Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail is a fantastic and classic hike. Mount LeConte, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the third highest peak in the National Park at 6,593. The mountain is the most visible mountain from Gatlinburg, TN and is the mountain many associate with the Park.
While there are a number of trails that lead up to the summit and LeConte Lodge, Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail is the most popular, and is also a “classic” hike. Alum Cave Trail has pretty much everything a hiker could want: Creeks, bridges, geological features, elevation gains, cliff side sections, incredible views and more! Seriously, Alum Cave trail to LeConte has it all.
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The Alum Cave trailhead begins in the center of two parking lots, located directly off Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You immediately cross two brides, one over Walker Camp Prong, and the other over Alum Cave Creek. Both are gorgeous and make for a great start, to an amazing hike.
The trail is really divided into two main sections. The first part of the trail is moderate, and goes from the trailhead, 2.5 miles out to Alum Cave, the location of an old Alum mine. The trail starts by following along Alum Cave Creek for a while and remains mostly flat. The trail then begins a slow and steady climb up to Alum Cave.
In this portion of the trail you’ll see beautiful dense forest, many small waterfalls, and get to climb up through a small cave, one of my favorite parts of this hike. You’ll then climb into a more rocky area, that offers some tremendous high altitude views. Shortly after, you’ll reach Alum Cave itself.
You can read more about this portion of the trail, and see lots of photos in our Alum Cave Trail Guide.
We’ve hiked this portion of the trail many times, and it’s wonderful.
On May 11th, we decided to not stop at Alum Cave, and continue on up to LeConte to just see how far we could go. We made it all the way up!
The second part of the trail continues from the top of the Alum mine, and climbs up to the top of Mount LeConte. The Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail portion is 2.7 miles long and strenuous. You’ll want to make sure you have plenty of water if you decide to continue, this portion of the trail is not for the faint of heart, and is the most difficult 2.7 miles we’ve ever done hiking.
As you begin this portion of the hike from Alum Cave, you’ll immediately notice the trail begins with a more aggressive climb up the side of the mountain.
As you round the mountains side, to your left you’ll see Mount LeConte, and the peak at the top you’ll be climbing too. You can see this view in the photo to the right – Yes, you’ll be climbing almost to the top. Clifftops is the area almost in the center of the photo, near the top. The trail runs to the top just below there.
As you climb up, the views to your left, and even to the right, are often stunning. This portion offered our first view of the charred Chimney Tops, which were burned very badly during the Gatlinburg Fires.
The trail will continue to wind its way along the side of the mountain, and along ridges as it twists and turns, making its way up to the top of LeConte.
The trail is amazing, and the recent improvements to widen the trail and make it a more pleasurable hike were a big success. We met many people along the way praising the changes. In some of the more steep and slick areas, there are now stairs, and quite a few of them in some places.
Speaking of people, we met lots of fellow hikers on this section, heading up to LeConte Lodge to spend the night. For many, it wasn’t there first time.
We met a group of people hiking up, with some exceptional members. One was a recent cancer survivor, another a 74 year lady who was going up for her 7th time, and another member was disabled and had difficulty walking. Wow!
Another couple we met was coming down from spending a few nights up at the Lodge, and they both had to be in their 70s as well. All of these people inspired us, and made us realize how spiritual this hike is for people. They gave me perspective, and I felt fortunate to be the age I am (47 at the time of this writing) and have the health I do have.
If you’re afraid of heights, just a heads up that a good portion of this sections of the trail is along cliffsides, where the trail narrows to 4-5 feet, and you have a rock wall to your right, and a drop off to your left. I’m afraid of heights, and while these did make my heart race a bit, I found I was able to cross them. The Park service has installed cables along these sections of the trail to hang on to, and I definitely used them.
The cliff and rocky areas of the trail are often wet, especially in the spring due to water coming out of the rock. So hold onto the cables, and watch your step. We highly recommend a good set of hiking boots or shoes with non-slip soles.
After a while, we reached a point where we knew we were close to the top, or at least hoped we were, and decided to take some photos and take a break. This location was actually below Clifftops, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
A fellow hiker in his 60s was headed down while we were taking a break, and told us we were about 6 minutes away. He also pointed out Clingman’s Dome for us in the distance. He hiked the trail weekly! I was in awe.
Sure enough, we continued our climb, and just around the corner the trail leveled off and went through a forest full of moss color rocks, and Frasier fur trees (see photo to the right). This portion of the trail, to LeConte Lodge, is gorgeous, and smells wonderful!
We soon passed the intersection of Rainbow Falls Trail, and continued hiking where we saw LeConte Lodge finally on the left. At the intersection, Alum Cave Trail merges with Rainbow Falls Trail to the Lodge.
LeConte Lodge is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. The Lodge is located on a grassy slope, just below the summit of LeConte, and faces Eastern Tenneseee, where you can see Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Elevation is 6,400 feet, at the Lodge itself.
Making it to this amazing Inn on the top of a mountain has been on our bucket list for a while. We just had to get that famous LeConte Lodge Photo with the Dining hall in the background showing the date we made it, and the elevation. Fortunately a couple of hikers were kind enough to take the photo for us. Make sure you get a photo, you’ll be glad you did.
The Lodge, as you can see is rustic, with buildings constructed of rough hewn logs. They do not having the amenities we associate with modern life. Heat is provided by propane and lighting by kerosene lanterns.
The lodge features multiple cabins that can be rented for one or more nights, along with restroom facilities, a Dining hall, and Office. The office has lots of rocking chairs, both inside and on the porch. It also has books, board games, and a number of guitars you can use. Two young men were playing and singing on the porch when we are there, they were incredibly talented.
Reservations at LeConte Lodge can be tough to get, and the Lodge is often booked out a year or more in advance. Breakfast and Dinner are included in the nightly price, and a hearty meal is served in the dining hall for guests. Their website has more detail on reservations, and accomodations.
Day Hikers can purchase a bag lunch in the dining hall between 12 and 4pm. The lunch consists of a bagel, cream cheese, summer sausage, cookies, a fruit snack, gatorade powder, trail mix, and drink (lemonade, water, hot chocolate and coffee) – all for $11. Credit and Debit cards are accepted, although, the old fashion way using imprint machines, which I hadn’t seen for years! We purchased three of the lunches, and headed to a picnic table to relax, enjoy the sites and sounds, and eat.
The staff was amazingly helpful and friendly.
That’s when we saw the Llamas …
Given the only way to access LeConte Lodge is via one of five hiking trails, supplies for the lodge must be hiked in or brought in via helicopter. Using a helicopter is expensive, and dangerous due to frequent high winds at the lodge. The Llamas provide the majority of the transportion.
The Llamas use the Trilium Gap trail, and they generally make the trip up and back on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They arrive at the trailhead between 6:00 and 6:30 am and are usually on the trail between 7:30 and 8:00 am. The Llamas can make the hike up in about 4 hours. They have lunch, rest a little, and return to the parking lot around 6:00 pm.
They were really neat, with so much personality!
Reaching the summit of Mount LeConte requires another half mile hike, past LeConte Lodge. You’ll pass by the intersection of Trillium Gap trail to your left, and then a short distance beyond is the place called High Top, the summit of Mount LeConte. At this point you are actually on the trail called “The Boulevard”.
You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see a large rock cairn in the woods to your right and off the trail. Unfortunately there is no scenic view here, but you have the satisfaction of making it to the top!
On past the summit another .4 miles, a trail will head to the right off the main Boulevard trail, called Myrtle Point Trail. This trail will take you to Myrtle Point. Myrtle Point provides a nearly 360 degree view from the top of Mount LeConte.
This location is famous for being the best sunrise location on the mountain. This is a VERY popular photography destination.
After eating lunch, we decided to make the .2 mile hike from the lodge up to an area called Clifftops, which we were told was gorgeous. Clifftops didn’t disappoint at all.
The trail up to Clifftops is located almost directly across from the main Lodge entry pathway. The trail up is a bit of a steep climb, and you have to climb up some rocks to get there, but it’s well worth it. The views are amazing!
Clifftops is the best location for sunsets.
We spent a good 20 – 30 minutes here, before deciding it was time to head back down Alum Cave Trail in order to reach the car before dark.
On the way down, we stopped off at the LeConte Lodge Office, and bought shirts that say “We hiked it! 2017”. These shirts are available in a few different colors, styles and sizes, and are ONLY available at the Lodge Office. So you can wear this as proof and with pride that you hiked to the lodge. Cash and credit cards accepted (no American Express).
The LeConte Lodge resort was established in 1925, and was first a tent, then a small and very rustic cabin. Then another cabin was built, and it grew from there. Paul Adams, in 1924, led an expedition of dignitaries from Washington up the mountain. To appreciate the rugged terrain and weather, they stayed the night in a tent.
That tent later developed into a 20×24 foot cabin, built by entrepreneur Jack Huff. For over 35 years, Jack and his wife expanded on and operated the lodge. The lodge was sold in the 1960s.
Today, the Lodge is owned and operated by the National Park Service, and continues to host up to 50 guests each night in its rustic cabins. The lodge is still only accessible via hiking trails up the side of Mount LeConte.
I’m not really sure what the exact attraction is to Mount LeConte. Maybe it’s the remoteness of it, or the beautiful and scenic vistas, or the pure challenge of hiking up to it’s 6,500 foot summit.
Regardless, the mountain is spiritual, and hiking it to the top and seeing the views, reminds you of how awesome this world really is. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle we has humans have created, and takes you back to more simple times where you can just enjoy being alive.
We’ll be back, and probably soon. I hear the summit calling me, daring me to try again, to push myself. This is a hike everyone should do. Just start early, take your time, and rest as you need to. It’s difficult, and will push many of you, but it’s worth it.
“Some times what you are most afraid of doing, is the very thing that will set you free”