Hike To Mt. LeConte: Alum Cave Trail
The Alum Cave Trail is the most hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You'll see why with interesting geological features and stunning views. To reach the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte (third highest peak in the Smokies) from the parking area on U.S. Highway 441, you'll climb 2,853 feet and 5.5 miles on the Alum Cave Trail. If you hike to the two great viewpoints on top of Mt. LeConte, that will add almost two miles to your hike - so you're up to a 13+ mile roundtrip hike. Allow 6-9 hours for the hike. It's strenuous, but not technically challenging. Our hike took eight hours, since there is so much to stop and enjoy along the way. Plus, we took advantage of the new lunch service provided by LeConte Lodge for dayhikers! So you can regain your energy with a hearty lunch up top. But you need to order it two days in advance. See details on dayhiker services below.
Weather Tip: Mt. LeConte is covered in clouds and fog about 75% of the time and receives generous rain and snow. Snow is possible from October through April at the summit. The portion of the trail to Alum Cave receives much less snow. The trail can be very wet, so hiking shoes are highly recommended.
At just over 1.3 miles from the trailhead you'll reach Arch Rock, after crossing a bridge over a creek. The trail goes under the arch with steps etched into the rock. Fun! Sheltered by steep slopes and spared from the logger's ax, the forests around you look much as they did in the days of the Cherokee hunters. The stately evergreens are Eastern hemlock, many of which are 200+ years old.
Eye of Needle
Inspiration Point is at 2 miles. Stop, rest and enjoy its wonderful views. The Eye of the Needle hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, can be seen from the Alum Cave Trail.The Eye is seen best with afternoon sun.
At 2.2 miles is Alum Cave. It is what geologists refer to as a rock shelter. A rock shelter is a rock overhang that resembles a cave entrance, but does not open into an actual cave. In the 1830s, the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was formed to mine alum, Epsom salt, saltpeter, magnesia, and copperas here. The easily accessible salts were depleted by the mid-1840s.
At 2.6 miles is the flat-stoned Gracie's Pulpit that marks the halfway point to Mt. LeConte. It's located on a ridge - so enjoy the brief downhill portion of the trail after you pass Gracie's Pulpit.
Walking on the edge on Alum Cave Trail (notice cable on left that helps you along the way)
The trail begins to climb again through highland Appalachia toward Mt. LeConte, with many small water crossings, ledges and overlooks along the way. The last of the ledges passes right beneath Cliff Top. Once beyond this point the trail flattens out and you enter a spruce-fir forest. Before reaching the lodge, at just over 5 miles from the trailhead, the Alum Cave Trail ends into the Rainbow Falls Trail. Turn right here.
The summit, better known as High Top (photo on left), is about 1/2 mile past the lodge. But there are no views there. Just a pile of rocks. The view on the right is from Cliff Top.
View from Cliff Top
For the panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains, go to nearby Myrtle Point or Cliff Top. Cliff Top is the best location for sunset views. It's at the end of a 0.2 mile side trail that starts near the entrance to the Lodge (look for sign along the main trail).
From Myrtle Point on Mt. LeConte - A great picnic spot
Myrtle Point provides nearly 360-degree views of the Smokies and is the best location for sunrises on Mt. LeConte, about 3/4 miles from the Lodge.
View of the Great Smoky Mountains from Myrtle Point
To hike to Myrtle Point, walk 0.4 miles on the main trail past the Lodge, which is now the Boulevard Trail. About 0.2 miles past High Top (stack of rocks at the mountain summit), take the fork to the right to reach Myrtle Point, which is another 0.2 miles from this turn.
Entrance to LeConte Lodge, with an early snowfall in mid October.
LeConte Lodge is located near the summit at 6,360 feet elevation and operates mid March through mid November. When the movement to establish a national park in the Smokies was in full sway, a tent camp was erected where LeConte Lodge now stands to entertain visiting dignitaries from Washington. Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926.
One of the cabins at LeConte Lodge, just below the peak of Mt. LeConte.
LeConte Lodge is the only place where a visitor can sleep overnight on a mountaintop in a snug, permanent structure with hot and hearty meals on tap. It has a capacity of sixty guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 group sleeping lodges. The cozy one-room cabins are furnished with upper and lower double bunk beds, making them ideal for two couples or a family of four. Three of the cabins also have a single bed to accommodate parties of five persons. One of the lodges has 2 bedrooms with double bunk beds in each bedroom and two of the lodges have three bedrooms with double bunk beds in each bedroom. All lodges have a "common room" with two single beds. All the units are equipped with kerosene lanterns for light, propane heaters for heat, wash basin and bucket to take a sponge bath, linens (sheets, blankets, pillows and pillowcases), and covered porches with rocking chairs.
Appropriate for a getaway from the high tech world a mile below, there is no electricity. Not too long ago an up-to-date privy building with flush toilets was a welcome innovation to the mountaintop retreat, however, there are no showers. Basins are standard in all lodging for sponge baths and truthfully, no one is anxious to get wet all over, especially since nighttime temperatures take a radical dip, even at the height of summer and the daytime temperature has never reached 80 degrees. The fleecy virgin wool blankets on the beds rate far higher with lodge guests than icy showers ever could! The 2013 season is March 25 through November 26.
Day Hiker Services
Great news! You don't have to stay the night to enjoy a lunch break. Day hikers may purchase a sack lunch containing a bagel, cream cheese packet, beef summer sausage, fruit leather, trail mix, cookies and Gatorade drink packet for $10. Pre-ordering is not required. These are available throughout the day. Day hikers are permitted to eat these sack lunches in the dining room between 12-4 PM.
Day hikers may also pre-order a sit-down lunch which will be served from 12-3 PM. Reservations and prepayment are required at least 48 hours in advance for sit-down lunches. The menu is soup (all vegetarian but varies daily), sandwich (chicken salad, peanut butter and jelly, or cheese), chocolate no bake cookie, and beverage. The cost of the sit-down lunch is $10. To make reservations for the sit-down lunch please call the office at 865-429-5704 between 8 AM and 5 PM, Monday-Friday, closed most major holidays.
The lodge will also offer our day hikers beverages: hot chocolate, coffee and lemonade for $3 each and assorted baked goods for $1 each from Noon to 4 PM.
More about LeConte Lodge
The only way to reach the facility is by taking hiking trails up and back. There are five trails to the lodge, the shortest and steepest being Alum Cave Trail at 5 1/2 miles, which a hiker in good condition can do in approximately four hours. None of these trails can be considered a stroll and you occasionally encounter ice and snow as late as May or as early as October. The other trails are Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap, each 6.5 miles, a hike of about five hours; Bullhead at 7.2 miles and about five hours; and Boulevard, 8 miles and about 5 1/2 hours. Parking is available at the start of each trail.
The Lodge is often booked a year in advance. Go to the LeConte Lodge web site for more information on reservations.
An occasional hiker's bonus on Trillium Gap Trail Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays can be overtaking a llama pack train carrying fresh supplies to the lodge, weather permitting. Since the only way in or out is on foot supplies are delivered that way as well. Horses once did the hauling, but the damage to the trails from their shod feet caused the management to seek alternatives. The most environmentally compatible creatures for packing purposes are llamas, which have very little impact on the trails with their padded feet and are a delight to all hikers of any age with their humming sounds and gentle features.
Meet some interesting people along the way
One of the great views from Alum Cave Trail
What about Bears?
Black bears frequent this area, especially in summer. Most bears you encounter here will run when they see you. If a bear does confront you on the trail, make as much noise as possible and move out of the way. DO NOT feed bears. Also, leaving food or garbage where a bear can get it is bad for the bear, which may become a beggar who has to be tranquilized and moved elsewhere. Careless food disposal is also unsafe for other hikers, who may be approached by a bear looking for one of those candy bars!
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