“A popular, scenic hike that passes Grotto Falls, Mt. Le Conte, and Rainbow Falls.”
— Max Willner
Birding · Fall Colors · River/Creek · Spring · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife · Commonly Backpacked
Great Smoky Mountain National Park closes secondary roads on a seasonal schedule due to snow. Schedules can be found here
All campsites must be registered with the park. Backcountry rules and regulations can be found here
This beautiful route is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, as it has much to offer. Enjoy the mostly gentle ascent to the summit of Mt. Le Conte, where you'll have access to beautiful views. Along the way, you'll cross multiple scenic streams, and pass the unparalleled Grotto Falls
, adding to the rugged feel. The way back from Mt. Le Conte is highlighted by the scenic Rainbow Falls
Need to Know
Arrive at the trailhead early, as the trail leading to Grotto Falls
is often crowded during peak times. Trail traffic will thin dramatically after the falls, allowing you to enjoy the solitude.
The Trillium Gap Trail
is one of several trails that leads to Mt. Le Conte. This trail can be reached by the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, but it's important to note that this road (among several others) closes every year during the winter season.
While the entire trail is technically nine miles, most hikers choose to drive roughly two miles in and park at the Grotto Falls
parking area. The trailhead can be found just shortly in on the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. This is a wonderful hike that is lush with plant life and gradually offers amazing views on the way up to Mt. Le Conte.
About 3.5 miles into the route, visitors will pass Grotto Falls
. This dramatic waterfall offers a great view, a perfect place to have a picnic, or just a spot to catch your breath.
Climbing to Trillium Gap is fairly easy to pull off, and the journey is sprinkled with a couple of stream crossings (including the Roaring Fork). The going gets a bit more challenging once hikers begin their way up towards the Mt. LeConte Lodge. Be sure to notice the abundance of milky quartz on the way to the top - one of the hardest and most common varieties of crystalline quartz on the planet. The last section of this trail is perhaps the rockiest, so it's good to exercise caution on your way to the top.
Once you've reached the historic LeConte Lodge, you'll find a short side trail to the right leading up to Cliff Top. This vantage point, which overlooks the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the west, is well worth the short side trip.
After taking in the views at Cliff Top, head back down and take a right onto the Rainbow Falls Trail
and begin the long and steady descent. The trail here is narrower and steeper, heading through forests of balsam and spruce among other trees. Temperature changes can also be significant, and hikers will find themselves feeling colder especially during periods of rain.
In just over 4 miles of steady descending, hikers will come to Rainbow Falls
, the tallest single drop waterfall in the Smoky Mountains. The falls are best viewed after periods of rain. Cold temperatures also provide visitors with beautiful ice formations around the waterfall. It is important to note that visitors should avoid approaching the waterfall on the boulders as they may become slippery.
After taking in the sights and sounds of the waterfall, continue on your way, crossing two footbridges. The trail continues steadily downhill on to a fairly wide, packed down path with minimal rocks. The trail has switchbacks on the steeper parts of the mountain making it relatively easy to hike down. You are on the home stretch now as there is only 2.7 miles left to hike after you pass the falls. Continue straight at the intersection with the Trillium Gap Trail
to return to the parking area where you started.
Flora & Fauna
The Smokies are home to more than 1,600 species of plants, most of which produce an abundance of flowers in the spring. These species include mountain laurel, rhododendron, azalea, and many others. Spring wildflowers peak from early April through late May. To learn more about the plants of the Smokies and even get a trees and shrubs checklist, visit the park's website
As for local fauna, black bears are common in the area, along with white-tailed deer and 31 species of salamanders. Birdwatchers can spot a variety of species, notably the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). For more information on black bears, refer to this webpage