Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Alum Cave Trail to Mt LeConte Lodge

We seem to have taken up the tourist mode and are hiking to some of the most popular places in the Park.  Wonder what’s up with that.  Maybe we got tired of being out there all by ourselves.

Today’s hike was along Alum Cave Trail.  This beautiful trail begins on Newfound Gap Road on the Tennessee side of the park about halfway between Sugarlands Visitor Center and Newfound Gap.  There are two large parking lots at the trailhead, but that’s no guarantee there’ll be an empty parking space during the summer months.  Alum Cave Trail may be the most popular trail in the park.  Besides the day hikers on an easy stroll to Alum Cave Bluff, there are all the folks with reservations at LeConte Lodge.
Mountain Laurel in bloom near Inspiration Point

This is quite a drive over the mountain from Cherokee so once again we were up and out early.  We were lucky and found a parking space near the trailhead.
Arch Rock

Gene on his way through Arch Rock

Alum Cave Trail is 5 miles in length from the trailhead on Newfound Gap Road to the junction with the Rainbow Falls Trail near the Lodge.  Most people go only as far as Alum Cave Bluff located about halfway.

This is a beautiful trail that meanders beside Alum Cave Creek for about a mile then joins a side stream for a half mile up to Arch Rock.  This unusual rock formation was formed by continual freezing and thawing of ground water caught in the cracks of the bedrock.

From the arch the trail begins it’s climb along Peregrine Peak and leaves the creek below.  Once you pass through the arch there are some pretty impressive views especially at Inspiration Point.

Alum Cave Bluff is massive

We also began seeing azalea and mountain laurel in bloom.  Higher up the rhododendron was spectacular.
View from Inspiration Point

Alum Cave Bluff is a phenomenon on this trail and probably the primary feature which draws the crowds.  This dry, dusty cave, so out of place in these wet mountains, is composed of Epsom salts and something called “pseudo-alum”.  These minerals were mined during the early 1800s.

After investigating the Bluff most hikers turn around and head back to their cars.  But you know us--we’re in for the long haul.  Past the Bluff the trail climbs steeply around Little Duck Hawk Ridge.  This upper section is a little frightening to me.  It’s just too narrow in places for my comfort zone.  Even though there is a cable to hold onto, I’m overly anxious about slipping and in one area a misstep could result in a bad fall.  On rainy days this climb can be slippery.  If the trail ices over, it can be treacherous.

We finally make it to Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies at 6,593 feet.  Of those folks who didn’t turn around at Alum Cave Bluffs, Mt LeConte Lodge was the destination for most.  The Lodge offers overnight accommodations for adventurers looking to spend the night on the mountain, but who don’t want to backpack and sleep in their own tent.

The Lodge is comprised of several cabins, sparsely furnished, without electricity, water, or bathroom facilities.  Guests bring along personal toiletries, sleep clothes, and snacks.  Bed linens are furnished as well as a hearty family style dinner and breakfast at the dining hall.  I’ve stayed at the Lodge several times and have seen improvements over the years.  My favorite was the instillation of a bank of flush toilets to replace those smelly pit toilets.  Perhaps the other greatest improvement, in my opinion, was the switch to propane heat for the cabins to replace the kerosine heaters.

Our first view of LeConte Lodge

LeConte Lodge got its start as a tent camp before the park was established.  During the early 1920s when park advocates were trying to sell the idea of an eastern National Park to the powers that be in Washington, a camp was set up to entertain influential guests.  The more permanent cabins were built in the late 1926 by a local mountaineer who continued to run the Lodge until the 1960s. Today, the Lodge is under the control of the National Park Service and is managed by a private company.

While we ate our lunch the fog rolled in.
LeConte Lodge is resupplied by llamas.  They are gentler on the trail than horses or mules.  They use Trillium Gap Trail for their assents and descents.  We were lucky today to see the llamas.  They were being packed up with trash and dirty laundry for the trip down to Gatlinburg.

There are five different trails which lead to Mt LeConte.  We came up the shortest.  The others are Boulevard Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, and Bull Head Trail.

First trip for this little guy.  He doesn't have to carry anything.
Guests have been hiking up the mountain to stay at the Lodge for decades and it remains one of the most popular places in the park.  Accommodations are not cheap and you have to walk down the hill in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but reservations are incredibly hard to get even a year in advance.

Sand myrtle clinging to the rocks.
We came only for the day, so after making the photos, talking with a few guests and staff, and having lunch we headed back to the car.

For a quick daily weather report and the latest happenings on Mt LeConte check out High on LeConte, the daily blog by the lodge manager.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.


  1. I told Bill that if it's unbearably hot when we get home, once he starts teaching again, I'm going to escape to wherever you all are if it's somewhere cool. He just laughed and said o.k. BTW, I suspect you know this and it was just a slip of quick typing fingers, but the llamas actually use Trilliam Gap trail rather than Boulevard. You all will be moving soon, won't you?

    1. Thanks, Sharon, for reminding me of the llama route. I did know that, but that knowledge certainly didn't make itself known when I was writing the post. Maybe my brain was as numb as my feet.

  2. As always, great pics. You guys are certainly getting in your exercise. The places you go almost make me want to take up hiking. Keep up the good work, Judi.

  3. What a great spot for those cabins. Love the idea of the Llamas for resupplying too. Interesting trail up.

  4. This makes me want to go hike so bad this weekend seeing all the rhododendron in bloom! But we are heading to the Virginia Creeper instead. I've only seen the llamas once while hiking (they were on their way down as I was going up). Alum Cave is nice, but my favorite is still the Boulevard Trail I think, though i believe it's the longest. Anywho, looks like you guys had a great trip!!

    1. The Virginia Creeper is good, too. Have a fun weekend.

  5. Wow how cool is that! I'd spent a lot of time in that area and never really heard of such a thing. It makes sense to have an actual destination after ascending a difficult trail like that.

  6. Found my way here from Sharon's blog. The Smokies are our favorite vacation spot and hope and dream of living there some day. We love Mt Leconte and Alum Cave is our favorite trail to get there. We have done all of them except Trillium Gap which we will do this year. This will be our 6th hike to Leconte.

    1. Hi Pearl, thanks for following. Hope you find our little adventures interesting. We too love the Smokies and enjoy every season in the mountains. We've enjoyed hiking out west and been to some fabulous places, but this is home and it holds a special place in our hearts.