Mt. LeConte’s trail tises from the ashes, sprouting new growth and life
Difficulty Level: Moderate-Hard
Trailhead coordinates: 35.67396, -83.49322
Length: 11.8 miles | Elevation Gain: 3,200 ft | Style: Out & Back
My truck was grunting so I downshifted to low gear as we crested Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was Thanksgiving weekend 2016, and the ‘71 Ford I was driving was ready to shed human cargo and a canoe. A strange warmth permeated my dashboard, presaged by the curiosity of flames dancing atop the spruce and hemlock in the distance. Invisible drafts whipped a human-stirred cauldron mawing through the Chimney Tops. Three of us poured out to absorb this horrifying scene. Hell was eyeballing Mt. LeConte.
Bullhead was the only divide between this inferno and the Smokies’ most iconic peak. We raced to escape, becoming part of this unfolding tragedy. From Sugarland Mountain, black sky rained napalm down this space that guarded humanity from pocket wilderness. Like a scene from war, shaved toothpicks and blackened rock laid bare the Anakeesta slate cementing these mountains. This image remains forever in my mind.
For years, this meandering trail struggled to regain identity. Closed to the public for two years and scraped down to raw bone, her recovery was tepid and chaste. Grasses punched through rock. Tree sprouts dipped their toes. From trauma ward to maternity wing, Bullhead battled season by season. Scree gradually ceded to dirt. Dirt birthed scrub pine, long grass, and hope. A beard of emergent green stubble was obscuring deep scars.
Five years and three miles up, a Carolina raven buzzes me and settles atop his boulder at a place called the Pulpit. This Civilian Conservation Corps-devised rock cairn has grown over the past century with the help of a few thousand different hands, once needed to view the mountains to the east. The raven’s squawking conveys some mordant estimation of the recovery happening around me. Broom moss dots the shadow of its wing. This land is healing, bit by bit.
Bullhead was named after a bison, the body of which is represented in profile by three distinct summits. The terminus of this post-apocalyptic pathway veers right to the unsinged Cliff Tops. Here at 5,700 feet, no hint of flame dared trespass the lodge and overlooks; LeConte’s public face unharmed. But around the corner, on her least used trail, this quiet hero silently grows new life and all are welcome to heed its call.