LENGTH: 4.9 Miles
PROS: Views, Geology
NOTES: Hikers lodge at the
INFORMATION | MT.
LECONTE VIEWS | CURRENT
VIEW OF THE SMOKIES
WRIGHTS MT LECONTE HIKES BLOG
| THE MAP ROOM
reach the trailhead from North Carolina you must first drive over
the crest of the Smokies at Newfound Gap. As you descend on 441,
driving towards Alum Cave Trail, the ridges that tower above the
road show the exposed sandstone that makes up the backbone of the
Smokies. These are the first glimpses of the ever changing mountain
terrain that is a characteristic of the 6595 foot monolith you are
about to climb. Evidence of landslides that are the result of steep
slopes and 80+ inches of annual rainfall surround you as you approach
The trailhead of Alum Cave Bluff Trail,
20 miles from Occonaluftee
Visitor Center, has two parking lots. On a "Good weather
day" both parking lots are filled with vehicles. Don't despair
though, most hikers don't make it past the halfway point at Alum
Cave Bluffs. Despite crowded trail conditions this is without a
doubt a hike that is worth braving the crowds. This hike is
very strenuous because it climbs nearly 3000 feet in just under
5 miles. The trail is rocky and near the top has precipitous edges.
The trail begins in an Old Growth cove hardwood forest that has
a number of very large Eastern Hemlocks. The path is nearly flat
and is a very nice walk for the novice hiker. The trail travels
through a "tunnel" of Rosebay Rhododendron, to the right
is Alum Cave Creek. There are many short side trails that lead to
great picnic spots that are creekside. Don't let the appearance
of this slow moving, idyllic creek fool you though, it can get mean
very quickly. It is the drainage for the extremely steep slopes
of Mt. LeConte and it can rise at a very alarming rate during the
many afternoon thunderstorms that form over the ridges. The large
boulders that litter the creek have been tossed around like pebbles.
It is for this reason we don't recommend this hike during stormy
weather. After a mile of pleasant hiking the trail crosses Alum
Cave Creek and passes a dry creek bed on the left. In the creek
bed lays the evidence of the constantly changing mountainside of
Mt. LeConte. The huge boulders and trees that litter the dry creek
bed are remnants of cloud bursts that send walls of water sweeping
down the steep slopes. The house sized boulders were once part of
the mountain slopes much further upstream.
crossing Styx Branch on a rough hewn footbridge you arrive at Arch
Rock. The trail goes right through the opening in the rock on a
set of stone steps.
At this point the trail begins to get steep. Geology is very much
a part of this hike, notice the interesting rock formations. These
rock formations are called Anakeesta, Cherokee for place of Balsams.
This type of very porous sandstone is the foundation of the crest
of the Smokies. It can "soak" up rain and ground water
and is pulverized into powder when it freezes. This is how Arch
Rock was formed and explains the rock formations and the gritty
trail. Notice also how the rock crumbles and separates in layers.
This type of rock is part of the trail from here to the top of the
approximately 2 miles a small side trail to the left leads to an
interesting overlook on a heath bald. Inspiration point
has a great view of Newfound Gap and the sandstone that makes up
this mountain range.
After another short but steep climb you reach Alum Cave Bluffs
the un-official half way point. The rocky overhang has a sulphery
smell and an interesting history. During the Civil War a road was
built to the bluffs presumably to mine the minerals found here.
The saltpeter, which accounts for the sulphery smell, was very valuable
as an element for gunpowder manufacture. A small fort was built
nearby to protect this valuable resource. Today this is the make
or break point for hikers on this trail. Many of the hikers that
have huffed and puffed their way up here proceed no further. Good
news for the serious hiker because the best is yet to come.
After leaving the "Bluff" the trail descends to a small
saddle, a nice relief from climbing. From here on the climb is consistently
steep. The views through the trees to the right reveal the landslides
that continue to shape this mountain range. Trees are scattered
on the slopes like toothpicks. This terrain is unlike any other
in the Southern Appalachians. Even the most experienced hiker is
awestruck by the rugged landscape and the devastating landslides.
After 4 miles the trail travels trough the most intimidating section.
Rocky ledges with precipitous drops greet the impressed hiker. At
this point trail narrows to a few feet wide with frightening drops
just inches away. Cables have been installed by the park service
to help hikers , however, this is little help in icy weather. This
is the reason that this trail is to be avoided during freezing weather.
Thunderstorms can also be interesting while holding on to these
steel cables. That being said, the views from this cliffside section
of the trail are stunning.
the cables, the top of the mountain comes into view. The felling
of accomplishment is a common feeling that washes over most hikers.
Although it is only a 5 mile hike the views on the way up as well
as the steep climb make this a truly great hike.
As you reach the top of the trail you are greeted with a Boreal
Forest, more common in New England. Red Spruce, Fraser Fir (my favorite
!), Rhododendron and Sand Myrtle are the predominant plant species.
As with the boreal forests of other Southern Appalachian summits,
the devastation caused by a number of factors is evident. The balsam
woolly adelgid and acid rain has severely impacted the fir trees
at this high elevation.
trail reaches a fork. To the left is the
Mt. LeConte Lodge, a rustic lodge that is only accessible to
hikers. Since 1925 there has been a lodging facility here for hardy
souls that make the trek up LeConte. Reservations are required and
must be made 1 year in advance. 3 times a week llamas are used to
re-supply the lodge. The small feet of these creatures cause far
less damage to the trails than horse hoofs.