Mount Le Conte via Alum Cave Trail, Alum Cave Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Mount Le Conte via Alum Cave Trail - 10.1 miles
Alum Cave Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||10.1 miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||3,865' - 6,593' (6,593' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+2,728' net elevation gain (+2,864' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Mount Le Conte via Alum Cave Trail - 10.1 Miles Round-Trip
Mount Le Conte (6,593') is the 3rd highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its steep, isolated slopes form a biological island where some of the Park's rarest and most specialized plants live, many which are survivors of an intemperate glacial past. 5 plant species on Mount Le Conte are found nowhere else in the Smokies.
Of five routes leading to Mount Le Conte, the Alum Cave Trail is the shortest and arguably most unique in its features and challenges. The Alum Cave Trail follows Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch to Arch Rock, continues on to Alum Cave, then negotiates steep, narrow rock ledges into alpine-like spruce-fir forests on the summit ridge.
Visitors will enjoy passage through several distinct biotic communities, exhilarating travel on exposed, rail-aided ledges, and pronounced geological features throughout:
The trail heads northeast from the parking lot on a shifting course beside Alum Cave Creek. A tall hardwood-hemlock forest and thick understory of rosebay rhododendron envelopes the trail.
It gradually bends north and crosses 3 consecutive bridges over Styx Branch to the base of Arch Rock (1.3 miles : 4,355'). Arch Rock is a massive boulder that split away from a larger rock wall by freeze-thaw cycling. Water gets trapped in small crevices, freezes and expands.
Over time this mechanical action chips away at rock surfaces, exposing it to further erosion. Stairs thread a small gap between Arch Rock and the valley wall from which it's been separated by only a few feet (see photo gallery).
Once through Arch Rock, the trail crosses one more bridge and veers away from the creek into overlapping hardwood, pine-oak, and spruce-fir forests. The forest breaks at 1.85 miles (4,740') with sweeping views across the Trout Branch drainage, Chimney Tops, and several heath balds.
Heath balds are special areas where timber yields to thick, shrubby evergreen layers dominated by rhododendron, laurel, and sand myrtle. Heath balds are sometimes called 'Laurel Slicks' because of their waxy, shiny appearance. Heath balds are celebrated for their mysterious formation and prolific blooms, which peak late May to mid July.
The trail presses up to Alum Cave (2.2 miles : 4,975'), which is more accurately described as a vertical rock wall overhang. Explore its base and surrounding cliffs colored by ferns, lichens, and mosses. Follow signs left of the cave to Mount Le Conte.
The trail is notably rocky and rugged above the cave. It wraps around Peregrine Peak (5,375') on west-facing, rail-aided ledges, which are narrow and slickened by natural seeps in many places (3.0 miles : 4.35 miles).
The trail gradually straightens on a northerly heading through clusters of spruce and fir, still mostly on narrow and uneven ledges. Note above you the underside of bluffs along the west ridge of Mount Le Conte (4.05 miles : 6,175').
The trail abruptly levels in thick columns of red spruce and Fraser fir on the summit's west ridge (4.4 miles : 6,367'), gliding easily in a contrastingly different forest to the Rainbow Falls Trail junction (4.6 miles : 6,348'). Bear right toward Mount Le Conte Lodge, and note that the summit will not be listed on any signs you pass the rest of the way.
The Rainbow Falls Trail levels through the lodge complex past splits for the Trillium Gap Trail (4.7 miles : 6,395'), two spurs for the Cliff Tops Trail, and Mount Le Conte Backcountry Shelter (4.85 miles : 6,455'). Follow signs carefully, and note that you're officially traveling on the Boulevard Trail beyond the Trillium Gap Trail split.
The Boulevard Trail curls northeast past the shelter to the Mount Le Conte Summit (5.05 miles : 6,593'). The summit - sometimes referred to as 'High Top' - is marked only by a large rock pile just off trail (to the right) in a cluster of fir.
While views are limited, excellent panoramas can be had from clearings along the Cliff Top Trail, or by continuing on to Myrtle Point. Myrtle Point is a neighboring peak on the east shoulder of Le Conte with 270 degree views across the heart of the Park (an additional .7 miles and +180' roundtrip).
To reach Myrtle Point, continue east and drop down the Boulevard Trail to the Myrtle Point Trail split (5.2 miles). The Myrtle Point spur undulates through alpine-like stands of pine to an outcrop with unabated views (5.4 miles : 6,546').
About Le Conte Lodge
The Le Conte Lodge was founded in 1926 by Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg resident and mountaineer. The Huff family operated the lodge until 1960, which is presently managed by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises under the auspices of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The lodge has capacity for 60 guests per night in one of 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. All rooms have kerosene lanterns, propane heaters, a wash basin and bucket, linens, table and chair, and a mirror. Lodging + Meal rates begin at $116 per night per adult, and $85 per child.
Day hiker services are available 7 days a week from March 21 - November 22. Day hikers may reserve a $9 sit down lunch served from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm. Reservations and prepayment are required at least 48 hours in advance. Sack lunches and beverages are also available.
Contact and Reservations
Le Conte Lodge
250 Apple Valley Road
Sevierville, TN 37862
- N35 37.748 W83 27.056 — 0.0 miles : Alum Cave Trailhead
- N35 37.953 W83 26.642 — .5 miles : Shifting course beside Alum Cave Creek
- N35 38.119 W83 26.295 — 1.0 miles : Trail steepens into thick, diverse forest
- N35 38.416 W83 26.331 — 1.5 miles : Pass thru high range of hardwood forest
- N35 38.344 W83 26.716 — 2.2 miles : Alum Cave - Veer left at sign for Le Conte
- N35 38.403 W83 26.792 — 2.5 miles : Steep grades above Alum Cave
- N35 38.700 W83 26.376 — 3.0 miles : Travel on rocky, rail aided ledges
- N35 39.058 W83 26.136 — 3.5 miles : Transition from hardwood to Pine-Fir forest
- N35 39.105 W83 26.678 — 4.05 miles : Views of West Point thru shrinking forest
- N35 39.305 W83 26.541 — 4.6 miles : Rainbow Falls Trail junction - turn right
- N35 39.245 W83 26.435 — 4.7 miles : Trillium Gap Trail split - keep straight
- N35 39.198 W83 26.333 — 4.9 miles : Mount Le Conte backcountry shelter
- N35 39.250 W83 26.197 — 5.05 miles : Mount Le Conte summit (High Top)
- N35 39.230 W83 26.093 — 5.25 miles : Boulevard Trail - Myrtle Point Trail split
- N35 39.196 W83 25.904 — 5.4 miles : Myrtle Point
- The Alum Cave Trail is the most popular route to Mount Le Conte, and sees heavy traffic in both directions all times of day, much of the year. Get an early start to avoid crowds, especially at Alum Cave and on narrow ledges where single-file travel is sometimes necessary. It's advisable that fringe season hikers call ahead for trail conditions, as upper portions may be closed due to ice and snow.
- Rosebay Rhododendron, found along lower and middle sections of the Alum Cave Trail, peaks in July with large white blooms. Interestingly, Not every rosebay rhododendron in the park blooms every year, and biologists are not quite sure why. Big blooms occur every 2-4 years, but are not predictable.
- Catawba Rhododendron, also a member of the Heath family, is found over 3,500' and peaks in late June with deep purple hues. Catawba's leaves are thick, shiny, and evergreen - just like those of rosebay - however Catawba leaves are shorter with a more rounded shape.
- Ecologists are still somewhat confounded by the formation and perpetuation of heath balds. Heath balds are typically found on jagged, dry slopes or ridges where soil beds are poor and unsuitable for supporting hardwood root systems. Recent studies suggest Catawba Rhododendron may possess a chemical that discourages tree seedlings from taking root.
- Respect sensitive vegetation and remain on designated trails around the summit, especially to Myrtle Point and the Cliff Tops.
Camping and Backpacking Information
BACKPACKING IN THE SMOKIES
Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Before planning your backcountry trip, please read through this important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.
Reserve your Backcountry or Thru Hike permits here: https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/
Please direct questions concerning backpacking trip planning to the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. Phone calls are the preferred method of contact. The information office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.
Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations. Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a fine under Title 36, Code of Federal Regulations. Maximum fine for each violation is $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.
General Backcountry Regulations
1. Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters.
2. You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. You may not stay consecutive nights at campsite 113 or at any shelter.
3. Maximum party size is 8. Two parties affiliated with the same group may not stay in the same campsite or at the same shelter on the same night(s). Special permits may be issued for a few sites that accommodate parties of up to 12.
4. Fires are only allowed at designated campsites and shelters and must be contained in a fire ring. Constructing new fire rings is prohibited. You may only burn wood that is dead and already on the ground. You may not cut any standing wood.
5. It is illegal to possess firewood originating from a location from which a federal or state firewood quarantine is in effect. Read information about this quarantine and the states affected.
6. Building a fire in the fireplace of any historic structure or removing any parts of a historic structure, including brick or rock, is illegal.
7. Backcountry permit holders may not use tents at shelters.
8. Hammocks may only be used within designated backcountry campsites. They may not be used inside shelters and may not be attached to shelters in any way.
9. All odorous items (e.g., food, trash, lip balm, toothpaste, stock feed, hay etc) must be hung on the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.
10. Human waste must be disposed of at least 100 feet from any campsite, shelter, water source or trail and must be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep.
11. All food, trash, clothing, equipment or personal items must be packed out.
12. Burning food, trash or anything other than dead wood is prohibited.
13. Carving into or defacing trees, signs, shelters or other backcountry features is illegal.
14. Soap, even biodegradable soap, may not be used in any water sources. Bathing and washing dishes should be done well away from water sources and campsites.
15. No dogs or other pets are allowed on any park trails except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. No dogs or other pets may be carried into the backcountry.
16. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the backcountry.
17. No hunting is allowed anywhere in the park
18. Feeding, touching or teasing wildlife is prohibited. You may not willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of elk or bears.
- Fishing is permitted year-round, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.
- The park allows fishing in all streams except Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek, and Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong.
- A valid fishing license from Tennessee or North Carolina is required to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online.
- Daily Possession Limits: Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.
- Size Limits: Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum. Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum. Rockbass: no minimum. Trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.
- Lures, Bait, and Equipment: Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used, with up to two flies on a leader.
Rules and Regulations
- Horses and stock are not permitted on the Alum Cave Trail.
- There is no entrance fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Pets, motorized vehicles, and bicycles are not permitted on backcountry trails in GSMNP.
- Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along roads, but are not allowed on park trails.
Directions to Trailhead
The Alum Cave Trailhead is located 8.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Highway 441. There are two lots on the east side of the road. The trail begins from the south lot.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Visitor Information - Recorded Message
Backcountry Office - Camping and Reservations
The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8 am - 6 pm daily (EST)
Backcountry Information Office - Trip Planning Questions
The information office is open daily 9 am - 12n (EST)
Oconaluftee Visitor Center (North Carolina side - south entrance)
Sugarlands Visitor Center (Tennessee side - north entrance)