Whether you are an avid hiker in search of your next adventure or a tourist looking to make the most of your retreat in America’s beautiful Smoky Mountains, the Alum Cave Trail could be your path to an exciting day of exploring, spending time with loved ones, and enjoying the beauty and serenity of nature. It is arguably one of, if not the best and most popular trails in the Smoky Mountains. It isn’t necessarily that the trail is the longest or the most challenging; but rather that it is unrivaled in its blend of natural geological markers, scenic views and sheer beauty. If you only hike one trail in the Great Smokies, make it the Alum Cave Trail.
Directions to Alum Cave Trailhead and Parking
You will find the Alum Cave Trail by traveling just 12 miles south of Gatlinburg, Tennessee along Newfound Gap Road/US Hwy 441. There are two parking lots at the trailhead to choose from, though it is not uncommon to see cars parked on the side of the road as the parking lots become full. We recommend arriving early to secure a good parking spot — especially on weekends or during the height of hiking season.
Take advantage of the public restrooms located at the trailhead parking lots. To the far right of the restrooms, you will find the trailhead marked by a sign indicating the distance to each major landmark along the way. From the parking area, it is just 1.4 miles to Arch Rock and 2.3 miles to Alum Cave Bluffs. Many people decide to turn around at the cave, but there is plenty more to be seen if you are willing to continuing trekking onward to Mt. Leconte. Should you reach the summit, you be privy to breathtaking views from the third-highest peak in the smokies at 6,593 feet.
Overview of Alum Cave Trail
Hiking the entire trail and back will score you bragging rights back home with an elevation gain of more than 2,700 feet, not to mention 11 miles clocked on your pedometer. The amount of time it takes you to complete the trail will vary depending on your pace and how frequently you stop to enjoy the views and sights. Hiking to the peak and back could easily take 7-10 hours accounting for stops along the way.
Alum Cave Trail Description
Alum Cave Stream and Initial Climb
The trail starts at an elevation of 3,830 feet. Crossing bridges and streams, this part of the trail is heavily forested and also quite busy. Alum Cave Stream follows the trail for about a mile, adding ambiance to already beautiful surroundings. Note that the trail incline is gradual for the first mile, providing an easy warm-up for the steeper elevation changes that lie ahead.
Arch Rock is the first prominent landmark along the Alum Cave Trail. As the name implies, Arch Rock is a large concentration of black slate that formed a natural, arch-like shape over time. You will hike through the arch via a set of rock stairs and the assistance of cable handrails.
Just beyond Arch Rock, take time to stop at Inspiration Point. At an elevation of 4,700 feet, Inspiration Point rewards hikers with stunning panoramic mountain views. Be sure to whip out the camera to snap a few photos. On a clear day, you may even be able to see the ‘Eye of the Needle’, which appears as a small hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge.
Alum Cave Bluff
The Alum Cave Trail’s namesake comes from one of its natural landmarks — the Alum Cave Bluff, located just before the trail’s half-way mark. Alum Cave Bluff is not a cave, but rather a massive concave overhang that towers 75-80 feet high. This large area is a popular resting point and for many, a turnaround point as well. Take shelter here from the harsh summer sun, or duck in during one of the rainstorms common to the area.
Locals have many stories to tell about the Alum Cave Trail and its historic landmarks — specifically the Alum Cave. During the mid-1800s, the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined the cave for Epsom salts, and locals used the salts to add pigment to their clothes. The cave was also mined during the Civil War. Soldiers scoured the cave for saltpeter, which was used to produce gunpowder during the war.
Alum Cave to Mt. LeConte Peak
More than half of the trail exists beyond the Alum Cave Bluff, though the path toward Mount LeConte’s peak is also the steepest. We recommend taking your time through this part of the trail, taking time to admire Gracie’s Pulpit at the half-way point and additional views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge. The trail gains more than 1,000 feet of elevation before leveling off. Many people make it a point to stop at LeConte Lodge for lunch or a snack break before exploring the summit and returning down the mountain.
Alum Cave Trail Tips
As with any trail excursion, your experience on the Alum Cave Trail will vary depending on weather. Choose footwear that is not only comfortable, but also designed to maximize your traction on rocks that may become slippery when wet. Once you reach Alum Cave, you may notice water dripping from the overhanging ledges. During winter, this water can form large icicles — some 2 to 3 feet long. Since falling icicles can be very dangerous and even deadly, bring a helmet to wear during cold weather
We also encourage you to be aware of your surroundings along the trail and respect the wildlife indigenous to the area. Black bears are common along the Alum Cave Trail, specifically in the area between the trailhead and Arch Rock. Most will avoid human interaction, but be sure to follow bear safety protocols should you encounter one of these majestic beasts.