Mt. LeConte summit hike is a must-do hike when you are in Smoky Mountains National Park. It may be the third highest peak in the national park, but the hike is challenging with spectacular views from the top (though clouds were the king during our time at the summit). Mt. LeConte is 6,593 ft. high and in winter it is mostly covered with snow or ice.
There are multiple trails leading up to the summit of Mt. LeConte with parking available at each of the trailhead:
- Alum Cave Trail (5.5 miles)
- Trillium Gap Trail (6.5 miles)
- Rainbow Falls Trail (6.5 miles)
- Bullhead Trail (7.2 miles)
- Boulevard Trail (8 miles)
I went with a friend from Connecticut during the Thanksgiving week of 2018. We took the Rainbow Falls trail as I wanted to see the Rainbow Falls along the way.
From the trailhead to the Rainbow falls it a a gradual slope with dense forest. There are trees all around with little views (peeks). But, since we were hiking in early winter, bare trunks provided much better views compared to the summer hike when leaves obstruct the views.
After hiking for about around 1.5 miles, there is a small waterfall. Don’t mistaken it for Rainbow Falls (You’ll know when you reach Rainbow Falls). Wildlife is also abundant in this region. We spotted a big wild turkey, on our way to the trailhead, crossing the road just 20 feet ahead of us. There were a variety of mushrooms and algae growing on dead tree trunks.
Even in winter, the trail until Rainbow Falls is very busy on weekends with hundreds of people visiting. Irrespective of the crowd, Rainbow Falls is a great stop for relaxing and quick snack and truly worth visiting in any season.
After resting for about thirty minutes, we continued upwards. Now the trail starts getting steeper and exposed with majestic views. It was a grueling 4 mile hike to the summit. Last one mile was very icy during this time of the year due to lower temperature at higher altitudes.
Micro spikes are recommended in early winter for sure footing. I had carried my crampons with me which were way more technical and of no use on the rocky surface with icy patches. Hence, I ended up hiking with my dependable ‘Lowa Mountaineering Boots’ only. But, the micro spikes helped a great deal to my friend who was hiking for the first time in these conditions.
Before the last 0.6 miles of steep hike to the LeConte huts, Rainbow Falls Trail and Bullhead Trail meet to become one.
As you reach the top, you will be awestruck by ghostly lodges of Mt. LeConte greeting you. Since, the lodges close down for the winter, it feels very eerie up there among the silence of the empty houses (specially on a cloudy day as seen below).
In summer and fall, there would be lot of hustle and bustle in these lodges and also a hot chocolate ready to welcome you after your grueling hike. But, in winter we were welcomed by an eerie silence. There was not a single soul up there. We were the only 2 people standing there hoping to see someone, anyone!
Finally!! we saw a living soul. Guess who?? – BLACK BEAR!! Yes we were greeted, not by a human, but by a big black bear. It was crossing the trail about 40 feet ahead of us. I was walking in front and suddenly stopped dead on seeing it. I whispered to my friend, “look, look…there…there is a black bear crossing the trail!!” We stood quiet for two minutes until it disappeared in the woods. Then we started talking loudly, letting him and his friends know we were here and continued walking towards the LeConte shelter.
For the first time, at that point, I had hoped to not be alone at the shelter for one whole night with black bears roaming around. As we reached the shelter, we were delighted to see three more humans. We exchanged greetings and told them about our bear encounter and they said, ten minutes ago that same bear had passed right across this shelter. Well, it was going to be an exciting night.
The weather was unforgiving up at the summit. There was a tropical storm with wind gusts of 70 mph accompanied by freezing rain. Temperature fell down to -4 degrees Celsius with real feel -15 degrees Celsius. It was not a comfortable night, but it definitely was a wonderful experience. We rested, ate our dinner and slept intermittently (waking up to howling wind).
When I woke up at 6am, it was still raining and freezing cold. My friend was still sleeping, exhausted from the hike. So I let him rest, had breakfast and decided to hike to the actual summit by the time he woke up. It was a short, 15 minute hike from the shelter.
The trail was super icy and plants were also covered with ice. It was very spooky to walk alone on the trail with the fear of crossing paths of another bear along with the howling of wind every five minutes.
Twenty minutes later (which felt like forever), I finally reached the actual summit of Mt. LeConte. It was marked with a stack of rocks which was hard to miss.
Unfortunately, there are no views neither from the shelter nor from the summit. But, if you are up for a small hike, there are 2 points near the summit which have outstanding views. One is Myrtle Point and another is Cliff Top. I would recommend you to visit both points for great panoramic views of Appalachian range for miles in all directions (on a non-cloudy day, obviously).
Since, I had hiked to the summit, so I thought of hiking to both these points, even though it was cloudy, just for the sake of visiting them. As expected, I did not get to see any panoramic views, but I can at-least say that I have been to Myrtle point and Cliff Top point!!
By the time I was back at the shelter, my friend was ready, waiting for me to hike back down. Initially, the trail was hard and slow due to ice, but eventually it became easier and fast. We were down at the car in 3.5 hours.
This is one hike which I would recommend every winter adventure enthusiast to do. If you like solitude, surprisingly strong storms and wildlife encounters then this hike is definitely a must for you in winter.
Quick Facts about Mt. LeConte via Rainbow Falls Trail
|Elevation Gain||4,002 ft.|
|Distance||13 miles RT|
|Season||Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter|
|Type||Out & Back|