Friends Annette Ranger and Clarence Mayo gather with me at the Rainbow Falls parking lot at 8:00 a.m. for our overnight trip to the Mt. LeConte shelter. This is a milestone moment for me – my first night sleeping in the woods, and Annette and Clarence are there to mentor and assist. I will come to depend on both far more than I could imagine.
Rainbow Falls Trail climbs nearly 4,000 feet over 6.7 miles. It follows LeConte Creek fairly closely during the first half and is quite rocky. The upper section swings out along the flanks of Rocky Spur then heads up steeply for the final half mile. Such a journey will get you sweating in any weather, but when air temperatures are reaching for the upper 80s, you get drenched. We take frequent breaks.
Rainbow Falls features an impressive 75-foot free fall of water. It sits back off the trail and requires quite a scramble up, over, and around small and large boulders to approach the falls. We are content to view it from the footbridge. Further up through the trees, we catch occasional glimpses of Gatlinburg far below.
Thunderstorms are in the forecast for the afternoon and a hard lunchtime rain storm at the summit delivers only a brief shower for us on the slope. However, it prompts us to don rain gear which gets us sweating even more.
At this time of year, the herbaceous layer in a forest is hitting its stride. Ferns are lush and lovely, summer and fall flowering plants are growing vigorously, and the remaining spring plants, though some are beginning to fade, still comprise a vital part of the flora. As we wind our way up LeConte, we pass flowers of Summer Bluets (Houstonia purpurea var. purpurea), Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), Mountain Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana), Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana), Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens), Galax (G. urceolata), Thyme-leaved Bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia), Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and Whorled Tickseed (Coreopsis major). The buds on Rugel’s Ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis) are ready to open. Skunk Goldenrod (Solidago glomeratus) doesn’t have flower stalks yet, but its characteristic “odor” is unmistakable.
On top of LeConte, higher elevation plants are just coming into their own. Sand Myrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium), Catawba and Carolina Rhododendrons (R. catawbiense and R. minus [R. carolinianum]), American Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Mountain Holly (Ilex montana), Bearberry (Vaccinium erythrocarpum), and Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis) are all in flower. We hear the descending spiral of hollow notes from Veerys as we near the top. It sounds as though they are singing into a tin can.