Our adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were shortened due to the amount of people there and the weather. We had one day for a hike in the park and so we wanted it to be the best! The park is big and the list of hikes is long, but one hike stuck out to us: Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte.
National Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park ♦ Fun Fact: It’s the most visited national park in the US (11+ million people/yr.) ♦ Size: 522,419 acres ♦ Year it became a national park: 1934 (not officially dedicated until 1940 by President Roosevelt)
Getting to Alum Cave Trail Head
We entered the national park from the north on Hwy 441. There is no fee for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Why? Before the park was formed, the land was privately owned. Tennessee and North Carolina both paid for the construction of Hwy 441. When they transferred the road to the federal government, when the area became a national park, there was a stipulation that there would never be a fee or toll imposed.
From this area you can stop at one of two visitor centers in the national park. Sugarlands Visitor Center has plenty of parking, restrooms, a museum, gift shop and video area for an educational video about the national park.
To get to the trail head continue south on Hwy 441. It’s a beautiful drive through the national park. You’ll pass multiple trail heads, picnic areas and vistas. Alum Cave Trail is very popular, so it will be hard to miss the trail head. It is well marked.
The actual parking lot is small, so we had to follow the rest of the cars and find parking along the road. There is a restroom in the parking lot in case you skipped the visitor center. When you enter the parking lot the trail is on the right and you will see a map of the hike.
Hiking Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
Miles: 10 ♦ Elevation change: 2,600′ ♦ Trail Type: Out and back ♦ Trail Difficulty: Hard ♦ Fun fact: Gracie McNichol hiked this trail on her 92nd birthday. A small section after the Cave is called Gracie’s Pulpit (one of the steepest sections). She is considered the matron of the mountain.
This trail has stopping points the entire way. It was one of the most entertaining trails we have been on. You start along a beautiful creek with multiple waterfalls and swim holes.
This part of the trail is relatively easy and has a very gradual incline. It follows the creek for just over a mile and then you hit Arch Rock. Arch Rock is a large slate rock that has taken over a millennia to become what it is. Take it slow as it’s wet and slippery climbing through it.
The trail starts getting steeper here as you climb to Alum Cave, but don’t worry, you hit a beautiful view and the cave in under a mile.
I will mention that there are steps before you get to the cave, so get ready for the burn! It’s all worth it though and this is a great spot to stop for a snack or lunch. The bluff sits at 4,950′ and the cave is 80′ tall.
We had originally thought we would only make it to here because of the weather. It was supposed to be really hot, but when we got to this point we were feeling good and the trail is shaded. We met another couple that were also heading to the top and so we figured we weren’t that late in getting a start up the mountain. It is a small mental obstacle getting over the fact that you thought you only had 2 more miles and then all of a sudden you are heading up and realizing you still have 8!
The elevation wasn’t effecting us like we thought it would and we were making awesome time. The trail was relatively quiet until this point. When you read other reviews most say it’s busy before the cave and then it is quiet for the more serious hikers going to the top. This was not the case today. It was busier after the cave than before! As you weave through the people make sure to stop whenever there is a vista to view the beautiful scenery.
These were a pleasant reprieve from the climb. It is no longer a gradual climb! The trail does have parts where it is slippery rock or roots and steep drop offs. This part will be challenging for people who do not normally hike, but again, take your time and take in the views.
You will know you are getting close to the top because you will all of a sudden be on a completely flat and shaded path. Tree roots line the path and guide you to the lodge.
At this point you have just under a half a mile to go and it’s a very pleasant part of the hike! You will hear people and see the small cabins at the end, so make sure to take a left after a small bridge.
There is a fun photo op at the top. They change the date and tell you the elevation. Just make sure to find someone that can tell you if they are taking a bad picture or not!
By the time we got here the clouds rolled in and so we didn’t have the huge views of the mountains. That is another reason to take your time and enjoy them on the way up! Even with the busy trail and all the cars at the parking lot, we were still surprised with the amount of people at the lodge. Even on our way down there was a steady stream of people coming up.
The Lodge does provide some amenities for day hikers. Restrooms, a small store, a box lunch for a charge, a beautiful place to sit and relax and a potable water spigot.
We did this hike in really good time. I never put how long it takes us to do a hike because I don’t think anyone should compare or think they should do it in the same time as us and if they don’t, they would be let down. For planning sake, I will say that this could be done as a half day or full day.
This is the only commercial lodge in the national park and the highest lodge in the eastern United States. There are no roads that lead to this lodge only 5 hiking trails. You are provided with a hand built cabin, propane heat, a small store, shared bathrooms and a small dining room. They serve family style meals to guests and included in your meal is a bottomless glass of whatever wine they are serving that night!
Want any more information, check out their website! LeConte Lodge
Next time we are in the park we are definitely going to stay a couple nights at the lodge. What an amazing way to relax and rejuvenate the soul.
Fun fact: They use Llamas to bring supplies up and take down laundry for cleaning. According to their website you can see them!
The llamas generally pack on Monday, Wednesday and Friday using Trillium Gap Trail. They get to the trailhead between 6:00 and 6:30 am and should be on the trail between 7:30 and 8:00 am. It takes them about 4 hours to make the hike. They will have lunch and return to the parking lot around 6:00 pm. Hours vary depending on weather and season. -LeConte Lodge
We were pretty surprised with the trail etiquette here considering it was so busy. A lot of people don’t know what trail etiquette is. I think there are two or three main ones and the rest are just common courtesy.
1 If someone is coming up behind you, take a step to the side to let the people who are going faster go by.
2 When it’s a single lane trail and someone is coming up and someone is coming down, the rules would say, the person coming down is to step aside for the people going up. I think in this situation when you are on a mountain, the person with the safest area to step aside to should be the one and that seemed to be what most people followed. Safety first, rules second.
3 When taking pictures, don’t take forever. Let other people go by or let the next person take the picture and you can wait.
Know Before You Go
Dogs are NOT allowed in this national park. There is very cheap and good day care in Gatlinburg for your fur friends. Please respect this rule. We were upset to find multiple dogs on the trail.
Do NOT feed any wildlife. Do not approach any wildlife either.
This trail starts at 3,800′ and as mentioned climbs to 6,593′. If you are not used to elevation or climbing it can be difficult. Do understand that as you get higher, oxygen decreases. It will feel a little more difficult and you may feel winded more than normal.
Bring plenty of water, snacks, sun screen, your camera and lunch if you plan a full day.
We would highly suggest poles (if you are used to them), good hiking shoes and a hat.
People of all ages and athletic ability were at the top, so don’t be discouraged by the mileage, elevation or climb. Just take it slow and steady, but make sure to monitor your own limits.
Lastly, as we always say, please pack out whatever you pack in!
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