A Smoky Mountain ClassicIf ever there was a classic hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte would certainly qualify. Sure, there are trails in the Smokies that are far longer, that gain more elevation, or have steeper climbs, but the Alum Cave Trail is unmatched in its combination of interesting geological features, history, high adventure and stunning views.
To reach the 6593-foot summit of Mount LeConte, you’ll have to climb 2763 feet and hike 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave trailhead.
The Trail ReportAlthough we were hiking this trail in mid-May, it felt more like February as we waited at the trailhead for my GPS to find a satellite. My wife bundled up in her fleece coat to fight off a chilly morning breeze before finally setting-off.
The night before a strong storm blew through the Smokies, dropping marble-sized hail that still littered the trail that morning. Guests returning from their stay at the LeConte Lodge the night before reported that the top of the mountain was pelted by nearly six inches of hail. As the storm approached, the guests witnessed an incredible display of lightning below them before the storm moved up and over the mountain.
The first section of trail is a fairly gentle climb up to Arch Rock. We followed Alum Cave Creek for the first mile before switching to the smaller Styx Branch just below Arch Rock. This portion of trail is choked with rhododendron which exhibit beautiful blooms in early summer at these elevations.
At a little over 1.3 miles into our hike we reached Arch Rock, the first prominent landmark along the trail. This geological oddity was formed over the millennia by freezing and thawing which eroded away the softer rock from underneath the harder rock. The trail actually goes under the arch and requires a climb of several steps etched into the rock to exit at the top.
The first place on the trail with panoramic views is at aptly named Inspiration Point. Roughly 2 miles from the trailhead, Inspiration Point offers commanding views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge to the west of you and Myrtle Point on Mount LeConte towards the northeast. The Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, can also be seen from Inspiration Point.
A much better view of the Eye can be had just a little further up the trail. While descending the trail on our return, we watched two peregrine falcons from this vantage point as they playfully swooshed through the air near the Eye.
Just beyond Inspiration Point and the Eye of the Needle is Alum Cave. Roughly 80 feet high and 500 feet in length, Alum Cave really isn’t a cave, but is actually a concaved bluff. During the warmer months of the year, water drips off the ledges from above. In the winter, these water droplets form into large icicles. Being situated in the southern Appalachians, the Smokies tend to have cold nights and relatively warm days during the winter months. So, as the day warms, icicles tend to break-off from the top of the bluff and crash to the ground.
The first two times we hiked to Alum Cave we were forced to dodge these frozen missiles. Every couple of minutes one of these icicles, some as long as three or four feet, would drop and explode on the rocks around us. To get in and out of the cave we had to carefully time our entry and exits in order to avoid shrapnel, or worse, a direct hit. Needless to say, extreme caution is needed here during such conditions.
Besides being an interesting geological feature, Alum Cave also has a bit of history surrounding it. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was established at Alum Cave in 1838. Until it was sold in 1854, the company mined epsom salts which was used by mountain folk to dye homespun clothing a reddish brown.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army mined saltpeter out of the cave which they used to manufacture gunpowder.
Less than a half-mile past Alum Cave is Gracie’s Pulpit. This landmark is named after Gracie McNichol, who, believe or not, hiked up Mount LeConte on her 92nd birthday. At roughly 2.6 miles from the trailhead, the Pulpit marks the halfway point to Mt. LeConte.
Over the next two miles the trail begins to get a little steeper. We passed over several rock ledges, many with cable handrails. A few of the ledges pass small waterfalls, requiring some negotiation to get around as you continue to grasp onto the cables. On a hot day, the cool water splashing on you can be quite refreshing.
My first trek up Mount LeConte was on a mid-winter day. Several of the ledges were frozen solid with snow melt, forcing us to put a death grip onto the cables. During the warmer months these rock ledges usually won’t present any problems, unless you have a strong fear of heights.
The last of the rock ledges passes right beneath Cliff Top. Once beyond this point the trail flattens out and you enter into a quiet spruce-fir forest. Before long, the LeConte Lodge cabins come into view. You’re roughly 5 miles from the trailhead at this point.
A lot people end their hike at the lodge, however, to reach the summit of Mount LeConte, you still need to walk almost another half-mile. The summit, better known as High Top, is marked with a cairn, or pile of rocks, just off the main trail on the right.
At 6593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Smokies. However, from its immediate base to its highest peak, Mt. LeConte is the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, rising 5301 feet from its base near Gatlinburg.
There’s considerable controversy over which member of the LeConte family the mountain was named for. Most people, including the USGS, assume that Joseph LeConte, the famous geologist and charter member of the Sierra Club, is the man for whom the mountain was named. However, that claim has been challenged in recent years. The authors of A Natural History of Mount Le Conte, and the Georgia Encyclopedia, both claim the name honors Joseph’s older brother, John, who was famous as a scientist and as president of the University of California, at Berkeley.
Hikers won’t have any views up at High Top; however, there are two places on the mountain where you can take in some outstanding panoramic views.
One is at Myrtle Point. To get there, you’ll need to walk another 0.4 miles by continuing on the main trail, which has now turned into the Boulevard Trail. Take the fork off the right side of the trail at roughly 0.2 miles from High Top. Myrtle Point is another 0.2 miles from this junction. Although it was foggy and overcast this day, you’ll have fantastic views from here on a clear day. This is also the best location for sunrises on Mt. LeConte.
The other place to go for outstanding views is known as Cliff Top, which is near the LeConte Lodge. We passed two side trails to Cliff Top as we made our way up to the summit. Cliff Top is the best location for sunset views.
One of the unique things about the hike up to Mount LeConte is the lodge and overnight cabins at the top.
Hikers have the option of spending the night in these cabins which can accommodate about 50 guests a night (you'll need to make reservations first).
The idea for the lodge was created when Paul Adams, an enthusiastic hiker and explorer, led an expedition up the mountain with some dignitaries from Washington in order to show the group the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains and to help promote the cause for national park status.
The group spent the night in a large tent. The following year Adams would build a cabin on that same spot which eventually led to the establishment of the LeConte Lodge.
Adams is also credited with blazing the trail from Alum Cave up to Mount LeConte.
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