If you’ve hiked most of the trails within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you know that the great majority of them are breathtaking and picturesque. The majority of them are short enough that they can take about one to four hours, depending on their distance and altitude, and the number of rest stops you make.
You now might be ready for a longer distance challenge, one that most people will attempt for part of the way, but few will cover the entire distance. Even though it may not be an elevation monster like Mt. Cammerer, Gregory Bald or Rocky Top, you’ll still feel like you’ve conquered something major.
Welcome to the Mt. LeConte, aka Alum Cave Trail.
Don’t allow the popularity of this route scare you off. The geological diversity, fascinating history and amazing scenery are worth the dodging and yielding that you will likely do with other hikers.
An out-and-back of 11 miles and an elevation gain of 2,763 mean it’s realistically out of reach for most of the Park’s casual day hikers. But if you have the time (about 7-10 hours) and stamina to do the whole thing, you definitely can brag about it to friends and family, who will likely be quite impressed.
How to get there
Head out on Newfound Gap Road/US Highway 441 and go 12 miles south of Gatlinburg. You’ll find two parking lots, and sometimes that’s still not enough to contain all of the people going on the Alum Cave Trail. Try to get here as early as possible to get a space and not settle for parking on the side of the road. While the trail is open year-round, the busiest times run between March and November.
From the trailhead to Arch Rock
Starting out, you’ll ramble over an easy one-mile section that skirts the Alum Cave Creek, then the Styx Branch which is carpeted with rhododendron in summertime. In a third of a mile, you’ll arrive at Arch Rock, so named because it’s a black slate formation sculpted into this shape as you climb a flight of rock stairs.
Go a little further, and you’ll come to Inspiration Point, one of the many panoramic stops you’ll enjoy along the trail. The landmarks you’ll see off in the distance include Little Duck Hawk Ridge (with the Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock) westward and Myrtle Point in the northeast.
From Arch Rock to Alum Cave
The next stretch of trail covers 2.2 miles and brings you Alum Cave, a misnamed feature because it’s really a covered bluff, 80 feet high and about 500 feet wide. But it does provide a nice shade from the summer heat, and protection from rainstorms. Be careful if you’re here in winter – icicles have been known to fall without warning from the bluff’s edge. Once abundant in Epsom salt, miners excavated it from the rock. Civil War soldiers also mined it for saltpeter for gunpowder.
Here’s the most traveled part of the route, so expect the crowds to thin out some before you hike further. Another notable landmark and scenic point, Gracie’s Pulpit, awaits further up and is the halfway mark to the summit. It was named after a young-at-heart hiker who climbed this trail on her 92nd birthday.
From Alum Cave Bluffs to Mt. LeConte summit
Now the fun begins for the final 3 miles. You’ll keep ascending on narrowing rock cliffs with necessary cable hand rails. In a few places, waterfalls tumble down the ledges, so cross these sections with care. You might think about turning around at this point, but keep going and persist. When you get to Cliff Top, the trail levels out and you’ll encounter a spruce-fir forest, and the Mt. LeConte cabins and lodge. Stop here for a welcomed break.
Note that before you get here, you’ll need to turn right at Rainbow Falls Trail, because the Alum Rock will end. You’ll still need to trek up another half-mile to get to the top, which is also called High Top. Relish in your achievement here, before heading back down the mountain.
Of course, if you do summit Mt. LeConte we’d love to hear all about it at Christopher Place, your Smoky Mountains retreat. Contact us today for any specials on our hot tub suites, a much-deserved way to reward yourself after conquering one of the National Park’s most difficult trails.
Great photo of the Alum Cave Trail from daveynin on Flickr.