**We’ll soon be back from the holidays…until then, please enjoy this re-run of a post that appear in this space earlier in the year — one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Alum Cave Trail to Mt. Leconte. It’s popular for a reason!
*The Alum Cave Trail to Mt. Leconte is one of Becauseitzthere’s Best Hikes in North Carolina and Tennessee. It is also a featured Best Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. See our hikes page!*
With Peru looming, I found myself in search for a bigger challenge. After all we were about to hike in the Andes, the second highest mountain chain on earth, with trail conditions almost impossible to simulate locally. We needed a trail considered to be a fair challenge, and on a big mountain, at least by local standards.
The trail that satisfied all these criteria is the same one that I had been avoiding for nearly a decade now – the Alum Cave Trail to the summit of Mt. Leconte. Though actually located in Tennessee, the Alum Cave Trail is very popular among Carolina hikers (it’s just a few miles from Newfound Gap, the NC/TEN border.) It’s also just tremendously popular in general…maybe THE most hiked trail in the most visited National Park in the US. Partly because of the crowds, partly because of logistics (it’s hours away) and partly because the trail was closed for nearly two years while improvements were in progress, I had not yet attempted it. Though it has a reputation of having some badly eroded sections, recent work had supposedly improved many of the more hazardous sections. I decided that we could spend a weekend to strike at it, overnighting near my least favorite town in the US – Gatlinburg TN. (Sorry…I know it’s a beautiful place folks. Unfortunately, so do the other 35,000 or so people who jam into it on summer and fall weekends.)
The trick in hiking the Smokies is…
- Avoiding the throngs in Gatlinburg (and the East side casino town of Cherokee)
- Securing a campsite
- Beating the heat
If you try any this on Summer or Fall color peak weekends, you are basically going to be lost in the herd. Fortunately, it was mid spring, a good time to be in the Southern mountains, the weather mild and the park only moderately crowded. We left early on Saturday, got to the park about 3 PM and easily secured a campsite in Elkmont Campground. This done, we prepared to set out the next morning for the summit of Mt. Leconte, one of the highest mountains in the Appalachians at 6593 feet. The Alum Cave Trail has a reputation for being steep, rough in sections, and difficult in bad weather…but also one of the most scenic in the South. For those getting ready for a good, rough bit of walking, this seems like the place.
The trailhead, off US 441, the main North/South corridor through the park, is impossible to miss…look for the scores of cars parked by the road. The park service has done quite a bit of work here building new overflow parking lots with toilets, etc, and we were able to find a space without much trouble. Still, despite the fact that we arrived at the trailhead just after 8 am, most of the parking spaces were full. Leconte is also home to a famed lodge of the same name located near its summit; many of these parked vehicles belonged to people who had scaled the peak the day before and overnighted at the Lodge. I was also interested in checking out the Lodge myself.
The first mile of the trail follows a stream and is quite level and wide. This section bears much evidence of the high traffic it has been subjected to for years. At 1.3 miles, the trail crosses the stream on a log bridge and begins a steep ascent, passing through the rock formation know as Arch Rock. This formation alone would probably justify hiking this part of the trail. After leaving Arch Rock behind the trail goes ever more steeply uphill, then down and up again, passing the first of the badly eroded sections the trail is famed for. Soon it passes some nice viewpoints (the last view below the cave is perhaps the best one on the trail.) At 2.2 miles the unmistakable landmark that gives the trail its name finally comes into view. Alum Cave Bluff is, as its name suggests, not really a cave; it’s actually a rather remarkable rock bluff over 80 feet high, located at an elevation of nearly 5000 feet. Here, the recent work by the NPS to improve the trail was much in evidence.
Here’s our Youtube video with the best perspective of the trail, the Cave and Arch rock…
These were taken further along…
The cave marks the furthest point most day hikers will venture, and the place is usually quite crowded (as it was when we returned past it some hours after summiting.) This is however only the halfway point of this trip…the trail continues another 2.7 miles to a confluence with the Rainbow Falls Trail just minutes from the door of the Mt. Leconte Lodge. For those who will venture further, the remainder of the trail is steep, much rougher in places, and much less traveled.
Needless to say, Sylvia and I did continue on past the cave. I found the infamous rough areas to be far less of a challenge than I had anticipated; compared to sections of trail considered rough in New England, they present little difficulty to the average hiker. There was only one short bit (the notorious one that traverses the top of a precipitous slide) that might be called dangerously exposed. No question, in icy conditions this could be far more challenging, and then the steel cables bolted to some sections of the trail in the manner of Via Ferrata would be of great use.
After joining with the Rainbow Falls Trail, whose lower approaches we hiked on a waterlogged day in 2009, it is just a short walk to the lodge. The Leconte Lodge is an interesting historical landmark; it’s also the highest full service Inn in the eastern US. To be clear: The lodge is a collection of very rustic cabins. This was much to Sylvia’s dismay. She rated the lodge ‘very poor’ and not up to her expectations, giving it just one and a half fu’s on the fu-fu scale. Looks like we won’t be staying there anytime soon.
Stay a night here? You decide!!!!
Anyway…from the lodge it is another half mile to the summit of Leconte, the sixth highest point in the Appalachians. There is however no view there; the two best viewpoints are from the west facing Cliff Tops and the east facing Myrtle Point. We chose the Cliff Tops, less than 1000 feet away. It turns out this short stretch of trail was by far the roughest section we hiked all day. On the Cliff Tops were fine panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and nearby Gatlinburg; you could clearly see the swaths devastated by the recent fires. A man with a set of bagpipes was playing there, which was somewhat inspiring but also somewhat annoying. Guess it depends how much you like guys in kilts and bagpipe music. We were told this guy is a frequent visitor to the lodge. But at any rate he left after a while and we had the views pretty much to ourselves.
The return trip was entirely uneventful and we were back at the car about six and a half hours after we started. From the trailhead we drove south and east across the Smokies, avoiding the roadblock of Gatlinburg, and back east through our favorite NC city of Asheville, stopping in Cherokee, NC for a bite to eat.
We judge the Alum Cave Trail to be within the ability of any hiker, as long as they are prepared for a long (5+ miles) and unrelenting ascent, and an equally long descent. There is no part of this trail that we consider unusually dangerous or difficult, though we would recommend that it be done when ice is not present on the trail.
The views from the trail are very fine, though I noted once again a troubling haze in the air somewhat diminished from the experience. This has happened many times in the Smokies, possibly as a result of pollution from power plants and industry in the midwest…My continued opinion is that the best hikes in the Appalachian range are those to be had in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in Western Maine. But that should not dissuade anyone from doing this great and challenging hike, among the best I have done in the Smokies. Sylvia gives a sharp thumbs-down to the Leconte Lodge which she pronounced to be ‘crappy’ and ‘not majestic’ and ‘disappointing’ as well as having very rudimentary bathroom facilities, which may be the source of the crappy comment.
All in all, a good hike and I was pleased with our performance. There remained only one thing…to go forth to Peru and see how well we do!
***Postscript…we did in fact do well in Peru, and Sylvia is unswerving in her negative review of the Leconte Lodge, which she stills pronounces ”crappy” and adds “I don’t know why anyone would want to stay there” and once again ripped the bathrooms, adding that “That’s how they fool you.”***