Planning to hike the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte? Start here.
If you’ve hiked most of the trails within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you know that the great majority of them are breathtaking and picturesque.
The majority of the Smoky Mountain hiking trails are short enough that they can take about one to four hours, depending on their distance and altitude, and the number of rest stops you make.
You now might be ready for the challenge of a longer hike – one that most people will attempt for part of the way, but few will cover the entire distance.
Even though it may not be an elevation monster like Mt. Cammerer, Gregory Bald, or Rocky Top, you’ll still feel like you’ve conquered something major when you tackle this Mt LeConte hike!
Introducing the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
Don’t allow the popularity of this route scare you off. The geological diversity, fascinating history, and amazing scenery are worth the dodging and yielding that you will likely do with other hikers.
An out-and-back Smoky Mountain hike of 11 miles and an elevation gain of 2,763 mean this popular trail is realistically out of reach for most of the Park’s casual day hikers.
But if you have the time (about 7-10 hours) and stamina to do the whole thing, you definitely can brag about it to friends and family, who will likely be quite impressed, and you’ll get to experience the incredible views at the summit of the Mt LeConte trail.
My brother and I hiked up Alum Cave trail on November 18th, stayed overnight at Leconte Lodge & hiked down on November 19th. Here are some landmarks to look for along the trail. The first mile of the trail presents a gentle grade and follows alongside the Skye Branch.
At the 1.4-mile mark, you will reach Arch Rock where you will navigate a number of stone steps that actually take you under and around the Arch.
Next, the trail begins to gain elevation as you ascend toward Alum Cave. At around the 2.3-mile mark, you will arrive at Alum Cave. Not an actual Cave but bluffs that are about 80 feet high. We took the opportunity to stop here, rest, and have a protein bar before starting the 2.7-mile ascent to the summit of Mt. Leconte.
In another 3/10 of a mile, you will see a small rock outcropping known as Gracie’s Pulpit. This marks the halfway point to the Lodge.
The final two miles are both the most challenging & rewarding. As you gain elevation you will encounter many stairs to climb as well as several narrow rock ledges with steep drop-offs. To help you navigate these there are cable handrails to hang onto. These are difficult in snow but especially if you encounter ice. Your reward is that there are multiple picture-taking opportunities.
The days we hiked were mostly clear and very cold with some ice at higher elevations. The views were spectacular.
As you approach the summit the trail flattens out as you pass through a forest of spruce-fir trees. Here the trail intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail. From here turn right & is a very short distance to the Lodge (It will be on your left). The actual summit is approximately another 1/2 mile. We hiked to High Top & watched the sunrise on Friday at Cliff Top.
The total round trip is 10 miles to the Lodge & 11 miles to the summit of Mt. Leconte. The trail gains 502 feet per mile with a total elevation gain of 2363 feet. This trail is rated strenuous.
FYI…This is one of the most popular trails in the GSMNP and has limited parking. There is a restroom at the trailhead.
How to get to the Alum Cave Trailhead
Head out on Newfound Gap Road/US Highway 441 and go 12 miles south of Gatlinburg. You’ll find two parking lots, and sometimes that’s still not enough to contain all of the people going on the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte.
Try to get here as early as possible to get a space and not settle for parking on the side of the road. While the trail is open year-round, the busiest times run between March and November.
From the Alum Cave Trailhead to Arch Rock
Starting out, you’ll ramble over an easy one-mile section that skirts the Alum Cave Creek, then the Styx Branch which is carpeted with rhododendron in the summertime.
In a third of a mile, you’ll arrive at Arch Rock, so named because it’s a black slate formation sculpted into this shape as you climb a flight of rock stairs.
Go a little further, and you’ll come to Inspiration Point, one of the many panoramic stops you’ll enjoy along the trail. The landmarks you’ll see off in the distance include Little Duck Hawk Ridge (with the Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock) westward and Myrtle Point in the northeast.
From Arch Rock to Alum Cave
The next stretch of the trail covers 2.2 miles and brings you Alum Cave, a misnamed feature because it’s really a covered bluff, 80 feet high and about 500 feet wide. But it does provide a nice shade from the summer heat, and protection from rainstorms.
Be careful if you’re here in winter – icicles have been known to fall without warning from the bluff’s edge.
Once abundant in Epsom salt, miners excavated it from the rock. Civil War soldiers also mined it for saltpeter for gunpowder.
Here’s the most traveled part of the route, so expect the crowds to thin out some before you hike further.
Another notable landmark and scenic point, Gracie’s Pulpit, awaits further up and is the halfway mark to the summit. It was named after a young-at-heart hiker who climbed this trail on her 92nd birthday.
From Alum Cave Bluffs to Mt. LeConte Summit
Now the fun begins for the final 3 miles. You’ll keep ascending on narrowing rock cliffs with necessary cable handrails. In a few places, waterfalls tumble down the ledges, so cross these sections with care.
You might think about turning around at this point, but keep going and persist – stunning views await!
When you get to Cliff Top, the trail levels out and you’ll encounter a spruce-fir forest, and the Mt. LeConte Lodge and cabins. Stop here for a welcome break.
Note that before you get here, you’ll need to turn right at Rainbow Falls Trail, because the Alum Rock will end. You’ll still need to trek up another half-mile to get to the top, which is also called High Top.
Relish in your achievement here and enjoy the panoramic views at the Mt LeConte summit, before heading back down the mountain.
I have hiked the Alum Cave Trail at least five times and regard it as one of my favorite trails, along with Chimney Tops, and the Appalachian Trail. This is definitely my preferred route to ascend Mount LeConte as well.
For a spectacular, long day hike, begin at Newfound Gap, hike to Charlies Bunion, take the Boulevard Trail to Mount LeConte, and descend down the Alum Cave Trail. I took this route on a day hike this summer, and I believe it was my favorite hike I’ve done in the park.
The trail begins by traveling alongside a beautiful creek for over a mile. At a mile, you arrive at an interesting hole in a rock face known as Arch Rock. A steep series of stairs with a handrail ascend through the hole. After this, the trail begins to ascend moderately, and you get some good views. You reach a beautiful overlook of the Smokies, including a great view of Chimney Tops at about 2 miles.
Less than 1/2 mile later you ascend very steeply for a short distance and arrive at Alum Cave. This alcove is a nice turn-around point for those who are just looking for a short hike. There is a lot of sand here, I assume alum, created by the erosion of the cliff faces.
From Alum Cave to Mount LeConte the trail winds around mountainsides and ascends moderately, at points rather steeply, the entire time. You get some good views most of the length of the trail. Eventually, you get near the summit of Mount LeConte where trees enclose the trail rather tightly.
You will reach Mount LeConte Lodge at just under 5 miles. Here, there are several cabins where you can spend a night if you have advance reservations, but you must make these reservations months, sometimes years, in advance. Less than 1/2 mile past the guest lodge you will pass the shelter and reach the summit of Mount LeConte, marked by a rock cairn.
In short, this trail provides awesome hiking options for anyone. You can make it an hour stroll by walking to Arch Rock and back, hike for a few hours to Alum Cave and back, or make it a day hike by climbing Mount LeConte.
I highly recommend this trail to anyone who might be considering a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
More Smoky Mountain Hikes to Enjoy
If this strenuous hike along the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte didn’t phase you (or perhaps seems a bit too adventurous), be sure to try out these other Smoky Mountain hikes!