Bullhead Trail – Great Smoky Mountains

bullhead rocksTO THE TRAILHEAD:  From Gatlinburg, take traffic light #8.  Follow this into the national park onto Cherokee Orchard Road until it goes one-way.  .5 mile later, the parking lot is on the right side of the road (shared with the Rainbow Falls Trail)

THE HIKE:  The Bullhead Trail is one of the many ways to reach the summit of Mount LeConte. Out of all them including Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap Trail, Alum Cave Trail, Boulevard Trail, and Bullhead, this one is the least traveled. Of course, you can do this trail as a stand alone or as part of a hike to Mount LeConte.  The hike to Rocky Point is a 6 mile roundtrip, strenuous hike.

This hike is strenuous. I have seen it in other guidebooks rated as a moderate, but it really isn’t. The uphills are constant and punishing, so i’ll go ahead and warn you now that this one is not easy. But it is also not a terribly long hike either, so you can do it. At only 6 miles roundtrip, this makes for a great day hike. And when it is over, you don’t have to worry about going all around Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. You can follow the one-way Cherokee Orchard road to take you back where you started.

You will start out at a gate and a gravel road.  After .4 mile on the easy graveled area, you will take a left onto the Bullhead Trail. The knock against the Bullhead trail, and one of the reasons that it doesn’t receive more traffic, is that there are not a lot of major landmarks along the way. Many people feel that it is too much work for no payoff. But if nothing else, the solitude is excellent, even though you are so close to the busy Rainbow Falls trail. And there are things to see. They just aren’t on the same level with the Alum Cave Bluffs or a major waterfall.

Once you get on the main part of the hike from the .4 mile spur, the path goes up steadily and eventually more steeply. Views open up better and better as you go and you know that you are adding serious elevation. Great views to Balsam Mountain and LeConte push you forward, and at certain points you can even see back into Gatlinburg, but that is infrequent. Switchbacks abound on this hike. Anytime you have several switchbacks, you know the trail is rough and gains a lot of alitude. It is not nearly as bad as the switchbacks on the Low Gap trail, the place where I am certain I will spend purgatory, but they are tough nonetheless. The trail gets rockier as you go and make your way closer to the actual Bullhead. The name comes from the shape of the heath bald that looks like a bullhead from a distance. However, as you get closer to our stopping point, you will notice multiple large boulders and overhangs that add detail and a good shady place on a hot day.

3 miles in you will come to essentially a rock wall a few feet high. It is just the right height to stop and rest and get some water and a snack. If you stand atop the rocks, you are also rewarded with some great views. The rock wall almost seems like it comes out of nowhere, which I guess it kinda does. It’s not a natural formation, but it is great to rest on after all that hard work.  From here, the trail simply continues up. It is another 4 miles to get to the top of LeConte if you want to continue. However, the rock cairns 3 miles in are our target. If Mount LeConte is your destination, I recommend coming back down the rainbow falls trail. Both trails share the same parking area, so you can do both sides without having to worry about a ride picking you up at a different location. For now, just head back the way you came for a grand total of 6 miles. The downhill can be punishing on the knees. It is fairly steep, which strangely you notice more on the way down than the way up, and the rocks and roots and uneven trail can play havoc on your extremities, so just be aware of that.

As you finish this hike, you might be feeling underwhelmed. Many hikers feel the same way. That is one of the reasons that this trail is so underused. But I really do feel that the solitude offered here is one of the best parts of the park, combined with the views and unique hiking really offer you something different from the others. It is one that I really think you should check out. Unless you have to finish your hikes at a major destination, I don’t think you will be at all disappointed.

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