We Saw the Llama Train! Grotto Falls was Pretty Nice, Too

Published: June 9th 2019
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Trillium Gap Trail to Grotto FallsTrillium Gap Trail to Grotto FallsTrillium Gap Trail to Grotto Falls

We arrived at 5pm on Thursday, and the trail was already reopened after the weekly repairs.
LeConte Lodge sits atop Mount LeConte. The only way in and out is by using the trails. To get supplies to the lodge, and to get trash out of the lodge, they used to use horses. Eventually, they switched to llamas.

Three times a week, a llama train makes its way up Trillium Gap Trail in the morning to LeConte Lodge. After eating lunch, the llama train is led back down the same trail.

The Trillium Gap Trail is a popular one for hikers staying at the lodge. It's longer than the Alum Cave Trail, but it's not as steep. The trail has needed updating, so the National Park Service announced that they would be doing repairs on the trails for two years: 2019 and 2020. From mid-May through mid-November, this trail would be closed Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for maintenance and updates.

In years past, the llama train has always taken supplies up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. With the work on the trail, that's been changed this year to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Due to the trail closure, it's impossible to see the llama train on the trail.

Or is it?

After reading
LeConte LlamasLeConte LlamasLeConte Llamas

The llama train passes through twice a day, three times a week. They deliver supplies to LeConte Lodge.
some information a little more closely, I discovered that the Trillium Gap Trail closes at 7am on Mondays. It reopens at 5:30pm on Thursdays. The llama train is supposed to get back to the trail head at 6pm. As far as I could tell, if we arrived at the Trillium Gap Trail by 5:30pm on Thursday, we could possibly see the llamas on the last stretch of their hike down. Even better, some people on a travel forum informed me that, last year, the National Park Service did work on the Alum Cave Trail. They said it would reopen at 5:30pm, but it was almost always open by 5pm.

My goal was to get to the parking lot at the Trillium Gap Trail at 5pm.

Yesterday, we drove the motor nature trail past the Trillium Gap Trail. I checked out the parking lot and the trail because I heard that it's easy to get confused and start the trail at the wrong place. If you start too early, you'll add on a couple extra miles to your hike!

Today, we left at 4:30pm and we arrived just a couple minutes before 5pm. The parking lot was already
Llamas on the Trail!Llamas on the Trail!Llamas on the Trail!

Great Smoky Mountains
open, and so was access to the trail. Success! I quickly used the outhouse there, and then we set off on the Trillium Gap Trail to Grotto Falls (1.4 miles to the falls). The first part of the trail was very muddy and slick from the rain. We walked for about 5 minutes when, up ahead, we saw the llamas round the corner! I couldn't believe it! This was seriously the highlight of my trip (after the synchronous fireflies, of course).

The woman leading the llamas mentioned that they were the LeConte Lodge llamas. I couldn't help but blurt out that we knew, and we'd been planning for this moment. She kind of laughed at that. She also explained that the llamas wear face masks so that they don't eat the rhododendrons, which are poisonous to the llamas. As she led the llama train past us, one of the llamas wasn't walking single file. It was going to push into us, so she directed me to push the llama. "Just shove the llama, and it will fall into line." I laughed at the situation as I tried to shove the llama into place. It didn't budge. In fact, it kind of pushed me back as it marched past.

All told, we spent about 2 minutes with the llamas, but it was fantastic!

For the rest of the hike up to Grotto Falls, we saw no one else. This is probably because most people think the trail is still closed Thursday evening. The hike stayed slick for the first quarter mile. After that, there were still some slick patches, but it was much more manageable. In general, the hike was much easier than our hike to Alum Caves. It was a little strange not seeing anyone else on the trail, though, so I thought about bears and kept talking throughout the hike to make sure we wouldn't startle any. In actuality, I know that black bears aren't typically very dangerous, but they absolutely can be if there's a cub with a mama. That was a situation I hoped to avoid, so talking helped soothe my worry!

It took us 45 minutes to reach Grotto Falls, which were absolutely beautiful. We ate a snack and drank water while sitting at the falls. We spent a good amount of time there and even cleaned our muddy shoes a bit in the water. Grotto Falls is a popular destination at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so we felt grateful for getting this time to ourselves as a family.

Shortly after we started our hike back down, we ran into another couple. They had seen no one else on the trail, and they also hadn't seen llamas at the trail head.

We continued our trek back down. I expected us to move faster than 45 minutes since we were moving downhill, but because of all the mud, it still took us the full 45 minutes to get back down. When we got back to the parking lot, we passed a mother and daughter going up to the trail. These were the only other hikers on the trail the whole time!

After our hike, we picked up Subway when we passed through Gatlinburg, since we wouldn't have enough time to cook anything. We got back to Elkmont Campground a bit late. It was 8:30pm Eastern, and I knew Paul, Colleen, Gene, and Carol said they were heading up to get their perfect spot at 8pm. We wolfed down our sandwiches, cleaned up as best we could, used the restrooms, and then set out to find the rest of our family.

There was still space for our chairs where they were seated. This was the paved little hill that leads up to Jacob's Trail. It was our first time viewing the synchronous fireflies from that location. Let me tell you, it was amazing. Because we were on the incline of the hill, the synchronous fireflies seemed to be everywhere instead of just toward the ground. There were more of them there than when we were on the Little River Trail, too. As we were oohing and ahhing over the synchronous fireflies, a ranger passed by and mentioned this spot was his favorite that year as well.

We watched as one of the synchronous fireflies would start blinking, and then the ones nearby started to join in. Others would join in, too, kind of like doing a wave. After about 30 seconds, they all went dark again. It was spectacular, and the fireflies were everywhere around us. I even teared up at one point because it was so beautiful and magical.

Our time at the Great Smoky Mountains has been incredible, but today was the best of
Muddy TrailsMuddy TrailsMuddy Trails

The trail to Grotto Falls was very muddy at the start. We could even see signs that the llamas had slipped a bit.
all. The two things I really wanted to see this trip was the llama train on the trail and the synchronous fireflies. We got to do both! What a perfect day.

Additional photos below
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Almost ThereAlmost There
Almost There

We're hiking the last bit up to Grotto Falls
Grotto FallsGrotto Falls
Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Coyote at Great Smoky Mountains NPCoyote at Great Smoky Mountains NP
Coyote at Great Smoky Mountains NP

We spotted the coyote on our drive back to Elkmont Campground.

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