The tallest mountain located entirely within the state of Tennessee – near Gatlinburg – Mount LeConte stands an impressive 6593-feet above sea level and provides hikers with stunning panoramic scenery of the Smoky Mountains.
Clingmans Dome (at 6664-feet, the tallest peak in the Smoky Mountains National Park) and Mount Guyot (6621-feet) each have higher elevations, though both occupy boundaries within Tennessee and North Carolina.
There are five trails to the summit of Mount LeConte. This hike – my second – began at the Alum Cave Trailhead, located approx. 8 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, along Newfound Gap Road. During the initial 1.5 miles, the trail parallels two creeks – Alum Cave Creek & Styx Branch – providing visitors with pleasant background sounds of running water.
Shout Out: I enjoyed conversation at Myrtle Point with two visitors from Maryland (Kathy) & Virginia (Gail), and hiking back down the mountain with a nice woman – Shawnie – from Dayton, TN. Nice to meet you!
One can expect to meet many people along the trail – it’s a popular place to hike, with most folks opting to walk 1/2 the distance, stopping at Alum Cave Bluffs (an area originally mined for deposits of magnesium sulfate & alum in 1838, by the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company).
Other landmarks include Arch Rock (a long stairway which winds through the mountainside), Inspiration Point, and the Eye of The Needle. This area is also home to Peregrine Falcons – the fastest bird in the world, with a top recorded speed (during descent) of 242 miles per hour. And, the trail is equipped with several different steel cables, affixed to the mountainside for safety.
Hikers are greeted at the top of the mountain with a series of buildings – LeConte Lodge, cabins, gift shop, fresh water pump & an outhouse.
LeConte Lodge operates via a seasonal airlift of supplies by helicopter in March, restocking throughout the season using alternating teams of pack llamas for several days each week. Cabin availability is limited and reservations should be made one year in advance.
Located a short 0.2 miles away from LeConte Lodge, Cliff Tops is one of two primary overlooks enjoyed by visiting hikers. It’s a great place to relax with a snack and take in the view!
My next destination was the eastern most edge on top of Mount LeConte; also known as Myrtle Point. Here are a few photographs taken en route…
This is my favorite of the two overlooks. It has a more expansive, panoramic view, and much flatter rock surfaces for comfortable seating. Mountain views include Mount Kephart, Newfound Gap, Charlies Bunion and Clingmans Dome.
Including visits to/from the Cliff Tops & Myrtle Point overlooks, I tallied over 12 miles on the hike along the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte. It’s the shortest route, but, being the steepest trail, a strenuous endeavor. My advice is to be well-rested, bring appropriate clothing but travel as lightly as practical, take a break if fatigued, stay hydrated, use trekking poles when possible, and watch your step. Oh, and take pictures!
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Located in the Tremont section of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the Middle Prong Trail to Indian Flats Falls is 8.2 miles out and back.
Driving 3 miles beyond the Tremont Institute, which features a small gift shop and restroom, the gravel road dead ends at a parking area by the trailhead. Crossing a footbridge over the river, the trail forks to the left and parallels Lynn Camp Prong.
Hikers will enjoy the sound of running water over the course of a 1140-foot elevation gain en route to Indian Flats Falls. At approx. 1/2 mile, the impressive 35-foot tall Lynn Camp Falls can be viewed from the trail.
The Middle Prong Trail was originally a railroad bed used by the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, based in Townsend, Tennessee, which was one of the largest commercial logging operations in southern Appalachia, operating for 38 years until 1939, with 150 miles of railroad. Visitors can find more information available at the Little River Railroad Museum.
Along the way, hikers will observe vestiges from that era, including limited glimpses of railroad tracks and other steel remnants, a toppled chimney and an abandoned 1920’s Cadillac taxi. Other encounters may include horses – equestrians allowed, so watch your step – and bears, common to the area.
Over the course of the trail, hikers should expect an increase in grade and quantity of scattered small-to-medium sized rocks. There are two bridges to cross, as well as two small creek beds, easily traversed by stepping on rocks to keep dry.
After hiking 4 miles up a mountainside, one might expect to see a sign pointing to Indian Flats Falls. Alas, there are no signs. Instead, following several turns and an increase in elevation, the path broadens substantially at a switchback. Rather than continuing left, hikers will see a path to the right, tucked behind a large bush near a rock face. Turning right is a short, moderately difficult path over some rocks and under a few downed trees – then, the falls!
Emerging from the path, visitors are greeted with a wonderful view of the 20-foot tall top section of Indian Flats Falls. There is plenty of room for several people to gather, though hikers should remain weary of slippery conditions on what would otherwise appear as flat rock surfaces.
This waterfall actually has four-tiers, for a total height of 60-feet, though access to these lower areas isn’t easy, requiring one to get dirty foraging through the brush, descending shallow rock ledges, and wading knee-deep through a plunge pool at the base.
If you’re prepared to sustain a few scratches and get muddy, the views are definitely worth the effort.
The following photography presents Indian Flats Falls, top-down:
If you enjoy the great outdoors, then I’d highly recommend the hike to Indian Flats Falls. And, plan to spend more time than you might otherwise expect, as you’ll often find yourself stopping to enjoy scenery along the river.
On my first visit to the park, I learned that, in order to access the base of Great Falls, a 30-foot horseshoe cascading waterfall, one should expect to get wet. Most folks in the gorge on the south side of the Caney Fork River near the waterfall are there to swim in a large plunge pool, sporting water shoes and swim attire. Keeping dry can be difficult and entails carefully navigating a very slippery, narrow and moss-covered non-flat surface.
Recalling my previous experience, I decided that, this time, I’d attempt to access the area via a trail originating from across the river, near the Twin Falls parking area. There were several signs along the way stating, ‘No Access Above Falls’, indicating that I was probably headed in the right direction. Beyond a pond and across a forested hillside, I was able to traverse a series of rocks in the river, which led me to the base of the waterfalls – and, I stayed dry!
Photographs 1 & 2 were taken looking back at the trail which I had hiked moments earlier.
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Originally, my intention was to comb the rock bed along Richland Creek. Given low seasonal water levels across the Cumberland Plateau, I hoped to observe interesting underlying geological formations. However, things changed when I arrived.
You’ve probably never heard of Paine Creek. It’s a rather obscure creek streaming down a mountain side along the Laurel-Snow Trail, in Dayton, Tennessee. I’ve visited this park before, and traversed the rocky field of boulders along Paine Creek, though always wondered what was beyond the last waterfall.
Early into the hike, I approached a small wooden bridge over Paine Creek. Built upon stone columns erected in the early 1900’s by the Dayton Coal & Iron Company, the area has many remnants from that era, including old mine entrances into the mountain – one of which is situated directly under a waterfall. Once again, I opted to follow a trail spur uphill along the creek, beginning what would on this occasion become a 7-hour journey.
There are several small waterfalls upstream, each of which becomes increasingly difficult to access. Boulders ranging in sizes over 20-feet pepper the landscape, requiring hikers to go around, climb over, or, in some cases, traverse narrow passageways. It would be necessary at times to backtrack, as ones line of sight forward is often imperfect, routes of which subsequently proved impassable.
In addition to sufficient footwear, physical conditioning, food and water, I would suggest that perhaps the most important element for a hiker in such circumstances is discretion – knowing when to say no, so as to more closely examine secondary options. The cost of bad judgement can be high, and slippery moss-covered rocks were a dangerous and constant concern.
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Here are a few photographs of small waterfalls along Paine Creek –
Waterfall & Mine
The following photographs feature the furthest waterfall which I’d previously visited, until this hike. In this area, high walls of the gorge envelope the falls on both sides, while the ledge above the falls is beyond reach. A particularly interesting aspect to these falls is that, with the exception of high water levels, the flow of water originates solely from the interior of an old mine entrance. As I would later learn, water from the creek above seeps through an underground passage into this mine. Having a look inside, I could see the front edge of a pool of water, and the footprints of a small animal. Fortunately, no bears!
After enjoying this setting for a spell, it was time to move on – what was above this waterfall? As noted, I wasn’t able to climb the front of the falls, and, the gorge walls stood approx. 50-feet tall. So, I backtracked a short distance to the trail and continued uphill.
After a period of time, and with temperatures approaching 90-degrees, I began to wonder how much further I’d need to travel along this trail before reaching the top. It seemed as if I must have already ascended an estimated 300-feet in elevation, far more than I’d earlier assumed would be necessary.
Onward and upward, I continued my trek and would soon encounter a 30-foot climbing rope secured to a tree on the cap-rock above. After evaluating the scenario – assessing surface conditions as being slippery for footholds, as well as my tripod continually catching the underside of protruding rocks – I opted to remain on the trail, shortly thereafter finding a better way to the top.
Top of The Mountain
Finally on top of the mountain, the trail continued beyond where the climbing rope was affixed, to a ledge with an expansive, scenic view across the valley.
The view was great, although, however faintly, I could hear the sound of water in the distance – downhill, beyond the forest. This was my goal, and so I soon continued along the edge of the mountain as far as I could. At a point, though, massive cliffs forced me into the forest without any path to follow, moving cautiously through the trees, vines, and – oh, joy – a seemingly endless quantity of sharp-thorn bushes.
I was constantly having to untangle myself from the plants and trees, often needing to remove my backpack – again, my tripod was an issue – and, at times, both climb over & crawl under downed trees.
Patience. In such situations, it’s easy to become frustrated. However, rather than plowing through dense foliage to save time, it’s important to remain patient, particularly in an unfamiliar environment. Case in point – on two occasions, reminding myself to slow down allowed for an opportunity to observe rock ledges hidden behind bushes…so, heads up!
Albeit gradual, the sound of running water began to intensify as I continued downhill, until, finally, I could see the creek through the trees below! There was, though, one last obstacle – an 8-foot high ledge with no obvious safe path of descent.
At 56 years old, weighing 235 lbs., and with bad knees – as well as experiencing fatigue from the hike – a drop from that height would be ill-advised, potentially injurious.
Hence, I began searching back and forth along the edge of the ledge to assess my options. Of course, this entailed dealing with more difficult foliage during the process, but I soon found what I considered to be a safe means of descent. I determined that if I sat down on an appreciably steep area of the hillside – covered with a thick, relatively dry moss and dirt – that I could control my speed by inching forward to contact a closely situated tree using my feet. Thereafter, grasping the branchless trunk to climb down.
As anticipated, I moved slowly and the process unfolded without a hitch. It wasn’t until I set foot on the floor of the gorge, however, that the thought crossed my mind –
I really hope there’s an easier way to leave when it’s time to go.
Beyond The Last Waterfall
Yes – I’d finally arrived and there was in fact another beautiful waterfall tucked away in this isolated, pristine gorge! My first order of business, however, was to locate a hand-towel from my backpack, wet it in the creek, and wash away the sweat, debris, bugs, and – caused by the thorns – blood on my legs.
Soon thereafter, following a careful walk-around to survey the area, I heard a rumble of thunder. A light rain followed, lasting for nearly one-half of an hour, and so I took refuge under a tree and rested while enjoying a snack I’d brought along. I didn’t mind the rain, but realized that all rock surfaces would now be extremely slippery and that any steps in the gorge must be undertaken with heightened deliberation.
This video begins by overlooking what would be the spillway above the top edge of the lower waterfall, were a high-volume of water present. Next, a view of the upper waterfall is shown. Last, it finishes where the creek vanishes under a rock wall and into the mine below.
As it turned out, there was a 20-foot uphill scramble across the creek to the left of where this video concludes. Fortunately, the water was low – otherwise, access to this return route would not have been possible. I hiked into the forest, and, eventually, down hill and back to the Laurel-Snow Trail along Richland Creek.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this recount of my recent Adventure At Paine Creek. Thanks for visiting & enjoy the great outdoors!
Somethings intrigue all creatures, such as a beautiful evening sunset over the ocean. I hope that you enjoy this image, a digital collage of two photographs with enhanced detail, tonal adjustments and texture added. Visit my gallery at Pixels to see more. Thanks for stopping by!
Living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the time, this neighborhood cat would periodically enter through a small window opening of my upstairs apartment in an older house. Shelter from rain, comfortable seating and an occasional helping of tunafish from a can served to reinforce a friendship over time.