Revenge on Leconte!
The truth is, I love hiking much more than my buddy Steve. LMBO. But he is a good sport and even after promising never to set foot on a mountain with me again, found himself yet again wondering how I convinced to spend his vacation at altitude.
After last year's failed Shasta attempt, we needed to get revenge on a mountain. What better way to do that than to climb the "tallest" peak in the Eastern United States. At 6594 feet, Mount Leconte isn't quite the highest, but it rises nearly a mile directly from its base just outside of the town of Gatlinburg. Its prominence over the city is impressive.
Beginning on the Rainbow Falls Trail, the hike begins pretty mellow. At around 1.7 miles you cross a foot bridge, and a short while later you reach Rainbow falls at around 2.9 miles. The trail steepens considerably in parts, and gets much rougher after Rainbow falls, often requiring navigating around 2-3 foot drops and steps.
At 5.4 miles is a very neat scenic overlook (just look for the sign/arrow you can't miss it) which offers outstanding views. At 6.6 Miles you reach the Leconte Lodge, where lunch can be had for a reasonable $9. (Order ahead for the "hot" lunch, but I recommend the regular day packer lunch for the same price with no call ahead).
Continuing past the lodge you reach the summit at 6.9 miles, but I don't recommend this be your last point. You can either continue on to a panoramic view from Myrtle Point, or you can turn around and divert to aptly named "cliff tops" which circles back around to the lodge.
Cliff Tops, in a word, is AWESOME! It is not for those with a fear of heights though!
Choosing a route back down is really about preference. Most say Rainbow falls is to rough to descend, but I found bull head to be a very boring a LONG hike. I would highly recommend working it out to descend via Alum Cave and have someone transport you back to the parking lot. Bull head had some OK views, but at that point its really about just getting down quickly and safely, and at over 7 miles long, it was not a lot of fun.
In all, this was a 15 mile venture, completed in just under 10 hours, lunch and all. It is definately a strenuous day hike, but nothing a little determination can't get through.
The best advice I can give you is not to go up if the sky is not clear or clearing. The obstructed view makes the hike very anticlimactic.
Luckily on this day there was not a cloud in the sky, and despite temperatures back home in the Triple Digits, the high on the summit was 71.
If you haven't been up leconte, GO! :)