Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail, Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Mount LeConte is one of the most famous mountains in the Southeast. 3rd highest in the Great Smoky Mountains, it has as many as five access trails to the summit. I have done only one, but it is beautiful. Along the way up to LeConte, pass Arch Rock - an arch formed by water over the course of millions of years, and Alum Cave Bluffs - a huge rock overhang of Anakeesta Rock. Also, see the red squirrels, unique to the Southeast, that are found in this area. Near the summit, visit Mount LeConte Lodge and spend the night in the romantic-based lodge or cabins, or if you're like me, squeeze it all in a day hike. It's not that hard. This hike occurred on Saturday, October 18th, 2014. My plan was starting at the Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead to follow the Alum Cave Trail all the way to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Then, I would visit Cliff Tops, Myrtle Point, and High Point. However, my plans did not include an excellent day changing to wind, fog, and drizzle.
R/T Length of Trail: 12 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6:50
Type of Hike: Out-and-back, plus side trails at summit
Difficulty Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Views entire trail; many interesting geological features; possibility of staying overnight at LeConte Lodge
Cons: Huge crowds (and that's a BIG con!); many areas slippery when wet and icy in winter
Scenic Views: Inspiration Point - 8 stars; Cliff Tops and Mount LeConte area - N/A (details further)
Water Features: None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round, winter may be a little tricky because of ice
Trail Blaze Color(s): None and None Needed
Beginning Point: Alum Cave Trail Parking Area on US-441 (Newfound Gap Road)
Directions: From Gatlinburg, TN: Follow US Route 441 South for roughly 11 miles. The Alum Cave Trailhead's two parking areas will be on the left.
Are you a fan of hiking in lines of crowds, 5 people per minute? That's the definition of October in the Smokies. The only reason I did the most popular trail in the park on the busiest weekend of the year was to see fall foliage, but as it turns out, I didn't see a lot of fall foliage but still saw the usual amount of people. Minus the people, this is an amazing hike, so I still recommend it, but try to hike it on a weekday or off-season.
There are two parking lots for this hike - both work. Follow the path from the parking lot to the official start of the trail, complete with a map and a mileage sign. The trail starts with a bridge over Walker Camp Prong. After the bridge, shortly cross another bridge over Alum Cave Creek, with great views of cascades upstream. Over the course of the next mile, the trail is mainly flat with a slight uphill trend as it follows the banks of Alum Cave Creek. Usually, trails like this are rocky, but the path is so clear because of popularity that it was actually pretty easy fir walking. There are several small waterfalls and cascades along the way, with perhaps the most noticeable one at the first of 4 footlogs over the creek. At the third footlog, you have hiked 1.4 miles and reached Arch Rock - the turning point, aka the start of the climb. Arch Rock is a very interesting geological feature. It is really a natural arch, formed and carved over millions of years by water. The trail goes up through the arch over the course of over a dozen steps, before topping out above. Then, the trail follows some bluffs and crosses Alum Cave Creek for the last time, before beginning to follow Styx Branch. As the trail starts climbing, there will be a small crossing of Styx Branch. The trail climbs gradually for the next half mile to reach Inspiration Point at 2 miles. This was my min view of the hike, as the clouds soon took over. It is still an excellent overlook, with a great panorama of the surrounding mountains, and the Sugarlands and Gatlinburg in the valley far below. This area all the way to Mt. LeConte is famous for its red squirrels. I saw one of them here, but I wasn't able to get a good shot, so I won't include it.
In my opinion, the steepest section of the hie comes right after Inspiration Point. The next 0.3 miles are steep uphill, first along open rock, then along the bluffs approaching Alum Cave. At 2.3 miles, ascend several staircases to reach Alum Cave. This is not an actual cave, but more like a large rock overhang over the trail. It can be a good shelter during rain. Most of the tourists stop here, while the hikers continue forward (although I still saw a lot of these "hikers" after Alum Cave!). Also, I saw a couple more red squirrels here.
The next part of the trail is called The Saddle, as it traverses many rocky edges with open views. They can be slippery after rain, and icy in winter. There will be a brief descent at around 3 miles, and then the trail starts ascending the main mass of Mount LeConte. At one point, there will be a long staircase, and shortly afterwards, a clearing with some views of the uppermost reaches of Styx Branch. There are lots of seeps in this area, and the trail will cross several of these. Then, around 4 miles the trail makes a sharp turn to the west, climbing up another staircase. This could have been the most beautiful section of the trail if not all the fog. There are many cliffs, drop-offs, overlooks, etc on the left, with the trail traversing the rocky edges. Finally, after a lot of climbing, the trail levels out at around 4.7 miles, descending through a spruce/fir forest to reach a junction with the Bullhead and Boulevard Trails at 4.9 miles. The Bullhead Trail turns left to eventually reach Cherokee Orchard, while Boulevard Trail went right. Here, it is a very rocky roadbed. There will be a couple bridges before you reach Mount LeConte Lodge at 5.5 miles. This is the highest elevation lodge in the Eastern US, and it can be reached only by hiking. Personally, I would never stay at the lodge. They barely have any electricity - they use gas lamps (or something like that), and the "cabins' are rickety, old structures.. full of mites and other stuff like that? Although, many people do head up there and stay the night. And most importantly, it's so expensive for something like this - nearly $100 per person per night for an 8-person room.
Anyway, at the lodge, there's a little trail heading up right with a sign for Cliff Tops. This is a short 0.2 mile steep,spur trail. It leads to an overlook called Cliff Tops, with great views. It is good for sunrises. However, everything was fogged in. You can turn left at the overlook and access the Boulevard Trail near High Top, but I didn't know that, so I backtracked to the lodge, and took the Boulevard Trail up. Soon, the Rainbow Falls Trail exits left to Cherokee Orchard. That is a hike for another day. Keep following the Boulevard Trail for about 0.3 miles to High Top (the summit of Mt. LeConte). the summit doesn't have views. However, there is a huge pile of "summit stones". The story is that each person, who makes it to the summit should leave a stone there. The pile is certainly big. I originally planned to continue to Myrtle Point, but I decided not to, because the fog would limit any views whatsoever. From High Top, return the way you came back to the trailhead.
Mount LeConte, especially via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, is an amazing hike. Just the problem is that much of the time, Mt. LeConte is fogged in, even when at the bottom it is sunny. You have to be a local and really be careful about picking the day to do the hike. One day, I will return. I haven't decided yet how. I was thinking of maybe doing a Bullhead/Rainbow Falls Trail Loop, and starting in the middle of the night, so I make it up by sunrise, limiting the chances of being inside a cloud. I don't know when though. But even if it is fogged in, I still recommend this hike a lot. It is one of the best hikes in the Southeast - I rate it a "Best Hike". If you're in fairly good shape, you can do this hike. It's a must-do. Just have lots of stops and rest some, if you feel it's tough.
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