Over Memorial Day weekend, we decided to head out and hike up Alum Cave Trail, located in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, off Newfound Gap Road
Roundtrip Distance: 4.4 miles
Features: Scenic Views, Geological features, Creeks, small waterfalls, bridges, old growth forest
Directions: From the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, TN drive 8.7 miles south along Newfound Gap Road to the Alum Cave Trailhead parking area on your left. Alum Cave Trail is very popular, and there are two parking areas, which fill up quickly. Vehicles are often found parked along the road.
Recommended Gear: Good hiking boots or shoes, Daypack, Dayhiker First Aid Kit, some snacks, plenty of water and of course your favorite digital camera.
Alum Cave Trail is one of the most popular trails in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to it’s variety of scenery, geological points of interest, and ease of access. The trail is also the most popular trail to the famous Leconte Lodge, at the top of Leconte mountain.
Alum Cave Trail is located directly off of Newfound Gap Road, about 10 miles outside of Gatlinburg TN, and about a mile from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Due to the trail’s popularity, there are two parking lots at the trailhead, and unless you arrive early, both will generally be full.
We had to park about a quarter of a mile down from the trail along Newfound Gap Road, when we visited this past weekend. Frankly, with all the traffic along Newfound Gap Road, walking up it is a bit dangerous, so be careful. Here was the view from our vehicle looking up towards the parking lot.
The parking lot in this photo, is up near the third car coming towards us, so not a short walk. The parking lot does have restroom facilities, but they are pretty typical park restrooms and are really more like modern outhouses. Consider yourself warned 😉
From the restrooms, the trailhead is located in the far right (looking towards the woods). The trailhead is a long wooden bridge that really sets the expectations for the gorgeous hike you’re about to take. Here’s the view, looking up Alum Cave Creek from the bridge:
From the bridge, the trail begins it’s ascent, with a very gradual upward incline. Elevation at the trail head is 3,830 feet. The trail follows along with Alum Cave Creek for 1.3 miles. The trial winds through an absolutely beautiful and heavily canopied old growth forest. Some of the trees are just plain huge.
The trail is easy to follow, and well maintained, mostly due to the heavy traffic due to the trail’s popularity. This portion of the trail was actually our favorite, due to all of the access points to Alum Cave Creek, which is full of small waterfalls, and nice wading areas. We stopped often to take photos and play in the water. Our kids loved taking their shoes off and wading in the shallows. The rush of the creek water as you are hiking up the trail is really amazing. One of my favorite sounds.
Here are two of the many waterfall photos I took along this portion of the trail.
At the 1.3 mark, you’ll come to another log bridge, which crosses over Styx Branch. Directly on the other side, is Arch Rock. Arch Rock is a very large black slate rock, that due to years and years of freezing and thawing caused a natural arch to form in the rock. The trail goes through and up the arch via rough stone steps. The stairs are pretty steep, and there is a metal cable in the wall to the left to hang on to. The day we hiked, it had been raining a little, so the stairs were very slick.
Here’s a photo of Arch Rock, looking up from the bottom of the stairs.
Once at the top of the the stairs through Arch Rock, the trail will be almost solid rock for a bit, then turn back into the soft wood forest floor. Hikers will note that there are more rocks from here on up, and the closer you get to the top, the more rocky it gets.
The trail also becomes a little steeper from here on up, not significantly, but enough to notice. Unfortunately, you’ll also slowly move away from Alum Cave Creek and Styx branch, and will slowly lose the peaceful sound of the water.
The next point on the trail is Inspiration point, famous for it’s scenic views. Inspiration point is located about 2 miles from the trailhead. Inspiration point offers views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, and Myrtle Point, located near the top of Mount LeConte. The “Eye of the Needle”, a hole in the rock on the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, is also visible, although a better view is a little further up the trail.
Elevation at inspiration point is 4700 feet. If you are used to hiking at higher elevations, you’ll definitely feel it.
Just prior to reaching inspiration point, you’ll note the trail color darkens, and becomes significantly more rocky, even becoming solid rock at times. Inspiration point also includes a number of Rhododendron and wildflowers.
Those hiking with kids will want to keep a close eye on your kids from this point forward, as there are some significantly steep cliffs just off to the side of the trail. You’ll know this when you begin to see the cable handrails to the right of the trail. We kept our younger kids close, and held our 8yo daughters hand through this area. Don’t get me wrong, it’s safe if you’re careful.
Here are a few pictures taken from Inspiration Point, including the “Eye of the Needle” along Duck Hawk Ridge
Not much further up the trail at the 2.2 mile mark from the trailhead is Alum Cave Bluff. Trust me, you’ll know it when you get there.
Alum Cave Bluff isn’t really a cave, but a large arch in the side of the mountain. The Bluff is 80 foot tall, and solid rock from bottom to top. If you look at the top edge, you’ll note some really neat looking trees growing right on the edge. The floor of the Cave is covered in powered clay, and the stuff really sticks to you.
The floor also doesn’t have many places to sit, so try to find a rock if you can. The floor inclines downhill, with some steep drops at the bottom, so don’t let your kids get far. This is a common destination point for most hikers on the trail, and you’ll see lots of people here on most days.
Elevation at Alum Cave is 4,950 feet.
Here’s the view from the cave:
If you visit during the winter, be very careful. Icicles form at the top of the cave, some up to 3 and 4 foot long and will fall. Because of these we don’t recommend going up into the cave, and if you do, keep a close eye out.
Most hikers turn around here and head on back down the trail to the trailhead. But you can continue on up to the top of LeConte Mountain and visit Leconte Lodge, another 2.8 miles. The hike past Alum Cave is the steepest portion of the trail.
We hung out in the cave for about 45 minutes, resting, drinking some water, and eating our snacks to energize up for the walk back down. Fortunately, going down is much easier than going up and we found ourselves back at the parking lot all too soon.
We loved Alum Cave Trail, and will definitely do it again in the future. So far, it’s our favorite trail in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
>> Be sure and read about our recent hike all the way up Alum Cave Trail to the top of Mount LeConte and LeConte Lodge.