100th Post! Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte
(There was so much to see, we created a MMT Flickr account for pics that we couldn’t fit in this post – or just click any of the links below to view the pic.)
In celebration of our 100th post (thanks to everyone for your ongoing support!) it’s only fitting that we document a big first for MMT – summiting our first mountain!
When Nate suggested we hike the Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte I agreed to get to the halfway point at Alum Cave Bluffs and we’d save summitting the mountain for another day… that’s until we got to the halfway point and thought, “how hard can the rest of the way be?” Well, we learned.
- Scenery: 4.5
- Difficulty: 4.0
- Length: 11.3 miles
- Dog Friendly Factor: 0
- Convenience: 2.0
- Bonus Funtimes: 4.5
Scenery (4.5 out of 5.0): Whether you dig peaceful creekside scenes, unique geological formations, or breathtaking vistas, something along Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte will inspire your senses (lots of things, actually). From the moment you cross the first bridge over Alum Cave Creek, it’s clear that this is a special trail.
The first almost 1.5 miles takes you along Alum Cave Creek and the Styx Branch feeder creek. Between the end of Alum Cave Creek and before you get to Styx Branch is Arch Rock. This is where the geology of the hike starts getting interesting. Centuries of freeze-thaw cycles created a crevasse in the rock that hollowed it out. Stairs now line the interior so hikers can climb through the rock’s opening.
Not long after Arch Rock, the scenery begins to become more arid and open, unlike the damp, shaded environment of the first 1.5 miles. Now on the side of Mt. LeConte, you begin to glimpse the first of many gorgeous vistas of the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Just before getting to Alum Cave Bluffs, there’s a landing that makes for a great stop for taking in the view.
Alum Cave, which is not really a cave but a bluff with very unique geological properties, has an interesting history dating back long before the Civil War. These yellow bluffs are completely different than what you encounter on the rest of the trail to the summit of Mt. LeConte.
From Alum Cave Bluff, the climb continues to alternate between interesting geological features and scenic vistas, including the Eye of the Needle. Hiking in late June, we were also treated to beautiful purple rhododendrons in bloom throughout the trail. The rocky trail takes you very much along the mountain’s edge – with a few spots with clear evidence of past landslides.
As you near the summit you’ll pass along tall bluffs that you’ll soon have the opportunity to stand atop. Before getting to these bluffs, you’ll pass by LeConte Lodge. This lodge was originally established in 1925 and has evolved from a tent encampment to small, individual cabins overlooking the valley into Gatlinburg. The lodge is still fairly rustic, but is booked months in advance and the only way to reach it is to hike up Alum Cave Trail… supplies are still delivered by llamas on via another trail route.
Passing by the lodge, we continued on to the trail sign for Cliff Tops spur trail. This is the top of the bluff that you pass under not long before getting to the lodge. This area offered the best views of the surrounding Smoky Mountain Range. From this point we were surrounded by purple rhododendrons, with rhododendron bushes that trail down the mountainside. We stayed here a few extra minutes to relish our unexpected accomplishment on this Sunday of climbing the 3rd highest peak in the Smokies.
Be sure to check out Cliff Tops trail, because this will be the best view you’ll get. The summit of Mt. LeConte is tucked away between some trees. A large cairn marks the high top spot, with hikers placing stones to mark their presence.
Difficulty (4.0 out of 5.0): With an elevation change just shy of 3,000′ in 5.5 miles (one way), this trail left us worn out and weary, but with a great sense of accomplishment. The difficulty of this trail is not just the distance, but the elevation change and occasionally tricky footing. All of these elements requiring you to consistently pay attention to your footing.
As you climb higher onto the mountain, the path narrows as it hugs the side of Mt. LeConte. The path changes frequently from slippery rock to a dirt path on the sides that receive sun exposure. Cable handrails have been drilled into the mountainside on especially tricky or narrow passageways – I gladly held on to these at every chance.
The most challenging part of the trail is the 1 – 1.5 miles that begins after Alum Cave. While there’s a saddle (gentle downhill portion) not long after Alum Cave, the climb that begins after that is very challenging. We stopped several times on this stretch to catch a breather and relieve fatigued muscle. Once you ascend the 4th staircase on the trail, the hike becomes considerably easier up to the summit. Check out this great elevation profile on MMT’s trail map page on Every Trail.
Length: 11.3 miles (Guidebooks note it takes 6 – 8 hours on average, this day it took us about 5.5 hours)
Dog Friendly Factor (0 out of 5.0): Dogs are not allowed on trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Convenience (2.0 out of 5.0): The trailhead for the Alum Gap Trail on Mt. LeConte is about 4 hours from Nashville. It’s an easy drive and readily accessible, just a ways away Middle Tennessee.
Bonus Funtimes (4.5 out of 5.0): If you book your reservation far enough in advance, LeConte Lodge looks like an amazing place to stay — and who can complain about breakfast and dinner on the mountaintop?
If you don’t get your reservations in soon enough, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no shortage of great fun activities. There are dozens of camping grounds and seemingly hundreds of trails. If a lazy day on the river is your preference, there are plenty of tubing outfitters and a few kayaking spots (for the non-lazy types). Fishing also looked very popular — just be on the lookout for bears