great smoky mountains - alum cave trail

^^ Look how enthusiastic I am. And this was at the very beginning of the hike. ^^

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I think I had it in my head that this would be an short and easy hike. Five miles? Please. We weren’t really backpacking after all, just hiking to a cabin at the top of the mountain. We didn’t have to pack anything in except maybe a change of clothes. This would be a breeze.

A smarter person would have just stopped there. Me on the other hand… In my head I thought easy hike + no need to pack gear = let’s pack every last bit of camera equipment I have as well as about 10 layers of additional clothing, you know, just in case. Sly filled his Alice pack to the brim while I carried a 50 pound camera backpack stocked as if I were a NatGeo photog heading off for a year-long assignment.

Despite how many times we have backpacked, I’m always amazed that we (I) never seem to learn our (my) lesson. That lesson being: Pack Light. Five miles was really nothing in terms of distance, but carrying a crapload of gear up 6,000 feet in the heat and then the rain, clutching onto slippery cable handrails as we wound our way around the side of the mountain — after a while five miles felt like an eternity. Like wearing fashionable instead of comfortable footwear, one day I’ll finally learn my lesson.

But today was not the day.

At about the halfway point we stopped at Alum Cave, which was actually not a cave but still looked cave-y enough and provided welcome relief from the heat. As usual we started the trail later than we had originally planned so we were the only people at the cave, or for that matter, on the trail going up at that time. I wish I could say that was planned but whatever, it worked out in the end.

We continued on our way to Mt. LeConte Lodge, thinking we had left the worst behind. It only became steeper after that — gone were the packed dirt trails surrounded by lush vegetation. Instead the dirt trail gave way to a narrow rocky scramble up and over rocks, clinging to the side of the mountain hanging onto a loose cable ‘hand rail,’ which sounds worse than it actually was. We asked everyone who was coming down if we were there yet and regardless of where we were on the trail, the answer was always “only 45 minutes.”

After miles of climbing over rocks we entered an enchanted forest that seemed to magically appear out of nowhere. (You’ll know it when you see it.) Through the forest clearing, like an oasis in the desert, we finally laid eyes on a cluster of log cabins. Home sweet home for the night. Our pace picked up considerably. We had finally made it to the top.


Alum Cave Trail // Accessible off Newfound Gap Road. Just look for the signs that say “warning: congested area ahead.” Then look for all the cars parked on the side of the road and overflowing the parking lot. TIP (and this tip is pretty much applicable to any/every popular trail in the world): go early – before 10am — or later — after 4pm — Β otherwise be prepared to circle a bit for parking. // This is one of the trails that leads to the top of Mt Leconte and/or LeConte lodge, which is where we were headed for the night. It’s about 2.5 miles to the cave, then another 2.5 to the lodge, and then a little bit more — maybe .2mi to Cliff Top. This seems to be one of the most popular hikes in the park, probably because it is relatively short, reasonably challenging, and extremely beautiful. From the trailhead, the first part of the trail winds beside a stream, revealing tons of mini waterfalls and lots of crossings over shaky log bridges. The steps through Arch Rock begin the rocky portion of the trail and are similar to what you will find after Alum Cave. After Alum Cave the trail seems to get quite a bit steeper and is composed mostly of rocks. It was Β a bit slippery when it rained, but the trail was wide enough that it never felt dangerous or scary (this coming from someone who is always scared). There are cable handrails nailed to the side of the mountain, but we rarely needed to use them.

TIP: LeConte Lodge has food available ala carte for ALL hikers, not just for those staying at the lodge. Because everything has to be brought in by helicopter or llama, the menu is very limited — if I recall the best things on the menu were bagel with cream cheese, hard salami, and chocolate chip cookies. Drinks are limited to coffee, tea, water, hot cocoa, and Tang. Yes, Tang. Anyway, it makes a nice reward or stopping point for hikers planning on heading back down. Grab a bite and sit on the dining hall deck which stretches out over the side of the mountain and has one of the best, unobstructed views from the top.

VERDICT: Overall, it was a really fun hike with really beautiful views, especially after Alum Cave. Steep and sometimes never-ending, but not exceptionally difficult. I think anyone could do this hike if taken at his/her own pace.

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  • funnelcloud rachel
    October 12, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Scrolling through your pictures made me think, “Man, we need to go back to Great Smoky Mountains and give it a second chance.” We were there in 2008, and it didn’t really make a huge impression on us. It was nice, but sort of a typical “east coast” park – kind of like Shenandoah. Subtle beauty, but nothing that took my breath away. That being said, there was a lot we didn’t see and this hike looks awesome…

    …until I read the part about climbing 6,000 feet. WOW! And OUCH! And I cracked up at you lugging your camera gear because I do that, too (and sometimes make Larry carry it…) Luckily, mine doesn’t weigh 50 pounds, but really, why do I need all those extra lenses with me, when I never stop to switch them out mid-hike anyway??? (“But what if we see a bear and I can’t photograph it because I only brought my wide angle lens?!” Also, we DID see bears in GSM.)

    I never learn my lesson either…

  • veronika
    October 13, 2014 at 3:00 am

    The best part is lugging up all that gear (friggin’ tripod included) and then using our camera phones or a point and shoot for a lot of the photos. Will. Never. Learn.

    In my opinion East Coast parks, like East Coast ski resorts will never match what can be found on the West. It was hard for me to get used to initially, but after a while I started to really appreciate the “subtle beauty.” It takes a little more work but there are some hidden gems out here. It’s definitely different though.

    This hike in particular was really scenic, probably one of the better ones we’ve hiked out on this coast, Maine excluded. I don’t think the vertical gain is 6k feet from the trail head, just the height of the summit. There were quite a few senior citizens on the trail — apparently they hike up and back 1x a week — they were going at their own pace but

  • veronika
    October 13, 2014 at 3:20 am

    ps – have you seen this story that has been floating around on the internet recently? Definitely want to go back and explore: