Nestled in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Mount LeConte / Alum Cave trail offers one of the best hikes in the Smokies! Beautiful overlooks, vibrant foliage, and a “cave”. Total time for hiking: Approximately 5 hours – includes a 30 minute break at the top.
- Plenty of water
- Bug repellent
- Quick dry towel
- Hiking shoes or trail shoes
- Rain jacket – it literally rains every day in the Smokies
- Rain pants or Gators are a good option
- Packed lunch or snacks
We spent the night at a nearby campsite on US Route 441 – Elkmont Campground. Our campsite was right alongside the river, which worked out splendidly for sleeping that night. Camping cost $25 per night. We ate a hobos dinner, which was quite tasty, and then played a few rounds of liars dice before retiring for the evening.
In the morning, we made our way to the trailhead, which has parking located just off of US 441. The signs will read, “Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead.” Please see below:
At the start of the trail, you’ll enjoy a path that is adjacent to the Alum Cave Creek. This will continue with several bridge overlooks and fern and rotodendrum foliage for about 1.4 miles. As we hiked, we felt like we were walking through a Jurassic Park scene.
Your first landmark is Arch Rock. Here the trail continues under the crossway and up some stairs. (Picture below)
Like in Arch Rock, you’ll find assistance lines throughout the trail that are anchored into nearby rocks or the side of the mountain. These railings are incredibly useful for you and your party’s safety while hiking in rain or icy conditions, as well as for adding security for those afraid of heights.
At 2 miles you should see the Eye of the Needle on Little Duck Hawk Ridge, which is a natural forming arch on the mountain. You might even be able to see a perigean falcon if you search close enough, which are oddly called duck hawks in the Smokies. The bird of prey is known to make their nests on the ridge.
Next up, at 2.4 miles on the trail, is Alum Cave……Ok, this is really more of an enclave and not much of a cave at all, but it still offers a nice place to rest and eat a snack. Especially considering the number of steps it just took you to make it to this landmark. Alum Cave is usually dry, except for the winter, which will sometimes allow for dangerous icicles to form on the cliff at the top of the enclave. I’ve also heard that the cave was used to harvest salt back in the day, but don’t quote me on it.
From Alum Cave you’ll continue along the path for another 2.5 miles. Along the way, there will be several scenic overlooks and some small, but none the less, delightful streams and occasional waterfalls, depending on the amount of rain.
At mile 5 you will see a trail junction where you can split off to see Rainbow Falls or continue to Mount LeConte. Stay right to proceed to the lodge at Mount LeConte, or, if you have the energy, feel free to add the falls to your excursion.
At the lodge, you can enjoy a sheltered meal, a store for basic gear, and food options for purchase. There is no lookout at the summit of Mount LeConte, which surprises most hikers considering that Mount LeConte is the 3rd highest mountain in the Smokies. If you are looking for a view, continue down the trail to Cliff Tops, just 0.2 miles more. Here you will have a wonderful panorama view.
Our personal favorite finds at the lodge were the pack llamas and learning about Gracie McNichole. Gracie hiked the trail some 244 times, and continued to do so all the way until she was in her early 90s.
There’s a group of llamas that come up 3 times a week. You can even request to have a pack assigned to one of them if you book in advance. Make sure to visit the Mount LeConte Lodge website for more info: http://www.lecontelodge.com You can also book lodging on their website.
After grabbing a few cameos with our new furry friends, we made the return journey backtracking on the same trail that we came. We finished the hike in about 5 hours and 15 minutes (with breaks), and then ended the day with a trip to Zaxby’s : )