I was recently inspired to start a NEW VIDEO SERIES on Day Hikes of the Smokies by my good friend Will “Redbeard” Wood. I wanted to highlight what I thought were the BEST day hikes and I wanted them to vary in length and difficulty.
As you all know already, Mount LeConte is near and dear to my heart. There is just so much that I love about that mountain. The trails, the views and the altitude simply “do it” for me. And it’s not even a seasonal thing for me. LeConte feels like home no matter what the weather is or time of season. I also know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Many of you, my friends and followers have expressed the same sentiments.
But my favorite route to this magnificent mountain is hands down Alum Cave Trail. I began both #fastestgsmnp900miler and #fastestgsmnp900miler2 with this trail to the LeConte Lodge. To say this trail is as special as the mountain itself would be correct. I personally feel like I’m not hiking alone when I’m on that trail. And I’m not talking about the other tourist or day hikers either.
So the other day my buddy Dewey Slusher asked if I wanted to get a hike in together. Of course I said yes. It had been a while since we had logged some trail miles together. I consider Dewey as one of my closest friends. We share the same passion for the Smokies and hike about the same pace. Important qualities in a hiking partner. Plus there’s no one that knows LeConte better than Dewey. He has logged over 300 trips to the LeConte Lodge. Now that’s impressive!!
On your trip to LeConte there are some locations that you need to know about. On Alum Cave Trail you will pass Arch Rock, Alum Cave Bluff and the Slide. These locations are worthy of a photo opp. Once you’re up on the mountain the LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops are definitely MUST SEE locations. Myrtle Point is the best spot to view a sunrise and Cliff Tops is the best location to view a sunset.
If you plan to camp on the mountain, you will need a backcountry permit to stay at the LeConte Shelter. It’s a very popular shelter so make sure you reserve your permits early, but not more than 30 days out. Also keep in mine the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may temporarily close US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road if winter weather is forecasted. Also the Lodge itself is usually closed from November through Mid March or April.
There’s a parking area on US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road that is used for hikers and lodge guest. This parking area can get very congested so I would get there early. There’s also a restroom there, but it is closed November through March. You can find the Trailhead is located behind the parking area near the stream.
At Alum Cave Trailhead you’ll start out at an elevation of 3,800′ and begin a slight ascent through a mix of eastern hemlocks and hardwoods. Coupled with rhododendrons, this area is very thick and dense. This section of trail also follows along side of Alum Cave Creek which offers the soothing sounds from the stream.
Roughly about 1.4 miles up trail you reach Styx Branch and Arch Rock which is one of the most unique locations on this trail. You will cross two footlog bridges then follow the trail as it passes through Arch Rock like a tunnel. This can get very congested here as there is not a lot of room on the trail as it passes through Arch Rock.
At mile 2.0, the forest opens up to a rocky spur. This location is called Inspiration Point. From this spot you can see down the valley and see other points of interest such as Chimney Tops, Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Alum Cave Bluffs. When hiking up during early morning hours before sunrise. This is a great place to star gaze.
Not far past Inspiration Point you’ll come to a set of wooden steps. This is just a small taste of what you are about to encounter. Just .2 miles up you hit the mother of all stairs on this trail, Stairway to Heaven. For the next .1 of a mile it is nothing but steps. It slows things down here and the congestion of day hikers and tourists can get a little overwhelming at times.
Once you are at Alum Cave Bluff, you’ve made it 2.3 miles from the parking lot. This is a great place to take a break and take in the view. The Cave will be very dusty, almost like a “moon dust”. The climate here at the Cave is very arid and creates the perfect environment for dusty soil that contains an abundant amount of Epsom salts.
When your at Alum Cave Bluff you are roughly at the halfway point. Congratulations! But you still have the other half to climb. As you continue up the trail you will come to a few view spots where you can see Little Duck Hawk ridge and a view of Inspiration Point. But after a short climb, the trail turns the corner and begins a short descent for the next .4 miles. This is a nice break for the legs and lungs before you begin your unrelenting ascent to Mt LeConte.
At mile 3.8 you reach the 180 Stairs. You have roughly 1.2 miles to the trail intersection with Rainbow Falls and Boulevard Trail. This last mile honestly is my favorite part of the trail. You have carved out sections of trail in the rock with cable assists, natural springs that flow nearly year round and open views of the Chimney Tops and Clingmans Dome. As you near the end of your climb you can look above you and see the rock face of Cliff Tops.
Once you finish ascending, the trail make a sharp right hand turn and levels out in to a Fraser Fir forest. This is the area that feels extra special to me. When I make it here, I know my climb is basically over and I’m only .2 miles from the Rainbow Falls/Boulevard/Alum Cave junction and another .1 to the lodge. You can almost call it my happy place.. And here is where I congratulate you. You just ascended 2,600′ while hiking up Alum Cave Trail. You are roughly at 6,400′ above sea level. This is reason to celebrate!!! If the lodge is open, you NEED a cookie!!
Now after getting to the trail junction, make a right onto the Boulevard Trail and go .1 mile. You will come to the Cliff Tops Trail which is not an official trail of the park. It will take you .2 miles up to Cliff Tops. But just a few more yards past the Cliff Tops sign is the steps down to the LeConte Lodge. Now if the lodge is open, go sign your John Hancock in the guest registers in the lodge office….. and go grab that cookie from the dining hall!
Now if you choose to go to Myrtle Point then you will continue to hike straight on the Boulevard Trail another .4 miles up trail to the intersection with the Myrtle Point Trail. It too is not an official trail of the park. But while in route to there you will pass both the LeConte Shelter and High Point, the tallest point on Mount LeConte.