Within a few yards, Trillium Gap Trail hangs a very unexpected left. It turns back toward the lodge at a small hydrant-looking pipe and becomes a narrow footpath through grasses. Convinced that this is just a back way to the cabins, I lead Mary and Clarence to the right down an even less inviting path that is in truth a drainage ditch. We tumble out onto the real trail at the spring. Mary and Clarence keep going, but I want to know where on earth we went wrong and follow the trail back up. It leads past a cabin and turns right into the lodge grounds. Thoroughly confused now, I see a lodge staffer cleaning stove grates and question him about the trail. Perhaps he doesn’t understand me or maybe I don’t understand him, but either way the conversation is decidedly unhelpful. I walk back to the rear of the cabins and start up once more. This time I notice a nearly imperceptible crease through an open grassy patch to the left which leads me to the pipe. Make a note, when hiking down Trillium Gap, take that surprise left at the pipe and follow the little path as it gradually curves down to the right.
Satisfied that I have covered the trail, I can begin the hike in earnest. The upper part of Trillium Gap is beautiful with a truly primeval quality about it. Ghostly gray lichens cling to gnarled branches of Red Spruce and Fraser Fir, imparting a dark and ancient atmosphere to the forest. Thick mounds of mosses are everywhere. If sprites and dryads do exist, they would be found here.
This upper section can be rocky and wet, and the trail has been extensively terraced into gravel-filled steps in several places, perhaps to make it easier for the llama train that serves the lodge. It makes it easier for hikers too. The trail descends LeConte’s north side along the flank of a ridge extending northeastward. Within this shady aspect, large icicles hang from rock faces to the right of the trail. In places we are warmed by the sun until the trail turns into a sheltered cove where the temperature drops noticeably several degrees. There is a colorful patch of Sphagnum Moss, and the fluffy round seed clusters of Rugel’s Ragwort resemble multi-headed dandelions.
We had originally planned our LeConte overnight for Saturday and Sunday. The shelter was full when I called for reservations, and I shifted it by a day, not realizing we’d be hiking Trillium Gap on llama day. What a pleasant and wonderful surprise to see several homely (in a cute way), long-necked, big-eared camel cousins plodding up the trail behind their handler. They seem to enjoy looking at me too. The camera doesn’t intimidate them, and they practically give me a wink as they pass. They also leave us marvelous little piles of llama pooh to sidestep.
Trillium Gap Trail is 8.9 miles long. These upper four miles are a bit steep and drop 2,000 feet in elevation to (wait for it…) Trillium Gap, where the trail coasts into a bright beech gap. This low pass was also known variously as Grassy Gap and Brushy Gap. Brushy Mountain Trail intersects in this location, too, on its way to the top of (wait for it…) Brushy Mountain. It was park service director Horace Albright (Albright Grove is named for him) who suggested Trillium Gap upon noting the abundance of these spring-flowering plants. In April of 2010 I hiked Brushy Mountain, but I don’t recall seeing impressive swathes of Trillium species. My notes only refer to some Trillium erectum plants in bud at a moist area just shy of the beech gap. However, I was one whipped little puppy when I stumbled up to Trillium Gap that day, so I’d like to check again before I discount Mr. Albright’s assessment.
This lovely beech gap is a great place for lunch with well-placed logs for sitting and soaking in the autumn sunshine, which we do. We have over five miles to go and can’t relax long. Trillium Gap Trail hangs another left (this one well marked and obvious) at the Brushy Mountain junction and winds down 1.75 miles through a boulder field to one of the park’s best loved features, Grotto Falls.
According to Waterfalls of the Smokies, the waters of Roaring Fork drop one mile in elevation from LeConte to Gatlinburg, reputedly among the steepest in the eastern U.S. Eighteen feet of that drop come as the creek plunges over a projecting lip of Thunderhead Sandstone. In the narrow valley, erosion has carved out a curved rockhouse allowing passage behind the falls. Large boulders for sitting and climbing and clear pools for summer heat relief give Grotto Falls the feel of a small playground exemplifying the “park” ideal. Even on this late-season Monday, there are quite a few visitors, though few venture up the trail beyond.
Clarence chats with one gentleman about firearms in the park. The man, who Clarence says is carrying a weapon though I don’t see it, feels it is important protection. From what exactly is a question for which I can never get a satisfactory answer. Bears and snakes are often cited, but in my view, they need protection from overeager gun permit holders. A little knowledge about wildlife renders moot the need for that kind of protection.
While we are on the topic of the overeager needing protection, a short distance past Grotto Falls is another smaller falls. A large downed tree spans the valley about 15 feet above the ground. Perched on this trunk out over the middle of the shallow, rocky creek is a man taking a picture. Unfortunately, there is no sure weapon against idiocy.
We pass many people along the one mile stretch of Trillium Gap between the falls and the short (0.15 mile) spur trail to the Grotto Falls parking area off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. After that we are all alone. From the spur trail to the trail’s end, this section of Trillium Gap is incredibly beautiful – lush, rich, and quiet. It traverses the northern base of LeConte’s Rocky Spur. This cool, protected spot, should be lovely in spring, and Mary and I want to return. I finally find a Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in flower here. This large shrub or small tree bucks the norm by flowering in autumn. Its thin yellow streamers for petals often go unnoticed amid the bright yellow foliage.
The trail comes close to Roaring Fork Road, and we see folks driving through admiring the sunlit autumn colors among other things. A truck comes to an abrupt halt as Clarence in full backpacking regalia strides by. The passenger window glides down and a lady sticks out her camera to take his picture. Authentic Smoky Mountain wildlife!
We get to the Rainbow Falls parking lot where my car awaits about 3:30 – six hours. It’s pizza time, and Mary has generously offered her home for another round of baths. Such luxury!