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Mt. LeConte  


LENGTH: 4.9 Miles   SKILL: Intermediate  

PROS: Views, Geology    CONS: Crowds

NOTES: Hikers lodge at the summit.  



To 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 trail.



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.

After 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 mountain.

At 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.

After negotiating 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.


The 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.         


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