Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte

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.)

Alum Cave Trailhead

The start of a long, amazing trek

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. 

  1. Scenery:  4.5
  2. Difficulty:  4.0
  3. Length:  11.3 miles
  4. Dog Friendly Factor: 0
  5. Convenience:  2.0
  6. Bonus Funtimes: 4.5
Trail Map:

 

feeder stream on to alum cave creek in the smoky mountains

Feeder stream into Alum Cave Creek

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.

Alum Cave Trail Mountainside

Hiking on the edge

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.

smoky mountains vista from mt leconte

Smoky Mountain vista from Mt. LeConte

Arch Rock on Alum Cave Trail in the smoky mountains

Climbing up slippery Arch Rock

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.

summiting mt-leconte in the smoky mountains

Finally to top of Mt. LeConte on the Cliff Top spur 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 :)

 

 


This hike and others found in Hiking Trails of the Smokies, get your own copy now from amazon.com.

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  1. Great post Amy. We loved our trip up to Mt. Leconte. We took Alum Cave as well when we went but we want to do some of the other trails up to LeConte, Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap, Bullhead or The Boulevard. The Boulevard I want to do most of all because you have to hike 2 miles on the AT before getting to the Boulevard. It is indeed a tough hike up Alum Cave especially if you have 20lbs on your back. :P Congrats on number 100 by the way. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks, Tim! Yeah, it was an awesome trek – very glad we made the extra effort to get to the top. It’s so funny that once you get up there it’s like you’re just getting started with all of the other options to hook up with other trails. I completely forgot to write about that part. We saw several folks making the hike with a pack on their back… and I did not envy them at all :)

      Thanks for the comment and all the great things you guys are doing at Appalachia & Beyond!

      • On my last trip to LeConte, we saw a young woman, probably early 20′s, with the biggest pack I’ve ever seen on her back. We asked her about it. She actually works at LeConte Lodge and was on her way back up after her day off. She told us she was training for the Appalachian Trail, but on this day she was carrying in two CASES of beer to the other workers at the Lodge as a surprise! Guess she was going to be the most popular person in camp that night!

  2. Aren’t you glad now that you didn’t stop at Alum Cave Bluff? I love the views from Mt. LeConte and you did find the best place to see them from–Cliff Tops. I’ve also done the Boulevard Trail to LeConte, but Alum is much easier. I hope to do all the trails to the top over the next couple years. If you want to know more about the hikes in the Smokies, you can check out my blog, Hiking to the Heights. I’m trying to hike all the trails here. I will also visit some of the Nashville area hikes you recommend when we are in that area. Thanks for the blog posts!