Famously known as one of the entrances to the summit of Mount Le Conte, the Alum Cave Trail is usually at the top of every, “Best of the Smokies,” list year after year, and for good reason. Alum Cave lies 2.5 miles into the 5.5 mile one way trip to Mount Le Conte and is usually the turn around point for those not wishing to continue further along the 6 hour, out and back 11 mile hike.
Having hiked to Chimney Tops earlier in the morning, we had no delusions about reaching the mountain summit, but we figured we could at the very least reach the caves and then asses our situation.
We reached the trailhead by driving further south, down Newfound Gap Road, just a few miles past the Chimney Tops Trailhead. Like most of the popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, The Alum Cave Trailhead is tremendous busy and parking spots fill up quick, even though they have two large lots.
It took several tries to eventually find a spot to park, but we were lucky to find one within the actual trailhead lot and to our surprise, there was even a restroom here. Another perk of this trails popularity are the detailed signs, matching exact distances with points of interests, as well as giving practical advice for how to tackle this massive trail.
From the parking lot, the trail starts off by crossing a large wooden bridge spanning the Walker Camp Prong. Its virtually impossible to visit the Smokies and not cross one of the hundreds of boulder filled creeks, working their way down the mountain, creating gorgeous rapids and natural wading pools.
After a few twists and turns, the trail begins running parallel to Alum Cave Creek. Compared to our strenuous, nearly vertical hike earlier to Chimney Tops, the 511 feet of elevation per mile gained on this trail feels like a breeze.
One of the things I love most about this trail are all of the beautifully preserved bridges, cable handrails and stone steps we’ve encountered throughout. These are all in great shape thanks to a 2 year project launched by the National Park Service to rehabilitate the Alum Cave Trail, back in 2015. All of these small touches add the charming sense that you’re hiking through a magical forest. After a fairly painless 1.4 mile hike, we reached the famous Arch Rock.
This prominent landmark was created by thousands of years of freezing and thawing cycles, which eroded away the softer rock from underneath the harder base of the mountainside, creating a small channel through the center.
Adding another layer of AWESOMENESS, is the fact that a staircase was carved out of the soft base stone, enabling hikers an opportunity to climb through the cave along this trail. Maneuvering our way through the horde of people, we crossed the bridge over Alum Cave Creek and into Arch Rock.
We walked up through the cave along the slippery stone staircase, hanging tightly to the steel wire to avoid falling. If you’ve never done anything like this, you’re in for a treat. Once you reach the top, the trail continues along a thin passage of muck covered rock thats about as slippery as walking on a freshly polished floor.
Thankfully a steel wire runs the length of this section, aiding your traverse to the bridge crossing just beyond this point. Again, I can’t say enough about all of the bridges on this trail. They’re a perfect example of beauty meeting function, in a way that seemlessly blends with the environment.
Continuing past the bridge crossing, the hardwood forest gives way to a sturdier alpine canopy filled with hemlocks and spruce. Open patches in the transitioning forest give us short glimpses of the mountains as well as a much needed bolt of energy to push forward.
As we break through the tree line and onto the top of a craggy bald, we reached a spot known as Inspiration Point. From the exposed summit of this mountainside cliff, hikers were taking a much needed break while enjoying views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge and another famous landmark, The Eye Of The Needle.
Glancing towards the northeast from here, hikers can even make out Myrtle Point on Mount Le Conte. The mountain scenery spread out before our very eyes is nearly unbeatable. Dense storm clouds roll above us, occasionally dipping into the valley to refresh us with a light mist.
Unfortunately, this is also slowing us down as we continue to climb towards the bluff just a short distance ahead. The rock face along the trail is so slick, we wrap it around our forearms to keep from falling over the sheer cliff to the left of us.
Getting past one of the more perilous sections of the trail we reached the bottom of the stairs leading towards our destination. The climb is steep, but the reward at the top is well worth the effort.
Even though we are only at the halfway point to Mount Le Conte, reaching Alum Cave Bluffs felt incredible. We were surprised to find that this was not a cave after all, but a concave bluff about 80 feet high and 500 feet long. The inside of the bluff is protected by an overhanging cliff, creating a sloping rock amphitheater.
Sitting on the sand floor of the bluffs, overlooking the majestic scenery of the Smoky Mountains surrounding us, I seemed to have forgotten about anything else I might have been thinking about on the way up. Every generation faces its own unique set of struggles and challenges, that only seem more amplified due to the nature of our current “outrage culture.”
But on the way up here, not a person was frowning, or debating political issues. More often than not, we were greeted with warm smiles and humorous banter. We were all taking part in doing something completely unnecessary, for the pure joy of it and that was something we could all relate to.
I was not expecting us to continue the rest of the 2.5 miles to Mount Le Conte, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch while enjoying the sights. Someday, well take the time to specifically plan a trip to reach the summit, but until then this will suffice. Upon returning to the trailhead, we plan on using the little energy we have left to climb Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. Until then, See y’all on the trails!