Mount LeConte is a paradise for hikers, photographers, and anyone else who loves the outdoors. Standing at 6,593 feet in elevation, the soaring massif holds several unsurpassed records.
While it is the third highest peak within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is the sixth highest east of the Mississippi, surpassing other famous eastern mountains such as Roan Mountain, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and New York’s Mount Marcy. It is the highest mountain entirely within the state of Tennessee, as it lies about three miles north of the border with North Carolina. In addition, it holds the record as the tallest (not highest) peak in the east. That’s the measure of the mountain’s height from its base, which begins in Gatlinburg, all the way to High Top. When measured this way, LeConte stands over a mile in elevation above the surrounding landscape.
The mountain is also one of the few Southern Appalachian peaks that cannot be reached via a road. High points like Clingmans Dome and Mount Mitchell have roads which bring visitors within a short walk of the summit. Travelers who wish to visit the four peaks of LeConte must lace up their hiking boots and hit one of the six trails which climb the mountain. While some are less strenuous than others, all cover distances of more than five miles and require at least half a day to complete. One of our favorite trails in the entire park just also happens to be the most popular route to the top.
Alum Cave Trail begins on the ever-crowded Newfound Gap Road, and although there are two large parking areas along with roadside pulloffs, finding a spot for your car can be a challenge. We recommend arriving no later than 9:00 A.M. in the busy season (read: right now), otherwise you may find yourself beginning the first part of your hike with a road walk. Be prepared before beginning this hike by bringing plenty of food and water and make sure you know what the weather conditions are going to be. It may eighty degrees in Gatlinburg, but the temperature at the trailhead can be a good ten degrees lower. The trail begins at an elevation just under four thousand feet, so you’ll be climbing another half mile in elevation to reach the summit. The temperature will get even colder, and the higher elevations are also home to strong winds even on days where the air sits stagnant in the lowlands.
The trail begins by crossing the two streams which will form West Prong of the Little Pigeon River as they tumble down the valley. The second of these is Alum Cave Creek, and you will follow this stream for the next mile as the trail weaves through patches of rhododendron on its way up the stream valley. This portion of the trail is very easy and in great condition, as it was recently renovated as part of the Trails Forever program. This partnership between the National Park Service and Friends of the Smokies aims to restore badly damaged trails and make them sustainable for future generations to enjoy. The beautiful stone stairs are just one of the many new features the trail crew constructed.
After 1.3 miles, a footlog bridge will lead across Styx Branch to one of the park’s most unique geologic formations: Arch Rock. Looking more like a tunnel built into the ridgeline, the jagged archway looks like it might have been constructed to let the trail pass the bluff along the stream, but it was formed naturally over thousands of years through the processes of erosion. The trail climbs a grand staircase through the archway and is soon high above the creek valley. Watch your step along this section, because the edge of the trail drops off a rocky cliff to the left. A handrail is available and is a lifesaver in snowy or icy weather.
Soon the trail turns and crosses the stream one last time before beginning a climb up the ridge. You’ll soon come out into an open area that offers the first of many outstanding views of the Sugarlands Valley. Known as Inspiration Point, the open area is devoid of trees and instead covered with a tangle of bushes. Rhododendron, sand myrtle, and blueberry bushes form a natural garden known as a heath bald.
To your right sits a rocky outcrop called Little Duck Hawk Ridge, named after the mountaineers’ particular epithet for the Peregrine Falcon. Once extirpated from the region due to pesticides, the falcons have made a triumphant return to the ridges of LeConte and can usually be seen circling above the pinnacle where they have historically nested. We were able to hear one on our latest hike as it called from a tree not too far from the trail. Patience is the key to seeing one of these majestic birds.
Further up the ridge sits the namesake of the trail, Alum Cave Bluffs. While not technically a cave, the bluffs do form a sort of rock house as they hover above the trail. Pictures can try to capture the massive size of the overhang, but it requires a visit in person to appreciate the magnitude of this geologic formation.
This is the end of the trail for many visitors, making a moderate hike of five miles roundtrip. Even more beauty lies ahead for those up to the challenge, and a hike to the top will bring the trail to a roundtrip of eleven miles. The trail climbs steeply from the bluffs and soon gives you a break as it dips down into a low gap. Soon, however, the ascent begins in earnest. Be sure to watch your step, as the trail climbs several steep staircases and later cuts into the side of steep cliffs. As you reach the spruce-fir forest, several grassy areas open up to give outstanding views of the park.
The trail eventually levels out and comes to an intersection with Rainbow Falls Trail. Here you can turn right and reach LeConte Lodge in a few hundred feet. Past that a short spur trail of 0.2 miles climbs to Cliff Top, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the park. On clear days, the view stretches from deep within the mountains of Nantahala National Forest, to Clingmans Dome across the valley and beyond to Cumberland Plateau. This may not be heaven, but here among the clouds, it definitely feels like heaven on earth.