The Alum Cave Trail is the shortest and steepest of the five trails leading to the Le Conte massif within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which contains four separate peaks in all, the highest of which has an elevation of 6,593 feet (2,010 m). Due to its short length and beautiful scenery (it is often considered Le Conte's most scenic route) it is the most common footpath for hikers seeking to reach the summit of Le Conte.
The Alum Cave Trail begins its ascent at 3,830 feet (1,170 m) by quickly crossing two streams: Walker Camp Prong and Alum Cave Creek. This first leg of the trail leads the hiker through an old-growth forest, consisting largely of hemlock and yellow birch and is relatively easy, as the climb is gradual and the footpath is well-maintained due to its heavy traffic. The first notable landmark comes 1.3 miles (2.1 km) into the hike at what is known as "Arch Rock", which is a large black slate rock that has, over millennia, come to create, as the name indicates, a large natural arch. Hikers maneuver easily through the cold, moist rock via stairs and steel cables acting as handrails which are placed at numerous points along the footpath.
A hiker who ascends beyond Arch Rock will gradually hear the shift from the powerful company of Alum Cave Creek to the smaller Styx Branch, which accompanies the path for a short distance. Inspiration Point is the next landmark along this less trafficked, though still popular, portion of the trail. Upon this outcropping of rocks about 4,700 feet (1,400 m) in elevation, a hiker can, on a clear day, get an unobscured view of the surrounding landscape, most notably Little Duck Hawk Ridge. Not far from there, at 2.2 miles (3.5 km) from the trail head, the hiker finds the ubiquitous orange clay of Alum Cave Bluff. The bluff is at 4,950 feet (1,510 m) in elevation , and is 80 feet (24 m) in height.
Once the hiker reaches this final section of the trail (comprising over half of the path's total distance) most of his/her company has been left behind, leaving only hikers headed for Le Conte's pinnacle. The first half mile or so beyond the bluffs is the single steepest portion of the hike. Once the hiker reaches the 6,000-foot (1,800 m) plateau, s/he enters into what once was a beautiful Fraser Fir zone, but, due to the ravages of the balsam wooly adelgid and acid rain, now is dominated with dead Frasers. The Alum Cave Bluff Trail terminates at the LeConte Lodge. The LeConte Lodge provides the only commercial lodging in the national park, as it operates about 10 rustic cabins with no electricity or appliances. For many, this signals the end of their journey, but the actual peaks of Le Conte all have separate trails a short distance from the lodge, with Cliff Tops (for sunsets) and Myrtle Point (for sunrises) each offering expansive panoramas of the mountains and valleys below.
The trailhead is about 10 miles (16 km) from the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, off Newfound Gap Road (U.S. Highway 441).
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