Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail

Mount LeConte
Alum Cave Trail
Trailhead Elevation: 3,872 ft.
Distance: 11.32 mi.
Elevation Gain: 2,935 ft.
Start Time: 7:25am
End Time: 1:36pm

Trip Report:
This is certainly not a well kept secret, but the Alum Cave Trail leading up to Mt. LeConte is one of the classic hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Given its combination of interesting geological sites, a mountain climb, a great distance challenge, and hopefully big views, it checked all the boxes for our kind of fun.  I had even seen trip reports suggesting ledgy portions of the trail and even sections with cable handrails which drew my attention.  It is worth clearing up however, that there is nothing technical about this entire hike in the climbing sense.  Neither is there any breathtaking exposure at any portion.  I make both of those climbs from the perspective of a hiker who has ascended all of Colorado's 54 14ers and have seen all sorts of varying levels of exposure and climbing technicality.  This trail does have portions where it narrows to a few feet wide for a moment with steep tree-filled slopes.  It had one or two spots with some wash-outs on the trail that created brief sections where you certainly would not want to fall.  But let's just say, I wouldn't have hesitated for a moment to take my 3-year old all the way up this trail if she could handle the distance.

Another item of note if you're thinking of hiking LeConte is the parking. There are two moderate-sized lots at the trailhead and it appears the NPS has done a good job of also accomodating quite a bit of road-side parking for this trailhead.  I have driven by this area in the afternoon time and seen cars everywhere.  Its also worth considering that a number of cars will be in the lot even if you arrive at 7am because many of the lodge guests leave their cars here.  On our hike day we arrived at 715 for the early start and sure enough the lot was about 80% full already.

At the beginning of our hike, the skies were overcast and the temps already 75 and muggy.  We would pray for breezes to move the thick air.  From the parking you immediately head over a bridge over Walker Camp Prong.  You'll cross several other log bridges in the lower section of the hike as the trail stays close to Alum Cave Creek.  The trail was in remarkably good condition considering how many hikers are on it every day.  Given the recent rains in this area it was also surprisingly not very muddy.  

Entering Arch Rock

Walking through Arch Rock

After following the creek and taking bridges back and forth over the creek at about 1.3 miles in you reach one of the first highlights: Arch Rock.  Erosion has cut away the bottom side of this large rock and the trail is able to climb up several well made rock steps under and through the arch.  Its really an impressive job of trail work and an enjoyable highlight along the way.  

Morning view from Inspiration Pt
The trail shortly after Arch Rock turns away from the Creek and switchbacks to the southwest.  It wasn't long before we reached Inspiration Point at almost 2 miles in.  This offered some of the best views from along the trail.  To the west we were able to see Duck Hawk Ridge and the "Eye of the Needle" on the ridge.  This is a hole in the ridge which you can spot with a keen eye and some good lighting.  

Just a quarter mile past Inspiration Point we found ourselves coming into the Alum Cave area.  The trail seemed to round a corner and then climb up into the wide open face of this "cave" which is really more of a massive overhanging rock face.  The base of the cave is a thin area of loose dirt where it seems thousands of hikers have wandered and loosened and left their prints. It was quite evident people spread out and find places to sit and hang in this likely often crowded area.  On our ascent there was only a half dozen other people.  Occasionally we would see water drops coming from the lip of the overhang. I've heard in winter and spring this can be dangerous when the water comes down in the form of icicles.

Alum Cave

Upon leaving Alum Cave the excitement simmers down a bit.  It was about 2.3 miles of climbing trail up to the summit ridge with not too many landmarks.  Supposedly after the cave is a landmark called "Gracie's Pulpit" which marks the halfway point but we must have missed it.  Its in this long stretch where some of the narrow ledgy portions come and go and you just continue to navigate the ever climbing trail.  There are a number of places where you get openings through the trees for views, except for our day.  The cloud deck was quite low and we were mostly in a thin whiteout for the whole upper portion of the mountain. No views for us.

One of the wash-outs and narrow trail potions,
but ultimate not much to be concerned with

The last bit of the climb up to about mile 4.8 in reveals to you why this is a bit of a winding and circuitous climb up to LeConte.  The south faces of the summit ridge are quite steep and so the trail swings out west around them adding some distance.  Past mile 4.8 the trail really mellowed out and became a nice easy forest walk as it turned to the east.  

Amazingly lush landscape
The LeConte Lodge turnoff came around the same spot as a junction for the Cliff Top trail heading south.  With no views today we passed on the Cliff Top trail but we were interested in the lodge.  We were bummed to find the services for dayhikers were very limited.  The shop and cafe seem to only open between 8 and 930 and again from 12-5.  We fell into that late morning window with nothing open.  It seems dayhikers might be allowed access to some of the basic souvenirs in the shop and some pastries in the cafe but thats about it.  We did take advantage of the toilets and the water fill-ups at the lodge which are great resources to have on any mountain.

Beyond the lodge area we continued east passing, the LeConte shelter for backpackers and then made the final short climb to High Top, the true summit of LeConte. It was fully in the trees with no views.  A large rock cairn just off trail marks the summit.  Once more, with the whiteout we decided against hiking further on to Myrtle Point where some of the best views are supposedly found.

Summit views

LeConte Lodge

Pack llamas just arrived

We spent a few moments atop High Top and then headed back to the lodge where we spent most of our time. On the descent we kept things pretty uneventful just working to make progress and hoping the views would open up.  As we got down to Inspiration Point were able to see across the valleys at our elevation and below but the summits remained clouded.  It was also in here we really noticed the traffic levels on the trail increasing. Up high we had run into a number of hikers coming down from the lodge but not too many ascending up there just yet.  It was with no surprise the biggest crowds were at Alum Cave.  Its likely most dayhikers come up to the cave and no further.

Heading down

We enjoyed one more walk through arch rock and navigated around the many groups of hikers to make our way back out to the trailhead.  The weather had held up for us nicely in that it didn't rain. But it was to our dismay that we had almost no views.  Our ascent time today was 2:58, with another 38 or so minutes spent up top.  Descent time was 2:35.  The group as a whole did well and had a great time on a fantastic trail.

One of the best shots of the day as the sun pops out a bit

At Inspiration Point looking at the Eye of the Needle

Heading back down into the Abyss,
or maybe Arch Rock

Returning to the trailhead

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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