One of the enduring pleasures in the Tennessee portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is scaling the 6,593 feet of beauty that is Mt. LeConte. It isn’t quite the highest mountain in the park, but it is by far the tallest hike from its base. The summit is so popular, there are five distinct trails to the top, varying in distance and difficulty. My favorite is the Alum Cave Trail. It is the shortest, at five miles to the summit, but as a result it is also the steepest and most difficult. At the top are cabins known as LeConte Lodge where hikers can spend the night and get a hot meal, for a price. There are three distinct overlooks, all spectacular, to enable long distance views in all directions. This hike occurred on September 9, 2010 beginning at 7:00AM and ending about 4:00PM. Making a day hike of Mt. LeConte requires planning, and stamina. I always plan to arrive at the trailhead at dawn, because getting up and back in the same day usually takes a full nine hours if you allow time for enjoying the great views of The Smokies along the way. It’s a three section hike. First, is the long, laborious climb to the top. Then plan to check out the Myrtle Point and Cliff Top overlooks at the summit. Finally, grind it out on the relentless descent.
Hike Length: 12 miles Hike Duration: 9 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: No blaze, none needed
Elevation Change: 2,763 feet Elevation Gain: 4,594 feet
Hike Configuration: Up and back, explore the summit
Trail Condition: Good, dangerous cliff edges, slippery rocks when wet
Starting Point: Alum Cave Trailhead on Newfound Gap Road
Trail Traffic: Mt. LeConte is a very popular destination. There is always a crowd, but there are fewer people on weekdays. The Thursday we hiked we saw probably 50 other hikers. We made it half way up the mountain before encountering anyone else, but by mid-morning the people who stayed overnight in LeConte Lodge began making their way down. Similarly, when we were descending, we encountered lots of hikers near the bottom who were out for a late afternoon stroll.
How to Get There: The trail starts from a large, signed parking area 6.8 miles south of Sugarlands, TN Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). If coming from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in NC, the trailhead parking is 2.5 miles past the Newfound Gap state line. The parking does fill quickly.
It’s a two hour drive from our homes in western North Carolina to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so we got a very early start on this day. Four of us arrived at the Alum Cave trailhead just before 7:00AM. The trail starts right off the bat with a couple of bridges over the Walker Camp Prong and then the Alum Cave Creek. The first mile and a quarter is relatively flat, a good thing because it still wasn’t quite completely light yet. There are some roots in the trail to stumble on, but mostly it’s in very good condition at the bottom. One of these days I’m going to invest in one of those head lamps. Two species of trees dominate the forest. Eastern hemlock are the tall evergreens with short needles, and the yellow birch with its peeling golden bark. More about the hemlock later. The first real landmark we came upon is Arch Rock.
Arch Rock is indeed an arch formed by water erosion. The trail climbs a couple dozen stairs straight up through the arch. This is the signal that it’s all uphill from here. The easy part is over. The next mile and a quarter is a steep climb to the Alum Cave Bluffs. Two miles into the hike we reached Inspiration Point where we could see the Eye of the Needle along the ridge formed by the bluffs, and one of our destinations, Myrtle Point. Here the forest begins to change to red spruce and fir, and treeless areas known as heath balds, or laurel slicks. One of these heath balds in particular is known as Huggins Hell. Two tenths of a mile further we reached Alum Cave. This isn’t really a cave, but instead just a large overhang in the bluffs that would provide reasonable shelter from the frequent storms. Many recreational hikers will turn back at this point, approximately half way to the LeConte summit. Meanderthals as we are, we forge on.
The first time I climbed Mt. LeConte I got caught on one of those foggy days where the air is full of mountain mist, and the views are only as long as your arm in spots. This time, we were considerably more fortunate. As we began climbing above the bluffs we could see the landslide scars. In 1951 a ferocious rain storm caused a flash flood to push trees and mountainside all the way down to Newfound Gap Road.
At this elevation the spruce gives way to more fir, and the appearance of mountain ash. The next section of trail is known as the Alum Cave Saddle. From here to the top, the mountains all around began to come into view as we got somewhat above treeline. To the southeast we could see the mountains and the low-lying valley fog along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The trail along the Saddle continued to be quite steep, and was mostly rock, hanging along the southern face of the mountain. Landmarks on the Saddle include Old Man’s Stump and Shirley’s Rock.
I mentioned the Eastern hemlocks above. They are some of the largest and most common trees in the Great Smoky Mountains. Unfortunately, they have been under attack from a non-native insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid. This tiny Asian bug is causing a significant blight and tree kill throughout the national park and surrounding mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, and all up the Appalachian chain. The National Park Service has been using multiple treatment strategies to save trees in targeted areas, but the grey, dead hemlock are very noticable on the mountainsides once you climb above treeline. You can learn more at Save Our Hemlocks or make a donation at Friends of the Smokies.
There was one more significant viewpoint before we reached the summit; West Point View. There are excellent sights of the Tennessee side of the national park and of the LeConte summit above. At 4.5 miles, the Alum Cave Trail joins with the Boulevard Trail, another of the five options for climbing Mt. LeConte. This is the last of the climbing, whew! The next 1/2 mile is flat, wooded trench trail that leads to LeConte Lodge. It took us 3 hours 10 minutes to get here. The lodge has a recreation building with an awesome porch with rocking chairs and a spectacular view of the Wear Valley and Douglas Lake below. It is a great spot to have lunch and rest for awhile.
After catching our breath and getting some nourishment, we headed to the first overlook, Cliff Top. It is only a quarter mile from the lodge off the Boulevard Trail to this lush area with about 270 degree panorama viewing. This is the best place on Mt. LeConte for sunset viewing. We then returned to the lodge to hike the half mile to Myrtle Point, to me the best reason for climbing Mt. LeConte. The photo at the top of this post is from Myrtle Point. Along the way we passed a park service shelter that can be used for cover in storms, or reserved for sleeping overnight. Myrtle Point has splendid views in every direction. You can even see Dolly Parton’s hometown, Sevierville, if you care. I could stay there for an hour, and have. Myrtle Point is the best location for sunrise views.
Best HikeWhen you’re standing on Myrtle Point looking at the gorgeous scenery all around, it’s easy to forget there’s at least two and a half hours of serious downhill hiking ahead. It is steep, and just waiting for carelessness. Much of the trail through the Saddle area is rock ledges that are slippery when wet, which is much of the time. But it’s a second chance to take in some of the scenery that may have been missed on the way up. I like to stop at Inspiration Point again on the way down for a short break. Remember, it is just as important to rest going downhill as it is going up. That last flat mile through the hemlock forest seems to go on forever, but we eventually heard the sounds of Alum Cave Creek meaning we were almost done. I have climbed Mt. LeConte four times now. Each time I thoroughly enjoyed it. I could see making it an annual thing. I rate the Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte as a best hike.
Meanderthals took another hike on the Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte on October 3, 2012. Here is the photo gallery from that adventure. Contrast the seasonal differences.