Trillium Gap Trail – 8.7 miles, from Rainbow Falls Parking Area to the summit of Mt. Le Conte
Highlights: Grotto Falls, views, wildflowers
Trailhead: Take Airport Road traffic light #8 in Gatlinburg 441. Drive to the park boundary, past the Twin Creeks Resource Center Road and Ogle home site, and into Cherokee Orchard. At 3.4 miles just after the road becomes one-way, turn right into the Rainbow Falls Parking Area, park on the left and look for a trail sign on the right near the entrance to the parking area.
Just a few yards into the woods of the Rainbow Falls Trail, Trillium Gap goes left and Rainbow Falls Trail continues straight. From here 3.5 miles to Grotto Falls and 5.2 mile to Trillium Gap. The trail runs parallel to Cherokee Orchard Road through a tangled Forest of grapevines, greenbrier, locust maples, and tulip trees. As the trail turns away from the road, a large building site appears on the left.
This trail rises and then crosses in a tiny creek. The one-way Roaring Fork Motor Trail is just below and you will see it from time to time for the next 2 miles. Several spur trails lead to the road.
The trial drops across a pretty creek and swings around a dry hillside with galax, trailing arbutus, and pine trees. It then crosses a moist slope with silverbells, yellow buckeyes, and flowering dogwoods.
After the next two crossings you move into an old-growth forest with large trees. The trail steadily rises, following a typical Smokies hiking pattern, in toward a creek, cross, out around a ridge, and in again. All of the crossings are easy, but some might be muddy because of horse or llama traffic. From the trail high above a creek valley, you can look down into the treetops of Eastern Hemlocks, basswoods and Fraser Magnolias. After a little more than 1.0 mile from the Trailhead, the trail rounds one more ridge and you can hear a louder, more insistent creek. This is Roaring Fork, which roars and tumbles from near the top of Mt. Le Conte down to Gatlinburg, where it joins West Prong of the Little Pigeon. As you approach Grotto Falls, look down to the left and watch the white water. A straight downhill section of trail takes you to Grotto Falls, with a little sign in case there’s any doubt.
Trillium Gap Trail after the falls is narrower and rockier, but still a good trail, climbing through mature forest. About 1 mile beyond the falls, a boulder field starts great fractured rocks with polypody ferns and fabulous mosses. Trees and shrubs growing on these rocks have developed wild designs as their roots searched for soil.
A creek running through part of the boulder field is easy to cross but could be slippery. After the creek the trail continues to rise and passes a wonderful rock face on the right decorated with white, yellow, and green lichens. Soon you might see a few red spruce cones on the trail. Ahead you see Trillium Gap sign and trail junction.
To the left is a short climb to Brushy Mountain, a heath bald with great views. Straight ahead, Brushy Mountain Trail leads down to Porters Flat and Greenbrier Cove. Trillium Gap turns right and starts the 3.6-mile climb to Le Conte.
As you start up this last section of Trillium Gap Trail, note that mosses gradually replace the grasses on the trail edge. Look for a boulder on the right about 0.5 mile from the gap with a crop of polypody fern on top. This fern looks a little like Christmas fern with shorter fronds, and it almost never grows on the ground.
After a swing west, the trail runs south to run along the 5,200 contour line and the switchback to make a steep climb. The trail is rock, and during rain, water stands in the trail. In some spots the trail slopes down the steep hillside, and you have to be careful about footing. In the next mile you gain 600′ to another switchback. By this point the Eastern Hemlocks are all below you and the dominant evergreen is red spruce.
Finally after a particularly rocky trial sections, the lower buildings of LeConte will loom, probably out of the fog, before you. With just another 50-yard climb, you reach the lodge and junction with the other Le Conte trails.