International Writers Magazine: Hiking in the USA
LeConte: Legendary Mountain in the Smokies
ever there was a classic hike in Great Smoky Mountains National
Park, the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte would certainly qualify.
Sure, there are trails in the Smokies that are far longer, that
gain more elevation, or have steeper climbs, but the Alum Cave Trail
is unmatched in its combination of interesting geological features,
history, high adventure and stunning views.
reach the 6593-foot summit of Mount LeConte, youll have to
climb 2763 feet and hike 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave trailhead.
Although we were
hiking this trail in mid-May, it felt more like February as we waited
at the trailhead for my GPS to find a satellite. My wife bundled up
in her fleece coat to fight off a chilly morning breeze before finally
The night before a strong storm blew through the Smokies, dropping marble-sized
hail that still littered the trail that morning. Guests returning from
their stay at the LeConte Lodge the night before reported that the top
of the mountain was pelted by nearly six inches of hail. As the storm
approached, the guests witnessed an incredible display of lightning
below them before the storm moved up and over the mountain.
The first section of trail is a fairly gentle climb up to Arch Rock.
We followed Alum Cave Creek for the first mile before switching to the
smaller Styx Branch just below Arch Rock. This portion of trail is choked
with rhododendron which exhibit beautiful blooms in early summer at
At a little over 1.3 miles into our hike we reached Arch Rock, the first
prominent landmark along the trail. This geological oddity was formed
over the millennia by freezing and thawing which eroded away the softer
rock from underneath the harder rock. The trail actually goes under
the arch and requires a climb of several steps etched into the rock
to exit at the top.
The first place on the trail with panoramic views is at aptly named
Inspiration Point. Roughly 2 miles from the trailhead, Inspiration Point
offers commanding views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge to the west of you
and Myrtle Point on Mount LeConte towards the northeast. The Eye of
the Needle, a hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge,
can also be seen from Inspiration Point.
A much better view of the Eye can be had just a little further up the
trail. While descending the trail on our return, we watched two peregrine
falcons from this vantage point as they playfully swooshed through the
air near the Eye.
Just beyond Inspiration Point and the Eye of the Needle is Alum Cave.
Roughly 80 feet high and 500 feet in length, Alum Cave really isnt
a cave, but is actually a concaved bluff. During the warmer months of
the year, water drips off the ledges from above. In the winter, these
water droplets form into large icicles. Being situated in the southern
Appalachians, the Smokies tend to have cold nights and relatively warm
days during the winter months. So, as the day warms, icicles tend to
break-off from the top of the bluff and crash to the ground.
The first two times we hiked to Alum Cave we were forced to dodge these
frozen missiles. Every couple of minutes one of these icicles, some
as long as three or four feet, would drop and explode on the rocks around
us. To get in and out of the cave we had to carefully time our entry
and exits in order to avoid shrapnel, or worse, a direct hit. Needless
to say, extreme caution is needed here during such conditions.
being an interesting geological feature, Alum Cave also has a bit of
history surrounding it. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was established
at Alum Cave in 1838. Until it was sold in 1854, the company mined epsom
salts which was used by mountain folk to dye homespun clothing a reddish
Photo: Alum Cave
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army mined saltpeter out of the
cave which they used to manufacture gunpowder.
Less than a half-mile past Alum Cave is Gracies Pulpit. This landmark
is named after Gracie McNichol, who, believe or not, hiked up Mount
LeConte on her 92nd birthday. At roughly 2.6 miles from the trailhead,
the Pulpit marks the halfway point to Mt. LeConte.
Over the next two miles the trail begins to get a little steeper. We
passed over several rock ledges, many with cable handrails. A few of
the ledges pass small waterfalls, requiring some negotiation to get
around as you continue to grasp onto the cables. On a hot day, the cool
water splashing on you can be quite refreshing.
My first trek up Mount LeConte was on a mid-winter day. Several of the
ledges were frozen solid with snow melt, forcing us to put a death grip
onto the cables. During the warmer months these rock ledges usually
wont present any problems, unless you have a strong fear of heights.
The last of the rock ledges passes right beneath Cliff Top. Once beyond
this point the trail flattens out and you enter into a quiet spruce-fir
forest. Before long, the LeConte Lodge cabins come into view. Youre
roughly 5 miles from the trailhead at this point.
A lot people end their hike at the lodge, however, to reach the summit
of Mount LeConte, you still need to walk almost another half-mile. The
summit, better known as High Top, is marked with a cairn, or pile of
rocks, just off the main trail on the right.
|At 6593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Smokies.
However, from its immediate base to its highest peak, Mt. LeConte is
the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, rising 5301 feet
from its base near Gatlinburg.
Theres considerable controversy over which member of the LeConte
family the mountain was named for. Most people, including the USGS,
assume that Joseph LeConte, the famous geologist and charter member
of the Sierra Club, is the man for whom the mountain was named. However,
that claim has been challenged in recent years. The authors of A Natural
History of Mount Le Conte, and the Georgia Encyclopedia, both claim
the name honors Josephs older brother, John, who was famous as
a scientist and as president of the University of California, at Berkeley.
Hikers wont have any views up at High Top; however, there are
two places on the mountain where you can take in some outstanding panoramic
One is at Myrtle Point. To get there, youll need to walk another
0.4 miles by continuing on the main trail, which has now turned into
the Boulevard Trail. Take the fork off the right side of the trail at
roughly 0.2 miles from High Top. Myrtle Point is another 0.2 miles from
this junction. Although it was foggy and overcast this day, youll
have fantastic views from here on a clear day. This is also the best
location for sunrises on Mt. LeConte.
The other place to go for outstanding views is known as Cliff Top, which
is near the LeConte Lodge. We passed two side trails to Cliff Top as
we made our way up to the summit. Cliff Top is the best location for
One of the unique things about the hike up to Mount LeConte is the lodge
and overnight cabins at the top.
Hikers have the option of spending the night in these cabins which can
accommodate about 50 guests a night (you'll need to make reservations
The idea for the lodge was created when Paul Adams, an enthusiastic
hiker and explorer, led an expedition up the mountain with some dignitaries
from Washington in order to show the group the rugged beauty of the
Smoky Mountains and to help promote the cause for national park status.
The group spent the night in a large tent. The following year Adams
would build a cabin on that same spot which eventually led to the establishment
of the LeConte Lodge.
Adams is also credited with blazing the trail from Alum Cave up to Mount
For more information, pictures and a travelogue video, go to:
© Jeff Doran
jeffdoran at hotmail.com
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