Whether you’re doing an out-and-back day trip, a car drop to incorporate more than one trail experience or planning a one-night backcountry trip, at some point, Alum Cave Trail falls into your lap as a must-do trail in the Smokies.
Your top priority should be to hit the trail early. Alum Cave one of the most popular and easily accessible trails in the park, so even finding a parking spot can be challenging if you wait until later in the day to get started. Watch your footwork unloading and loading your gear, as delicate vegetation is under constant threat of being crushed in this area.
Alum Cave Trail starts as a walk in the woods along a particularly scenic stretch of the Walker Camp Prong waterway. It takes you through a lovely mix of yellow buckeye, Eastern hemlock, rosebay rhododendron and much more. At Arch Rock, I notice that almost all hikers have smiles on their faces. How can that be? Where else can you walk through rock?! (Read more about how this section of trail with stairs that climb through a rock came to be in Hiking Trails of the Smokies.)
My first memory of this trail is from a hike in the winter of 1994 when I observed the destruction of a landslide from the year before. I had to safely navigate around rockslides and logjams that were so damaging to the existing trail that Smokies trail crews created a new path navigating around the damage. As I began my love affair with hiking, this trail became a go-to for my physical conditioning routine. And as I spent more time on this trail, I began meeting organized hiking groups and befriending many people who shared my passion for hiking.
This is where the idea of Margaret Stevenson came into my life and how she left her mark on my memory. While I never met Margaret, I did join a group of people who hiked in her memory. I knew right away this was my kind of crowd. They welcomed me the same way Margaret welcomed them. Strong and trail smart, Margaret hiked hundreds of miles in the Smokies, setting records and inspiring hardened outdoorsy folk and non-hikers alike. She began hiking the Smokies seriously only later in life, in 1960 at age 52. Learning about her changed every step I took. If Margaret hadn’t started seriously hiking until she was in her 50s and she still managed to complete more than 600 visits to Le Conte Lodge, what was to stop me from doing the same?
Hikers today are no longer able to discern the damage from the 1993 landslide. The 10-mile round trip trail has recently undergone a restoration project funded by the Trails Forever crew, and it is in better shape than ever. For me, the most pleasant part of the restoration starts at 2.3 miles from the trailhead as you approach the bone dry and dusty bluffs. Where you once had to crouch over, huff and puff, and use strategic footing, you now safely climb beautifully laid solid stone steps.
The bluffs mark the halfway point to Le Conte Lodge. As you continue to climb you’ll catch a great view of Duck Hawk Ridge, pass through a lovely stand of virgin red spruce and grassy scars created by landslides. Reaching the mountaintop lodge requires hiking what feels like the longest single mile on Earth. It’s within this mile that I always think of Margaret. I’ve been said that when the going got tough for her and her hiking companions, she became a bit of a drill sergeant. I use the encouragement she gave others to get me to the lodge, where rocking chairs facing extraordinary views of the Smoky Mountains await trail-weary hikers. Here, too, are a pair of bronze hiking boots that once belonged to Margaret. Framed photographs along the walls provide a glimpse into the history of this rustic outpost, the only overnight accommodations in this national park other than camping. I signed the guest registry and gave Margaret’s boots a silent thank you. Her footwork inspired others who inspired me.
*Dry Sluice: Named for a small hollow or valley called a sluice, which has a spring-fed stream that sinks beneath the surface for several hundred yards before re-emerging. Hence, the upper part of the sluice is generally dry. – From Place Names of the Smokies