a spot had luckily opened up on one of the original dates we had selected. We were thrilled and got started planning the rest of our Smokies trip around our stay at LeConte.
We chose to the hike up the Trillium Gap Trail for a couple of reasons. First, it’s path that the llamas use to bring up supplies and food to LeConte Lodge. Due to the remoteness of the lodge, a team of eight pack llamas is led up the mountain three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). They bring up supplies and clean linens and carry out used linens and other refuse. The second reason we chose Trillium Gap was the more gradual elevation gain. Mount LeConte has several different routes to hike up with the others being the Bull Head Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Alum Cave Trail, and The Boulevard Trail. Most people seem to choose Alum Cave – it’s the shortest route (5.5 miles) and has a bit less elevation gain (2700 ft).
We started on the trail around 8:00 a.m. We noticed the llama trailer was sitting empty in the parking lot, so we didn’t get to see them packed for the hike up. Later, when we talked with the handler, he told us he normally starts around 6:00 a.m. or sunrise – whichever comes first. We headed up the trail to try and make the lodge by lunchtime. The trail begins through thick hemlock forest. The hike continues up (and is uphill just about the entire way to the top) and at 1.3 miles, you will reach Grotto Falls. Grotto Falls is a gorgeous waterfall and the interesting thing is that you get to walk behind it as you continue along the trail. We stopped for some photos of the waterfall, but due to the early start we had it completely to ourselves. We continued past the waterfall and continued the climb. The trail becomes rockier and more narrow at this point on. The trail continues to round the mountainside. At 3.1 miles, you reach the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. Hang a right to stay on the Trillium Gap Trail. The trail seems to be relatively level for about .25 miles, but then begins some switchbacks that lead you up the mountain. The trail continues to climb for the rest of the hike. You will eventually come to some areas with steps through a tunnel of fir trees. At this point, you are nearing the end of your journey and will pass a horse hitch. You will finally reach the lodge at 6.7 miles.
We came up behind the dining room and saw the llamas getting a few last minutes of relaxation before their hike back down. We talked to the handler and watched as they loaded up the llamas, who didn’t seem happy to be standing in the drizzling rain. We went into the dining room and sat down for lunch. Lunch is served at the lodge from 12-2 and needs to be reserved two days in advance. We then made our way to the lodge office/gift shop to get checked in.
The rest of the afternoon, we hung out in the lodge office and played cards and watched as other guests arrived. I picked up a guitar and played a bit while Christine went to get some more photos of the lodge. We took a short nap, tired from our uphill climb, and met some of the people that would share our cabin with us for the evening. The dinner bell rang at 6:00 p.m. Dinner is served family style and there was plenty of food to go around. Christine had opted for the bottomless wine glass to accompany dinner and we stuffed ourselves on delicious food. After a few hours, the rain was stopping and the clouds were breaking enough to give us a little sunshine. We decided to hike up .25 miles to Cliff Tops to try and catch a view of sunset. The view was still completely in fog. We headed back to the lodge for a while and continued to play cards before we made our way back to the cabin to read by and headlamp. After a little while, we snuffed the lamp and went to sleep in the highest elevation cabin east of the Mississippi River.
The next morning, we noticed that the clouds had moved out, so we made our way back up to Cliff Tops to finally get some great views from the top of the mountain. We were very impressed by the scenery around us. We made our way back down the mountain after quickly packing up. When we reached Grotto Falls, there were lots of families there. We made our way back to the car and then headed off to Gatlinburg, TN for the remainder of our stay.
While visiting, you can learn a lot about the history of the lodge. It started off as a large tent camp in 1925. Jack Huff started building the cabins in 1926. There are some amusing pictures in the lodge office of some of those early days of building, including a picture of Jack Huff carrying his mother on his back up the mountain with a chair strapped onto his back. Jack Huff was married up there in 1934. It is said the wedding party started their hike up the mountain at 10:00 the previous night. There are also several records that are kept of hiking up the mountain.
- Most round-trip hikes in one day: 4 by Bill Sharp
- Hiked up each trail in one day – Lee Lewis and Mike Povia
- Most recreational hikes up the mountain – 1301 by Ed Wright (check out his hiking log)
- Quickest ascent – 45 minutes (whoa!)
- Quickest descent – 33 minutes by Tim Line (once lodge manager)
- Oldest hiker to ascend – Rufus Morgan on his 93rd birthday
There are two geocaches on this trail. Since they are within the boundary of a national park, they are both virtual caches.
Our hike up to Mt. LeConte is one that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We definitely plan to make the trip up again in the future, but we’ll probably try a different route to be able to have a different experience. Try to book a room at the lodge and you won’t regret it.
The hike up LeConte is something we started planning last October. With some good luck, our date with the mountain was set – Wednesday, May 23, 2012.
As the day approached, we anxiously watched the weather. What had started out as a forecast for pleasant sunny weather slowly changed to a 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms; then a 50/50 chance of morning rain showers. The morning of the hike dawned with nearly 100% chance of rain and storms. I checked the High on LeConte blog to see if there were any differing reports from the mountain-top (there weren’t). We were none too pleased, but when you have a special date with LeConte – you hike regardless of the weather – rain, wind or snow! The only thing that would have kept us off the mountain would have been dangerous weather like tornadoes or flooding rain.
We decided our best bet to beat the weather was to start off early. We got up at 5:15 a.m. to make the hour-long drive from Bryson City over to Gatlinburg and the Roaring Forks Nature Loop area. The drive took about a half hour longer due to road construction near Newfound Gap.
We finally got to the trailhead around 8:00 a.m. We had several trails to choose from when selecting a route up LeConte. In the end, we decided on the Trillium Gap Trail. Adam had initially suggested Boulevard (less drive-time from Bryson City), but I really wanted to see the llamas. Additionally, the Trillium Trail includes lovely Grotto Falls – a waterfall that you get to walk behind! It didn’t hurt that the trail also had a more gradual elevation change than other routes up to the summit. Personally, I’d rather hike a longer distance with a more gradual climb than steeper over a shorter path.
We started hiking around 8:15 and quickly covered the short distance to Grotto Falls. We had the falls all to ourselves, so we enjoyed taking a few photos and climbing around on the rocks around the falls. For this Smokies trip, I invested in a Joby Gorillapod. I’ve been super-impressed with its stability and weightlessness. It’s great to have a functional tripod that doesn’t even weigh a pound!
After the falls, the climbing becomes a bit steeper, but the trail is still relatively smooth and well graded. On the climb up, we saw tons of llama footprints (and llama droppings… which look strikingly like Raisinettes or Goobers.) So far, we’d been relatively lucky with weather. It was thin overcast and looked like the sun might actually burn through. But within the next mile, we stepped into the clouds. The way up wouldn’t be clear for the remainder of the hike. Nevertheless, the forest looked beautiful in the mist. Everything looks greener and more lush under cloudy skies. We crossed a number of small streams and waterfalls by traversing rock hops. We saw tons of blooming Catawba rhododendron. There were snails everywhere along the way. The damp, mossy environment must be perfect for them.
After almost three miles of climbing, we reached the junction with the Brushy Mountain trail. To reach LeConte, we stayed on Trillium Gap. At the junction, a sign indicated that we had 3.6 miles to reach the summit.
The trail became trickier and steeper for the rest of the hike around this point. There was poison ivy to dodge. There were thick swamps of mud to traverse. There were slick rocks and roots to negotiate. With every step, I could feel mud splashing up the backs of my legs, making me wish I’d remembered to pack my gaiters. Even though the trail was slippery and sloppy, I was still having the time of my life. It was such a gorgeous trail. And honestly, the fog and mist made it even more lovely. The green, mysterious forest around us made up for what we lost in missing the views from the trail.
Around 5,500 feet, we caught up with a hiker that had left the parking lot just about 10-15 minutes ahead of us. I had noticed him when we were packing up our bags. We stopped to chat with him. It turned out that he has hiked almost every single mile of trail in the Smokies. Of the nearly 900 trail miles, he only has about 35 miles to go. He had been up LeConte numerous times and we really enjoyed chatting with him about the different routes and about hiking GSMNP in general.
We hiked close to one another the rest of the way up the mountain. Occasionally he would give us altitude updates. At around 5,900 feet, the rain finally started in earnest. After fog and occasional light drizzle, this was the first real rain of the hike. We only had about half a mile left to go, so we were pretty pleased with how well the weather held up. Hiking a half mile in rain is nothing.
The rooftops of LeConte lodge soon came into view. The Trillium Gap Trail comes up right behind the dining room. We were met by the eight llamas, who were all tied up to a hitching line right outside the lodge. They were adorable and I’m so glad we got to see them! They had just finished a snack of leftover pancakes and were resting up for the hike back down the mountain.
It turned out that we were the first of the overnight guests to arrive for the night. A couple folks who had come up for a two-night stay were already there, too. It took us about 3.5 hours to hike up, including generous stops for photography, water and snacks. It’s amazing how fast you can hike when you know bad weather is right on your heels!
After spending a bit more time with the llamas, we said hello to the cook, Chrissy. We had made reservations for lunch at the lodge because we knew we’d probably be arriving sometime between 11:30 and 2:00 and would want something hearty to eat. Lunch was a steaming bowl of vegetable-noodle soup, a huge chicken-salad sandwich on the sweetest, softest wheat bread I’ve ever eaten, and an enormous no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookie. The dining room also provides unlimited hot tea, coffee, cocoa and lemonade. Since I was cold and wet, I drank two mugs of cocoa with lunch. The literature about hiking LeConte tells you to wear wool layers, gloves and a hat – even in the summer. I was comfortable hiking up in shorts, a wicking tank top and a light jacket. I brought rain gear, but never used it. And honestly, I was not the least bit cold until I stopped hiking after arriving at the lodge.
After lunch, we headed up to the office/main lodge to check in. Staff member Bonnie led us to our room in the bunkhouse right next to the main lodge. We scored a prime location – right in the middle of a triangle of buildings made up of the bathrooms, the dining room and the main lodge. She went over how the heaters and kerosene lanterns worked, provided a pail to use for sponge baths and gave us some general need-to-know information. For example, when visiting LeConte, you have to store all of your personal food items/snacks in a metal can in the main lodge. This keeps mice (and bears!) away from the bunks.
Adam decided to go back over to the main lodge to poke around and I decided to change into dry clothes and take a nap. I was really glad I had packed long pants and a fleece to wear at night. Top of the mountain temperatures at night ranged around 45-50 degrees, so it was nice to be cozy and dry. Our room had a set of queen-sized bunk beds, a chair and a small table. A kerosene lamp was provided for light, but even when it was lit, we still needed headlamps to see well. Our bunkhouse was made up of three private rooms surround a common area. LeConte has a couple bunkhouses like this in addition to the smaller cabins that house just a single party of hikers.
Adam eventually came back and we napped on the bottom bunk in our room, with me splayed across the bed sideways so my feet could be close to the heater. I listened to rain hitting the roof of the bunkhouse – quite a serious downpour! As the afternoon progressed, other hikers began arriving at the lodge. A group of four women from Wisconsin were assigned to one of the other rooms in our bunkhouse. The third group in our bunkhouse didn’t arrive until much later – one of them, a woman who had suffered a 35’ fall on the trail earlier that day. She was scraped up and dirty, but unhurt. She was lucky to escape serious injury. Everyone who came in later was soaking wet!
After resting a while, Adam and I headed back over to the main lodge. We bought LeConte souvenirs, which you can’t buy anywhere else in the park. I also wrote a postcard to my parents, which was stamped ‘lugged by llamas’ and will be sent by post from LeConte. The main lodge is comfortable and rustic – with a stove, a worn leather couch, tons of rocking chairs, historic memorabilia on the walls, a couple guitars and a generous collection of games and books. Adam and I settled into a game of gin rummy followed by a (new to us) game called ‘Clever Endeavor’. It was fun! We read through several books about the Smokies and learned more about George Huff who originally built the lodge.
At 6:00, the dinner bell rang. We were ushered into the dining room and seated at assigned tables. Our tablemates were lovely people and we spent most of the evening chatting with a mother and her two adult daughters who had hiked up the Alum Cave trail. Dinner was fantastic – hot soup, pot roast with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, spiced apples, cornbread and chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert. I opted to take advantage of the ‘bottomless wine glass’, too! They weren’t kidding about the bottomless part. As soon as my glass was half empty, one of the crew members would sweep by with a refill. I forced myself to stop at two glasses because I wanted to make sure I didn’t feel the least bit hung-over for the hike down.
At dinner, staff member Nathan made announcements about where we could see sunset and sunrise and thanked everyone for hiking up. After dinner, Adam and I walked the .25 miles up to Cliff Tops to see if there was any chance of clearing below for sunset. The view was nothing but a wall of fog, so we hiked back down again and headed back to the main lodge to play more games – Phase 10 and another round of rummy. As soon as we got settled in, it started to rain again. Fortunately, after this band of showers, the sky started clearing up. We could see the faint outlines of mountains through the mist.
As sunset approached, we put the games away and found a place on the back porch of the dining area to see if a colorful sunset would turn up after all. We were treated to shades of red, purple and blue across the sky. The fir trees looked especially pretty as silhouettes.
When dark fell, Adam and I went back to our room and settled in for the evening. Hikers seem to prefer going to bed early! I think a lot of people jokingly call 9 o’clock ‘hiker midnight’.
I woke up to make a bathroom run around 2:00 a.m. I put on my headlamp and horrid green Crocs and made my way over to the restrooms. As I walked, I noticed the sky was clear as a bell and I could see all the city lights of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge (not sure which) twinkling below in the valley. I was so distracted by the nice view, that I stepped in a deep puddle and soaked my socks. Oops!
The next time I woke up was around 5:30 when I heard voices outside the bunkhouse. One group of people decided to hike the .75 miles up to Myrtle Point to watch for sunrise. I decided to stay in my cozy bunk and wait for breakfast.
Around 6:30, I got up for good and enjoyed sunrise right from the lodge. I may not have seen the actual sun peek over the horizon, but I enjoyed the soft, pastel-colored sky and the cloak of low fog in the valley below. At 7:00, I walked back over to the main lodge and had a couple cups of coffee. Before the breakfast bell rang, we decided to make a quick hike back up to Cliff Tops to see if there was a view. And boy, was there! The air was clear and crisp, and we enjoyed seeing majestic mountains rolled our before us. Cliff Tops was such a different place under sunshine than it had been in fog the evening before. I’m so glad we took the time to walk back up!
Breakfast was served right at 8:00 – pancakes, Canadian bacon, biscuits, eggs, apple butter, grits and Tang. I had some more coffee; figuring four cups would give me lots of energy for the hike back down.
With full stomachs, we bid farewell to our tablemates, and headed back to our bunkhouse to pack for our hike down. We were back on the trail by 8:40. We made great time back down the mountain, not surprising since it was all downhill this time!
By the time we passed Grotto Falls, it was crawling with people who had made the brief 1.2 mile walk up to see the waterfall. Places like that always seem strikingly different when they’re busy with tourists.
We were back at the car shortly after 11:00 and eating lunch in Gatlinburg a half hour later. Gatlinburg felt so busy and overwhelming after experiencing the peacefulness of LeConte. If you ever have the opportunity to stay at the lodge, I can’t recommend it enough! It was such a memorable part of our first visit to the Smokies.
- Distance – 13.4 miles to hike up to LeConte Lodge and back.
- Elevation Change – about 3400 feet
- Difficulty – 4. Due to the elevation gain and the constant ascent, this is tough and you will need to take your time.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail becomes rockier past Grotto Falls. With recent rain, rocks can be slippery.
- Views– 4. Even though we didn’t see a lot the first day, we can tell there are great views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4. Grotto Falls on the hike is the highlight in this area. It isn’t often that you get to hike behind a waterfall.
- Wildlife – 3. Someone who hiked up after us said they spotted a bear on the trail just ahead of them. We also saw deer near the junction with Brushy Mountain. There were plenty of juncos nesting near the trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. There is really only one turn at the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. The trail is well-defined.
- Solitude – 2.5. Expect to see lots of people at Grotto Falls and close to 50 on most days at the top of the lodge.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, TN turn at traffic light #8 and stay straight on Historic Nature Trail-Airport Road to head into the National Park. Continue on Cherokee Orchard Road and turn onto the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Follow this for 1.7 miles, until you reach the large parking area for Grotto Falls. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot.