Getting ThereBoth trailheads are located off of Newfound Gap Road. The Alum Cave Trailhead is an 8.6 mile drive up Newfound Gap Road from Sugarlands Visitor Center or 20 miles from Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The Appalachian Trail crosses at Newfound Gap. The Newfound Gap parking lot is a 13.2 mile drive from Sugarlands Visitor Center or 16 miles from Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Route DescriptionSince two trailheads are involved, this is actually only a partial loop. This route describes the hike starting at Alum Cave Trailhead.
The route is very straightforward. Take the Alum Cave Trail for 4.9 miles to the summit ridge of Mount LeConte. At this point connect with The Boulevard Trail and hike this for 5.3 miles until it intersects the Appalachian Trail. From here, it is a 2.7 mile hike to Newfound Gap parking lot. Descriptions of each of these portions of the route are well documented on the Mount LeConte main page.
This is a physically demanding hike. There is over 2500 feet of elevation gain on the Alum Cave Trail. There are numerous undulations on The Boulevard Trail so there is quite a bit of overall elevation gain over the course of the 5.3 miles. And regardless of which direction hiked, there is at least 500 feet of elevation gain at either end of The Boulevard Trail.
I have hiked this route in both directions, and each has its benefits. Starting at Newfound Gap eliminates the strenuous climb up Alum Cave Trail, making this route less physically demanding. Starting at Alum Cave Trailhead can be advantageous as the best views of the mountains on this route are seen from Alum Cave Trail and the first few miles of The Boulevard Trail near Mount LeConte. As the weather can quickly change in the Smokies, if it is a clear day, starting at Alum Cave Trailhead increases your chances of actually seeing these great views before potential bad weather rolls in. I have left Newfound Gap under crystal clear skies and by the time I reached what should have been the open views on The Boulevard Trail, the mountains were socked in.
The big advantage of this route is the multiple opportunities for short side hikes to outstanding vistas. I highly recommend starting this hike early so you have plenty of time for all of these side trips, which include: Cliff Top on the summit of Mount LeConte; Myrtle Point on The Boulevard Trail; The Jumpoff, which is near the end of The Boulevard Trail just prior to reaching the AT.
Cliff Top is probably the most popular spur trail as it is the first trail to the summit views when ascending via Alum Cave Trail. Myrtle Point is reached via The Boulevard Trail, approximately 0.5 miles from the LeConte Lodge. There is a 0.2 mile spur trail leading to outstanding views. The Jumpoff is located off of The Boulevard Trail. This 0.5 mile spur trail is located about 0.5 miles from the intersection with the AT. There was a sign for this trail at one time, but the last time I hiked The Boulevard Trail in 2006 I could not locate it. Finding the actual spur trail can be challenging - but the views from The Jumpoff are worth the effort. A detailed description of the hike out to The Jumpoff is given on the Mount Kephart page.
Another big advantage of this route is solitude - at least for about 5 miles along The Boulevard Trail. Alum Cave Trail is extremely busy as it is the main thoroughfare to Mount LeConte, so other than maybe in winter, you will see lots of other hikers. The AT from Newfound Gap is also always busy as this is the route out to Charlies Bunion, which is another popular hike in the Smokies. But The Boulevard trail is rarely used. After leaving Myrtle Point there is a good chance that you may not see another hiker until you reach the AT.
Essential GearIn the Smokies, rain gear is a must, even if there are clear skies at the start of your hike.
Water is available at the well at the LeConte Lodge.
With two trailheads involved, two cars or a prearranged pickup is needed. The willingness to hitchhike can be a big benefit.