After hiking up the Alum Cave Trail the day before, we spent the night in a rustic cabin at the top of Mt. LeConte. This entry recounts our hike down the other side of the mountain past Rainbow Falls.
Well, I read a short trail guide and over half of another book on Linda's Kindle as I tried to get to sleep. We could see flashes of lightning and hear the thunder all around, but there was very little rain.
In the middle of the night, I had to fumble to put on a layer of clothes before opening the creaky door and stepping outside with my headlamp to find the bathroom. With the fog, I could barely see a couple feet in front of me. If there were any bears, I could have been face-to-face with one pretty quickly.
With that out of the way, I managed to get back to sleep only to waken to the sound of gnawing from something larger than a mouse. It was about 3:30 a.m. That prompted Linda to do the blind bathroom trek.
After her safe return, we listened to the critter munch for about an hour. Fortunately, it wasn't inside the room, but it cost us some good sleeping time.
When the alarm went off at 6:00, we looked out the window. There was no way there was going to be a sunrise view, and I'm not so sure we would've hauled ourselves out of bed even if the odds were good. So we went back to sleep.
We woke up in plenty of time to get ready for breakfast. Here was the morning view of the Lodge/Dining Room.
It was cool, but not cold. Most everyone was fine with light jackets as they filed in for breakfast.
Shortly after we began our meal of pancakes, eggs, canadian bacon, and grits, a short but heavy rain came. A muddy waterfall was coming down the steps.
Fortunately, it was over as quickly as it began. We certainly didn't want to hike in the rain.
Breakfast wasn't as good as we expected from what others had told us, but, again, it was filling.
We decided that the accommodations and facilities were the best here at LeConte Lodge, but the food was better at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon, and the views were the best at Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park. All are quite expensive for what you get, but the experience makes these backcountry lodges worth the cost.
To get supplies to the Lodge, there are 40 - 50 helicopter trips before opening, and then a llama train comes up the Trillium Gap Trail three times a week. They were to arrive today, but we didn't want to wait until noon to see them.
After breakfast, we slowly got packed up and I filled the water bladders in our Camelbak backpacks. We retrieved our food from the storage in the office, and soon we were packed up and ready to go in our rain gear. We walked to the top of the steps, and Linda decided her rain gear was going to be too hot, so she made a quick change. We were fairly confident the rain had passed anyway.
Off again. It was exactly 9:30. We turned right at the top of the stairs and walked a tenth of a mile to the junction sign on Rainbow Falls Trail.
We could hike either the Rainbow Falls Trail all the way down, or we could branch off at the Bullhead Trail. Both end at the same parking lot on Cherokee Orchard Road. Both descend a whopping 3,800 feet - more downhill than any other hike we've done except for the Grand Canyon.
Bullhead is a half mile longer and less traveled which was appealing. But since we hadn't been to Rainbow Falls yet, we chose that route.
Plus, I think we were the only people at the Lodge that got a shuttle so we could do two different trails, and no one else was going down Rainbow Falls. We would pretty much have the first 3.8 miles down to ourselves. Once we reached the falls, there would be lots of people as the bottom section is very, very popular.
We started down the 6.5 miles with water trickling under our feet down the colorful rocks.
Much of the Alum Cave Trail seemed like we were walking through a rainforest, and this trail definitely had that feel.
At a little less than a half a mile, we came to a junction. The sign was hard to read, but the Bullhead Trail went straight and we needed to turn right to stay on the Rainbow Falls Trail.
Though we saw a few of these mossy-rock streams yesterday, there were a lot more of them on this trail.
About a half-mile to three quarters of a mile later, we came to the Rocky Spur side trail - a sign on the left pointing to the trail on the right.
We took the side trail where there were a couple of decent views, ....
but it was the beautiful sand myrtle that made the little loop more interesting.
The trail there is very narrow and it may be a little rough on the bare legs if hiking in shorts, but it was worth the side jaunt.
Looking down on the smaller "mountains" before we exited the Rocky Spur loop.
Back on the main trail we watched the fog wafting up through the trees as it started to lift.
Much of the rest of the trail down to the falls looked like this.
A little farther along, Linda discovered these snails in the middle of the trail.
We're certainly not snail experts, but they appeared to be mating.
About that time, a solo hiker was coming up the trail. Linda told him about the snails, and though he wasn't quite as interested as we were, he did want to avoid stepping on them.
We continued on down the trail, noting the wide variety of plants ....
We only saw one Rhododendron in bloom (only the ones that get quite a bit of sun), but we certainly passed by and under several getting ready to bloom.
Not far past that section we came upon the remnants of the 10-acre wildfire that closed the trail earlier in the month.
The park service determined that there wasn't much fuel for the fire and the impending rains would keep it from spreading so they let it burn itself out.
It affected less than a quarter mile of the trail.
We passed a few others making their way up toward Mt. LeConte. With the 3,800 feet of elevation gain, it's no small task making a day hike to the top on this trail.
The Rainbow Falls Trail is pretty rocky and, although it isn't steep, our pace coming down was slower just to be sure we didn't roll an ankle or tweak a knee. There are no uphill or flat sections to speak of on this trail - it's all downhill all the time. Luckily, Linda's trick knee behaved and she finished the hike without any issues - whew.
Moving on down toward Rainbow Falls, there was more pretty scenery.
Eventually, after 3.8 miles, we came to the log bridge at Rainbow Falls.
Of all the log bridges we crossed in the two days, this one was by far in the worst condition and it probably sees the most use.
The two couples that were at the falls when we arrived left, and we had it to ourselves ... for about ten minutes.
It's a lovely area, but it's not a particularly impressive watefall.
It's the tallest single-drop waterfall in the park at about 80 feet, but I'm glad we didn't make the 5.4-mile roundtrip hike from the bottom to see it.
We took a half an hour break, ate some snacks, and got rejuvenated for the final two and a half miles of descent. I took one last shot of the bridge and falls before we headed down.
There were some pretty cascades ....
and smaller waterfalls on the way.
Another bridge, ....
and another natural water feature.
Many of the hikers on their way to the falls were struggling. I'm not sure they realized the 2.7-mile trail to the falls was all uphill with 1,700 feet of elevation gain. It's listed as a "moderate" trail, but it's a challenge for those that don't hike much. We tried to answer the "How far?" question as best we could, but several didn't like our answer when we said "You've still got an hour to go".
Though we could always hear water on the lower part of the trail, the path veered into the woods for a little while.
We saw quite a few people, but they were spread out enough to keep the walk pleasant and enjoyable.
Around 2:00, we were ready to be finished ourselves. We started asking folks "How far?".
I estimated we would be done by 2:30, and that was the time when we finally saw the parking lot and our Jeep where we had left it the day before. We made it!
It was a great couple of days of hiking, and we thoroughly enjoyed doing something that not a lot of people get to do. We hope you enjoyed the trip as well.