Story and image by Don McGowan
As you stand high above the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River running through Sugarlands Valley and look across the thickly forested slope beyond it, you’ll see the rocky prominence known as Bullhead. A careful visual examination along the lithic line tracing the ridge reveals the likely presence of a pathway. This is, in fact, accurate. The Bullhead Trail winds upward from its origin on the Old Sugarlands Trail and Cherokee Orchard Road to the western-most peak of Mount Le Conte, standing at over 4,300 feet in elevation.
There are five trails that lead to the top of this third highest peak in the Smokies, and Bullhead is one of them. Others include the Boulevard Trail, coming off the Appalachian Trail along the approach to the top of Mount Kephart; Trillium Gap Trail, climbing up the long eastern slope from its namesake; Alum Cave off US 441, the shortest, most direct, and steepest route; and Rainbow Falls, beginning near Bullhead’s origin on Cherokee Orchard Road and running roughly parallel to it until they converge at over 6,000 feet near the headwaters of Le Conte Creek, proceeding then as a single entity to the revered old lodge near the mountain’s apex.
Many thoughts may filter through the mind of an observer looking at Bullhead from the vantage point of this overlook named to honor the intrepid outdoorsman, Carlos C. Campbell (1892–1978).
Carlos Campbell’s son Jim estimated that his father hiked to the top of Mount Le Conte somewhere between 100 to 120 times. In my humble opinion, this itself would have qualified him for the honor of a named overlook—but that’s only part of the story.
In the early 1920s, as director of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, Campbell was a tireless and staunch advocate for the creation of a national park in the Smokies. In addition, he served as an assistant to renowned Tennessee Smokies photographer Jim Thompson, carrying his heavy tripod across the mountains. Ultimately, in the late 1920s, Campbell and Thompson both worked under Colonel David Chapman at the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, the first organization on the Tennessee side to promote the idea of a national park.
And while I could easily stop here, I would be remiss not to mention the small book Campbell co-authored with William Hutson and Aaron Sharp titled, simply, Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers: When and Where to Find Them. This tome, in its sixth edition and still published through the efforts of Hutson’s son Bob, has been in my library for 30 years and continuously informs my identification work.
Campbell Overlook has shared its great beauty with me for more years than I care to recall. Every season shows a different face, and it is impossible for me to choose a favorite; but I can say that in early spring, when the pastel hues of the hardwood buds and leaflets are spread across the woody slopes below the mass of Bullhead, and the first verdant shades are greening up the mountain, I look up and think of Carlos Campbell and his love for these old mountains of blue smoke.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.