CABINS Great Smoky Mountains HIKING NATIONAL PARKS TENNESSEE

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS | Visual Guide to Alum Cave Trail

October 16, 2014

We took the same trail trail back down Mt. LeConte. Even though there were several trails we wanted to explore all of those ended up in a different parking lot and we didn’t want to have to hike or hitchhike back to our car.

Welcome to Alum Cave Trail, Part 2. This time in reverse – from summit to trail head.

From LeConte Lodge, go right on the trail behind the cabins and in no time at all you will pass through the enchanted forest that looks even more more magical with a thick blanket of fog.

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I’m pretty sure magical elves live in this forest.

And no, I have not seen LOTR way too many times.

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But first, let’s meet our fearless tour guides, shall we?

Tour Guide 1: a friendly and helpful guide that is able to carry loads of gear in his Alice pack, including Tour Guide 2’s excessive amount of “just in case” layers and the tripod that she does not feel like carrying, even down hill.

great smoky mountains / alum cave trail

Tour Guide 2: is considerably less friendly, is startled when strangers talk to her, whines pretty much the entire way up the mountain, is scared of everything, and refuses to pack light.

Which tour guide do you choose? Hard choice, I know.

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There are several trails that lead up to the summit of Mt. LeConte, but no matter which one you choose, they all converge at this point.

At least I think they do.

I told you that you should have gone with Tour Guide #1.

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If you’re heading to the lodge or the summit and you see this sign, it’s time to celebrate! Turn right, you’re nearly there!

If you’re heading back DOWN from the summit/lodge, then turn left at this sign to get back on the Alum Cave Trail.

Once out of the magical forest the path turns to rock. If it’s foggy or rainy — and it quite often is — then these rocks will be pretty slippery. But never fear, just grab onto the equally slippery cable handrail tacked into the side of the mountain.

I’m sure it’s all very safe, or else they wouldn’t let people hike this trail. Right?

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Don’t forget to bring a 50lb backpack full of camera gear to take photos of the magnificent view!

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When you get to this section of the trail — look for the mossy wall on the left (if heading down)/right (if heading up) that is dripping water down into a little pool that creates a mini waterfall as it warily streams down the cliff face. On a clear day, this is a really great spot for panoramic photos.

On a foggy day, it’s a great spot for foggy photos.

We love the fog (we lived in SF after all), but if you don’t, then delay your hike until the morning fog has burned off. Or, if you’re like us, you can procrastinate all day then hit the trail so late in the day that you only hope to get to the end point before nightfall.

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Did you know that the Great Smokies are also known as “The Salamander Capital of the World?”

According to the NPS website:

“There are at least 30 different species of salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This gives the Smokies the distinction of having the most diverse salamander population anywhere in the world.”

We only saw one poor salamander as it scurried across the trail in front of me. Sly didn’t believe me when I said I saw a salamander. After poking around in the moss and leaves, I successfully found, and scared, the living crap out of the salamander. It was a small price to pay to be able to prove that I was right.

(Seriously though, no salamanders were harmed. Sly just really loves salamanders and I really wanted to find one to show him. Because somehow I’m the salamander whisperer?)

There were a ton also of flowers blooming along this trail. Enjoy these blurry photos taken with my point and shoot and/or camera phone knowing full well that at any point I could have opened the pack strapped to my back to take a better photo with one of my ‘real’ cameras.

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Down, down, down the mountain you’ll go, picking up speed until it feels as if you’re practically flying in the clouds. The path wraps around the mountain and the trees open up just for a bit, then it’s more climbing and scrambling over rocks and wooden ladder staircases until you hit the half-way point: Alum Cave.

What’s a few more photos of Alum Cave to add to the zillions of photos you took on your way up?

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^^ For once I’m not over-exaggerating. It is this steep. ^^

After the cave, continue along the switchback trails, smugly passing people as they make their way up to the mountain. This time it is they who will ask you how much further to the top, and it is you that can reply, “maybe 45 minutes.” (Actually from the cave to the top is the steepest part of the trail, and probably would take 1.5-2 hrs depending on how fast you went — and how few pictures you took.)

Soon you will see the first of many rough-hewed log bridges, all with only one hand rail. It’s fine if you’re just crossing by yourself. Not so fine if/when people in a hurry coming from the other direction want to cross at the same time.

…or if you want to lean over the edge — the one without a handrail — to snap a death-defying shoegazing photo…

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After hiking through lush vegetation the trail will become suspiciously rocky again.

And then you’ll see this — a dark black hole known as Arches Rock.  And you’ll wonder, as your eyes scan the area and notice a cable handrail, “am I supposed to go down into that hole?”

Why, yes, you are.

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Your reward lays waiting on the other side.

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Now comes the easy part: keep following the stream until you find yourself back at the trail head.

This is a beautiful hike both ways. It’s challenging but not impossible. Every twist and turn and climb reveals new vistas, beautiful flora, babbling brooks, black holes and caves, and slithering creatures. Take your time, take lots of photos, and you can make it to the top in about 3-4 hrs and back down in less than half that time.

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But perhaps my favorite part of any hike is pulling off muddy hiking boots, changing into flip flops, and heading to the local gift shop/convenience store for a well-earned Dr. Pepper.

And maybe a cheeseburger with fries…

And a slice of pie..

And a bag of chips for the road…

For another perspective of the Alum Cave Trail, click here.

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