Journal describing my 50 mile hike fest up, down, and all around Mt. LeConte in one day coming soon!
Ever wonder what The Jumpoff looks like at night? Here ya go!
Arriving at Myrtle Point around 7:30 to catch the sunrise.
The grassy Helipad located near the Lodge.
Catching some early morning light from Cliff Tops, though famous for its sunsets.
One of three trips to the Horse Gate along Alum Cave Trail, the midway point of each lap between there and the Alum - Rainbow junction.
Stack of boards near location of former Horse Barn just up from Trillium Gap Trail.
View from Brushy Mountain towards Pigeon Forge at trail's terminus.
Arrival in Greenbrier at 11:30, excited about how little time it took getting down.
Looking down on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, just reopened that morning, from the Trillium Gap Trail.
A late afternoon pass by a decently flowing Rainbow Falls.
View of Mount LeConte from the Rocky Spur after sunset.
Crossing the finish line in 16 hours and 48 minutes...what a day!
The month of May can be most memorable on the mountain when the mountain myrtle blooms. (How's that for alliteration, all you teachers out there?) Visiting places like Cliff Tops, Myrtle Point for which it is appropriately named, and the connecting trails like Rainbow Falls' Rocky Spur or Alum Cave's Inspiration Point at this time of year makes for quite a scene. Sure, there are great patches of the myrtle in bloom trailside, but you've got to be willing to climb a few rocks and get scratches from tree branches if you want to see the best displays.
On LeConte, there are so many areas to explore in one's free time, and since the sand myrtle prefers to grow on cliff sides and rocky mountain faces, it made sense to wander around those famous points right in my backyard. Bushwacking up the ridge of Cliff Tops may seem daunting, but is a relatively easy climb once you figure it out, and the rewards are commendable. The views from the handful of vistas along the way and the dense patches of myrtle that cling to the cliffs continue to get better as you make your way up. Another great bushwack is to take a path that leads down the face of Cliff Tops, taking one about a third of the way down to the Alum Cave Trail just below. When the cliff itself angles inward to the mountain, you know that means it's time to stop going down, or else bad news bears. There you get views of Cliff Tops from the middle, with rocks, sand myrtle, and rhododendron growing all around you, a change from the typical view one gets up top.
Obviously, Myrtle Point is the place to be. Not many of the bushes around the immediate vicinity of the point are in bloom, mostly do to the erosion of the soil that the bushes like, but a good number produce decent blooms. There are a number of ridges that extend down from the point and run down to meet The Boulevard on opposite sides of the mountain. If you're willing to push your way through the brush on those, you won't be disappointed. Taking the ridge that turns to the north has the best display of sand myrtle you'll see anywhere. The bushes are large and abundant with blooms forming a dense blanket of white, red, and pink. Add to the mix the fact that your on a narrow ridge with great panoramic views of the valley below and the slopes of LeConte. I also discovered this week that the same ridge makes for a great place to watch the sunset, another break from the traditional Cliff Tops.
On Monday, I woke up with a ton of energy and ambitious plans for a hike. I had the afternoon to myself and wanted to venture far. Even though the weather was a little sketchy at times, I wouldn't let it bother me, for I just wanted to be out and about. I had been to The Jumpoff before, but wanted to go further this time. Charlies Bunion would add more miles, but I was just there a week ago. Then I thought, aim farther east of the bunion, an area I've only ever seen in the clouds and rain. It was ambitious, but it was just the drive I was looking for that day. All the way across The Boulevard, I was moving in and out of clouds, sunshine, and mists. I was up and over Mount Kephart before I knew it and made it to the bunion in just over an hour and a half. Before I even left for the day's hike, I determined that wherever I was after two hours of hiking, I would stop and turn around to make it back to the lodge in time. So at this point, I pushed eastward along the AT. When I got to the clearing just before Dry Sluice Gap, I had a clear view of the valley to the south that is the Kephart Prong watershed. Past the gap I began to make my way up and over the start of The Sawteeth. Appropriately named because the ridges at this point are jagged like a saw blade and extremely narrow in places, like two or three yards wide with drop offs. The trail was often lined with thick patches of yellow bead lily in full bloom. The views are outstanding on a clear day...something I had never experienced here....until now!!! One can look back along the Smokies main crest and see the steep, scarred slopes of Charlies Bunion and another point which almost looks like a miniature Half-Dome. I remembered seeing the side trail that led the point's summit, so at an hour and fifty minutes in, I decided to turn back early and make my way up to the unheralded vista. As I ascended the rocky trail, it started to sprinkle, but luckily the clouds remained high enough for me to take in the views. The panorama is nearly identical to that of Charlies Bunion...rocky ledges with vertical dropoffs, overlooking the valley into Porters Creek and the spine of the Smokies to the east. A few differences are that you are higher up and instead of sand myrtle there was Catawba Rhododendron in bloom. Another sign that summer is just around the corner. This time I couldn't afford to linger, but I look forward to returning to this great lookout in the near future.
It pays to do your research. Think The Boulevard is the easiest way to and from LeConte? Oh, but it was the least elevation gain! Yeah, sure, add snow into the mix and it instantly becomes the worst way. Exhibit A - section of trail that navigates around Myrtle Point. It was a clear day, making for great views over the valley and into North Carolina. But the trail conditions here were a bit unnerving. The majority of the way was like walking a tight rope, but unlike what I had experienced on Bull Head, these stretches were on cliff edges with little or no vegetation to hold on to. Whatever cables existed were completely buried and little foot traffic meant a narrow pathway around hazardous ledges. It would take several minutes just to move a couple feet because it was important to establish a good foothold and secure pole placement. It was nice to finally reach the south side of the mountain where the snow had melted away. Normally, that big landslide is the scary part. This time, it was a welcome relief! I chose to go as far out as Anakeesta Knob and back. The snow along the spine that connected the knob to LeConte was void of snow but had several blowdowns yet to be cleared. I ran into a family of four that had spent the previous night at the Lodge. I couldn't believe that they made it around the mountain unscathed, but was glad to see they had. They were in the clear while I had to make my way back through that mess. I made it back without a fuss, and even managed to sun myself at Myrtle Point for a bit.
The morning gave way to clear skies and an impressive sunrise tattered with oranges and pinks. The clouds were nestled below the park's highest peaks and stretched as far as the eye could see. Again, unable to go through with the airlift, the afternoon was open for an adventure. All day the sky was a deep, rich blue and I thought it would make for a great background with the white that blanketed the mountains and cotton candy clouds. It was time to visit Myrtle Point, which required breaking trail beyond High Top. I got my workout for the afternoon, and boy was it worth it. I came to find out that the clouds extended north to the horizon but were cut off at the Smokies main ridge. The North Carolina side was crystal clear with unlimited visibility. I was hesitant to walk around the point because I enjoyed the look of a smooth, snowy surface untouched by boot holes.
Immediately I was amazed at the vast number of turkey vultures that rode the winds rising up from the valley. There must have been a hundred that would shoot up the slopes of Myrtle Point, glide across the crest of LeConte, and rocket back down near Cliff Tops, continually repeating the cycle. The clouds, the snowy peaks, and the deep blue atmosphere made for an incredible panorama. As much as I wanted not to leave, I figured I would check out Cliff Tops on my way back to the Lodge. Along the way I witnessed a red-tailed hawk soar above me before I lost it in the trees. The cliffs were still blanketed in white, and the ridge went from West Point to Balsam Point before disappearing underneath the clouds. The weather conditions remained the same throughout the day, resulting in a fantastic sunset. The sights from this day certainly rank with some of my more memorable moments in this park.