If you've ever been to the Smokies chances are you've heard of Mt. LeConte. The big mountain with three peaks looms over the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg and is visible as you drive towards your vacation destination as soon as you hit the 407 exit. While this mountain in the park isn't the tallest (it's the third tallest, after Clingman's Dome and Mt. Guyot), it's definitely the most famous! In fact, when the writers of the song Rocky Top, the University of Tennessee's fight song, got together to write the song they were sitting in Gatlinburg looking at Mt. LeConte! If you're wanting to hike up one of the five different trails going up Mt. LeConte, chances are you'll choose Alum Cave Trail. This trail is the shortest route, although not necessarily the easiest route, up to the summit. I recently hiked up the Alum Cave Trail and down the Rainbow Falls Trail on the opposite side of the mountain for a guided hike. Here's a recap of the new and improved Alum Cave Trail.
When we first stepped on trail I was definitely impressed at all the hard work the crews have put in on this trail. Alum Cave Trail is in the process of being rebuilt and is wide enough for the large crowds it attracts now! The first 1.2 miles up to Arch Rock were pretty uneventful and the new staircase inside is easy to navigate and looks amazing (sorry I didn't get a photo of this one). From here we had a little more climbing before stopping at Inspiration Point - a heath bald with views of the natural arches over on Little Duckbill and the Eye of the Needle. At this point, we're still climbing what is known as Peregrine Peak, named for the bird that is also nesting here over on Little Duckbill and at the Eye. There is an incredibly hefty fine for going off trail to that area and disturbing the birds. After our break, we climbed up to the namesake of this trail - the Alum Cave Bluff. This sandy "cave" is a microclimate here in the Smokies and is actually considered a desert! It's hard to believe in a park with temperate rainforest you can still have a desert. The "cave" also has a big of a sulfuric smell, like that of spent matches. This soil is full of oxalates and contains minerals that can be found nowhere else on earth.
After continuing uphill from the Alum Cave Bluff the crowds began to thin a bit. We mostly saw college students climbing up or down the mountain now being that it's spring break time for most colleges along the east coast. We continued to climb, now being aided with steel cables in places to help hikers along in winter, and finally reached a flatter spot in the trail. The forest type has now changed from old growth to boreal - meaning most of the forest is evergreen spruce trees and fir trees. The sun shining made it smell like we were hiking on a mountain of Christmas trees and we had finally reached our destination for the day - the summit of Mt. LeConte. We took a break up top and watched the seasonal workers scurrying around stocking the cabins and the office for the upcoming season. The lodge isn't open year-round and is just now getting ready to open for the season.
When we were ready to head downhill we took the Rainbow Falls Trail down to Cherokee Orchard. This trail has been one of my favorite routes up or down this mountain for a long time due to the easier grade and the views into the valley and Gatlinburg. It was fun getting a glimpse of town, knowing it was so busy down there and we were realtively alone on this part of the mountain. Rainbow Falls Trail doesn't see the crowds you'll get on the Alum Cave Trail and, until we hiked down to the falls, we didn't see any other people. On the way down we found a patch of teaberry that actually still had their berries. It's always fun eating wild red berries that taste like peppermint instead of fruit. We took our final break at Rainbow Falls and saw relatively few people there, but that may have been due to the fact that it was getting late in the day.
About half a mile down from the falls we spotted people illegally camping in a patch of rocks next to LeConte Stream. Given that this mountain has seen a wildfire from this type of activity only a few years ago, we did let the campers know they weren't supposed to be camping there and certainly weren't supposed to be building a fire inside a hollowed out log in a rock pile! The Smokies have strict rules as to where you can and cannot camp due to it being the most visited national park in the country. Our park has been loved to death in generations past and the rule helps protect the park and keep it from becoming a giant, scarred wasteland of former campsites and garbage. After this encounter however, we had an uneventful walk down LeConte Creek to the vehicles we had in the parking lot.
I love hiking Mt. LeConte and it's especially fun when you can hike up one side and down another. To do the hike we did you'll need to have two vehicles or use a local shuttle service to help you get from your car to your starting point. Here is a map of the direction we hiked the trail.
Have you ever hiked up Mt. LeConte or stayed in the lodge at the top? The historic lodge dates back to 1925 - before the Smokies even became a national park! I'd love to hear about which trails you hiked up or down and what you thought of the them. Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started.