On any given day, and particularly on weekends, the trailhead parking area for Alum Cave Trail is among the most crowded in the Smokies.
Cars spill out of the parking area and line up on the sides of US 441, the main road bisecting the park from north to south. It seems that some people like the trail so much that they are willing to walk along the road a considerable distance simply to get to the start of their actual trail experience.
The Alum Cave love is easily understood.
For one, it’s a very popular starting point—and also a possible ending point—for a visit to the top of Mount Le Conte. Every year, thousands of hikers park one car at Newfound Gap and another at Alum Cave. They hike via the Boulevard Trail to LeConte Lodge near the top of the mountain, stay overnight, and hike down the shorter Alum Cave Trail the next day. Their car awaits for a drive to Gatlinburg and a highly anticipated meal.
Even without the fine experience of reaching the high shoulders of Mount Le Conte, the first half of the Alum Cave Trail is also a gem in its own right—a streamside trail with excellent views and a wide path conducive to group hiking. In many ways, it’s the very heart of the Smokies experience.
Tim Line, the retired manager of LeConte Lodge, could be termed an Alum Cave regular. Over decades of work at the lodge, he hiked the trail more than 1,300 times—in the heat of midsummer and the snows of January and every combination of conditions in between.
He knows the quirks of the mountain better than most.
“You have to be ready for any type of weather you might encounter,” said Line. “In summer, the trail is going to be pretty hot in the lower elevations. It does cool off, but then you might get in a thunderstorm before you get to the top of the mountain.”
The weather can change dramatically in the winter, too.
“It can be sunny in the parking lot, and then when you hit the north slope of the mountain, you might be in a snowstorm before you get to the top,” said Line. “If you don’t have the proper raingear with the temperature cooling off, you have to worry about hypothermia in all weather, not just the winter. You have to be prepared.”
Two footbridges offer hikers entrance to the trail from the parking area. In summer months, it’s almost immediately cooler as you move along Alum Cave Creek in the shade of beeches and other hardwoods and alongside masses of rhododendron, their growth accelerated by the Smokies’ wealth of precipitation.
There are several creek crossings on footlogs on the way to Arch Rock. (These are relatively safe, but watch your step—and those of the kids.)
Here a huge rock outcropping provides the chance for hikers to “thread” a tunnel-like hole. You’re helped along by stepping stones and a handrail, but the taller folks in your group will be leaning over to make it through. It’s a fun experience for flatlanders.
Another trail footbridge shows the way to Huggins Hell, a mass of mountainside growth and undergrowth so thick that old-timers long ago deemed it worthy of the “hell” nickname. Don’t venture here. Enjoy the view from the trail.
Soon you’ll reach Inspiration Point, where the view is, well, inspiring. Across the divide below are Big Duckhawk Peak and Little Duckhawk Peak. The “little” one has a hole in its side, a rarity in these mountains.
Further along, one reaches Alum Cave Bluff, the spot where many day hikers rest for a spell before retracing their steps to the parking area. The bluff is less of a cave and more of an overhanging ledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting stopping point and a natural place for a quick trailside snack. Before the Civil War, there was mining here for Epsom salts and other minerals.
It’s a steeper climb over 2.7 miles from here to the Le Conte summit. Casual hikers probably would enjoy the day with a turnaround at Alum Cave and a pleasant return hike along Alum Cave Creek to the parking area.
“The trail was definitely my commute to work because it was the shortest trail up and down the mountain,” Line said. “I think a lot of people, including me, consider it the most scenic trail up the mountain. It has a lot to see from the bottom to the top, even though it’s a little steeper than some of the other trails. It has more of the panoramic views than the other trails do.”
Take some light snacks and plenty of water, stay on the trail to protect the trail corridor for the hikers to come, and enjoy the rolling waters and the views. This is one of the park’s special places.
Read more about Tim Line and his long tenure at LeConte Lodge in the fall 2019 issue of Smokies Life.
Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 29 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.