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.
November 2016 Update: Great news! The 2-year trail rehabilitation was completed on November 17th. The work was completed by the park Trails Forever crew, American Conservation Experience youth crews, and volunteers. Hikers will appreciate the improved overall trail safety, while protecting natural resources by repairing historic cable and handrail systems, reinforcing hanging trail sections, reducing trail braiding, and improving drainage to prevent further erosion.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. 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.
LeConte Lodge is located near the summit at 6,360 feet elevation and operates mid March through mid November. It's the only place in the national park where you can sleep overnight on a mountaintop in a snug, permanent structure - complete with hot meals. Often all rooms for the season are booked by January. But you can always add your name to the waitlist in case of cancellations. It has a capacity of 60 guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 group sleeping lodges. There is no electricity. While there is a privy building with flush toilets, there are no showers. One night at the lodge costs $145/adult, includes dinner and breakfast. Call for reservations at 865-429-5704 or email email@example.com.
Day Hiker Services
LeConte Lodge is open from late March through late November. Day hikers may purchase an $11 sack lunch, beverages and snacks in the dining room between 12-4 PM.