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