TO THE TRAILHEAD: From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, wind your way up Newfound Gap Road for 8.7 miles. The trailhead and parking area will be on the left side of the road. This parking area is large, with two different places to park vehicles. If you are coming from Cherokee (Oconaluftee Visitor Center) coming 23.3 miles and the parking area will be on your right.
THE HIKE: The Alum Cave Trail is one of the busiest trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This one, however, deserves all of the foot traffic it receives. There are numerous views along this trail as well as interesting and unique points of interest that you simply will not find anywhere else. Though the trail itself is not difficult, it will challenge you in several place and reward you for your effort.
The start of the hike puts you in the middle of the forest with tress on all sides. There are a few log bridge crossings that offer some visual stimulation and great places for a rest, should you need them. However, the first 1.3 miles slopes gently and easily until you get to your first major milestone, Arch Rock.
Arch Rock is a massive arching rock formation with stairs built into actually climbing up the rock. This is a fun and wonderful feature (as well as a great place for a photo). Cables line the side of the rock to aid in footing. The climbing itself is not treachorous or particularly difficult, but should be done with caution. The steps require sound footing and in heavy rain, snow, or ice can be very slick.
At roughly 2.2 miles, you will reach Inspiration Point. This area does not have signage on the trail, but the views of Mrytle Point on Mount LeConte and several other peaks and features will be instantly recognizable. Once you have taken in the views and caught your breath, it is time to move on to the Bluffs.
The last .1 mile to Alum Cave Bluffs increases in difficulty. The trail is more steep and will leave you a bit winded when you reach your destination. The Bluffs are a great place to relax, take in the view, and snap many photographs. This area received extensive mining in years past for epsom and has contributed greatly to the look of the bluffs and the grounds around it. Though not truly a cave, the Bluffs provide a large overhang for you to rest your weary legs and lungs before departing back to the trailhead or continuing up the trail. There is nothing inherently dangerous about this spot, but it should be mentioned that in times of snow and ice, this place can be problematic. The ground on and around the bluffs is steep and icy conditions can challenge your footing. In addition, the huge overhang is full of falling snow and icicles during the winter months. You should be very aware of what is above you when resting here.
Though most people will turn around at this point, the trail does continue on to the summit of Mt. LeConte. It will be apparent that you are in for a more serious hike from the moment you leave the Bluffs. The trail steepens sharply and you are led on a narrow path with sheer dropoffs on one side with cables bolted into the rocks to hold on to. These may not be entirely necessary in the summer months, but are a necessity during the winter months when the trail is frozen with ice and snow. Along the next 2.5 miles you will encounter many places for excellent views and serenity as the crowds will have diminished greatly by now. This trail will intersect with the Trillium Gap Trail, Bullhead, Rainbow falls, and Boulevard trail as you make your way to the top. As you can see, there are several ways to climb to the top of Mount LeConte. Leconte Lodge, the only backcountry lodge in the Smokies, sits near the top at 5.1 miles from the start of the hike. Reservations can be made to stay here overnight, but should be done well in advance. You can find out more about the lodge by clicking HERE. Short trails (.4 miles to High Top) lead to the three main points of the summit of Mount LeConte. These include Cliff Top, High Top, and Mrytle Point. Each of these offers something unique and should be visited. High Top is the tallest point on the mountain does not offer any memorable views. Cliff Top offers expansive views and a great place to watch a sunset, while Myrtle Point is one of (if not the best) place in the park to watch a sunrise. You can come back the way you came at this point or arrange for a shuttle and come back to a different trailhead and see new scenery along the way.