Monday, October 27, 2008

Gatlinburg Fall leaf color report for Mount Le Conte in The Great Smoky Mountains

It's autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains and the peak leaf season has started in the higher elevations of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and we still have a week before the colors starts to saturate the lower elevations.

The picture below of the city of Gatlinburg was taken on the first overlook on the Gatlinburg Bypass; the road that connects the Spur section of the Foothills Parkway with the Great Smoky Mountains national park. As you can see there are little spots of bright leaf colors in the trees in the higher and mid elevations and the lower elevations of the Smoky Mountains are still a beautiful deep dark green color.

picture of the city of Gatlinburg taken on Gatlinburg Bypass

One of the most prominent features of the Great Smoky Mountains that can be seen from as far away as Sevierville and towers over the beautiful scenery Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg Tennessee is Mount Le Conte.

This stunning triple peak mountain is the second tallest in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and is 6,593 feet tall is slight bit shorter than Clingmans Dome which stands at 6,643 feet.

You can clearly see in the picture below that Mt Le Conte's peak is not sporting a snow dusting yet but a deep green of the pines and firs found on the top of this awesome mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains Mount Le Conte can be seen from as far away as Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg Tennessee

There a 5 ways to hike up to the peak of Mt Le Conte. You can hike up to Mt Le Conte from 3 trails in the Roaring Fork Section of the Great Smoky Mountings national park by the City of Gatlinburg. These hiking trails are The Rainbow Falls Trail, the Trillium Gap Trail and the Bull Head Trail.

The other 2 ways to access the peak of Mt Le Conte is from Newfound Gap Road. Your choices are the Alum Cave Hiking Trail on the Tennessee side and via the Boulevard trail off the Appalachian Trail access from the Newfound Gap parking area on the North Carolina and Tennessee border.

Right now Newfound Gap Road is the best road in the Great Smoky Mountains national park to see the best fall colors in the trees. The higher you go the better they are but color can now be seen on the lowest part of the road near the national park headquarters at Gatlinburg.

Clingmans Dome Road which connects to Newfound Gap Road near the Newfound Gap parking area is 7 miles of twists and turns by colorful trees as it climbs up to Clingmans Dome offering stunning fall color views and vistas that allow you to see range after range of mountains. The fall colors are still good here today but will fade faster on Clingmans Dome Road as it is the highest elevation road in the national park.

Since we had just checked the fall colors by going up to Mt Le Conte on the Trillium Gap trail a few days ago with a stop off on Brushy Mountain which overlooks Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, this report was made by hiking up the Alum Cave Trail off Newfound Gap Road.

The Alum Cave hiking trail is the most popular way to reach the peak of Mt Le Conte and is best in spring through fall as it ices up in the winter and can be quite dangerous.

The Alum cave hiking trail takes a course through various elevation gains, along river beds, past a natural arch you must climb through, past a huge cave and over peaks and along shear edge cliffs so the views are stunning and passing so many features you get a chance to chase the fall color longer than on most trails.

While some of the leaves on the trees along the start of the trail have fallen, it still has a tremendous feeling of green with all of the Rhododendron bushes that are along the trail. Bright yellow leaves are still in the trees and orange can be seen interspersed with tall green trees.

The first part of the Alum Cave Trail is rather level even though it is always slowly climbing up the valley alongside the river. Make sure to take pictures along the way of the old trees, the twisted and worn tree roots and the stream with crystal clear water and pretty small waterfalls.

Arch Rock a natural structure that you must climb up through

After almost a mile and a half of hiking you cross a log bridge with a handrail and you are now at the Arch Rock a natural structure that you must climb up through. Don't worry stairs and handrail cables have been added. The steps are usually wet so hold onto the handrail cable as you climb up and down the Arch Rock.

Once you pass through Arch Rock the elevation gain while hiking increases in intensity and the views will become spectacular. Long vistas and beautiful fall colors great you at every twist and turn of the trail. Expect some bright reds, some oranges and lots of brilliant yellow fall leaves and deep greens of evergreens - hemlocks, spruces and firs.

2 miles into the hiking trail you arrive at Alum Cave

At about 2 miles into the hiking trail you arrive at Alum Cave. Stop and stay here for a while and soak in the views as well as the beauty of the cave its self. Not only have rare minerals been found here at the cave - not found anywhere else in the world, this is also the site of an historic civil war battle which made its way down the mountain hillside all the way to the city of Gatlinburg call "White Oak Flats" at the time.

As you can see by the picture of the cave the fall colors are clearly showing at this elevation and the sunlight during the day will change the colors in the rocks around the cave.

Often water drops down from about the cave and in the late fall and wintertime will form ice. Be careful as when a day becomes warmer or in high wind, icicles have been known to come crashing down on the trail below.

From here you are another 3 miles to the peak of Mt Le Conte and the views become more impressive as the climb becomes more intense and difficult. Red and yellow bushes in the foreground give way to yellowing trees in the valleys set of by the deep greens of the evergreens and trees yet to turn.

So far none of these areas are past peak but some are just at peak fall colors right now. The walking is tougher here with wet rocks and narrow walkways. While you must watch where your feet go on this section of the Alum Cave Trail, you have to stop and take in the views constantly.

The closer you closer to the top the more spruce and fir trees you will encounter. These trees will stay deep green year round and look incredible later in fall and in winter when covered by with a dusting or a deep coat of snow.

As you climb higher you will also see more deep and light green moss on the sides of the trail and the trees will become shorter. In here it fells like Christmas year round with the beauty of these natural Christmas trees and the heavenly scent of them that perfumes the air.

By the time you reach the peak of Mt Le Conte there is only fall colors to appreciate on the distance as what few trees have that live this high up that change color have done so almost a month ago.

Make sure to check out both the cliff side area as well as Myrtle point on the other side of the peak of Le Conte. By now you will be thankful if you packed a hat, glove and a coat as it always is windy and cold up here!

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