Let’s start with this: The Alum Cave Trail doesn’t lead to a cave at all.
The 2.3-mile hike through an old-growth hardwood forest and the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock, one of the prominent landmarks on the trail, leads to Alum Cave Bluffs.
A set of stone stairs with cable handrails leads you through Arch Rock, which was formed by freezing, thawing and erosion of softer rock. The bluff is not a cave. Instead, it’s an overhang.
The bluffs are a massive shelter under the mountain that provides protection from the rain but not the wind.
It’s as if something has swiped away at the mountain, leaving a giant rock shelf. And there, generations of hikers, and native peoples before them, have sought refuge.
It’s impossible to understand the scale of the bluffs. They’re so tall and open that you don’t really feel sheltered until a pouring rain soaks the nearby forest, and leaves the ground under the bluffs perfectly dry.
What is Alum Cave known for?
The Alum Cave Trail is best known, perhaps, as a way to get to somewhere else: Mt. LeConte, which makes the trail even more popular. Mount LeConte is the third-highest peak in the Smokies at 6,593 feet.
As you’re walking the trail, Gracie’s Pulpit marks the halfway point to Mt. LeConte.
You are not likely to have the bluffs to yourself since this is one of the more popular trails in the Smokies.
There is usually a moderate to high level of traffic on the trail. There are many ledges and overlooks along the way. But if you are lucky enough to have a moment of peace and reflection under the mountain, it can be one of the most spiritual spots in the Great Smoky Mountains.
If you’re of a bent to let your mind wander, this is the spot. The vastness of time and mountains, and the way one has carved the other.
The kind of big concepts you can’t really contemplate from your couch come to the fore. Somehow this giant valley before you is sheltered from the larger world. And it is also a perfect representative of just how small we are within it.
It’s the kind of place of which poets and artists dream.
Where does Alum Cave Trail start?
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, drive 8.6 miles south on Newfound Gap Road. At the Alum Cave trailhead, there is a sign and two large parking areas.
There are restrooms at the trailhead parking lots.
The trail begins as you cross the Walker Camp Prong and the Alum Cave Creek on long bridges.
The trail climbs Peregrine Peak, approaching a heath bald full of mountain laurel and rhododendron. The rocky outcrop known as Inspiration Point is at the 2-mile mark.
This is an excellent spot to view the rugged valley below surrounded by mountains.
How difficult is the Alum Cave Trail?
The “caves” are 2.3 miles from the trailhead. The trail continues another 2.5 miles to just below the summit of Mt. LeConte for a total of 5 miles.
It’s a good idea to bring snacks to fuel your hike. Be sure to pack up what you bring to the park.
The trail is not for the lighthearted. In fact, expect an elevation change of 1,200 feet. The trail is quite steep and follows the edge of the ridge in sections. Also, with elevation gain, temperatures cool. Dress accordingly and wear layers, even in warmer months.
It is the shortest and steepest of the five trails leading to LeConte. While the first section of the trail is relatively mild, it can provide a false sense of confidence.
The trail is difficult and strenuous and should not be undertaken lightly. The hike is listed as moderate in difficulty.
Is Alum Cave dangerous or scary?
It is not particularly dangerous or scary, but caution should be used near the ridgeline.
Like the vast majority of trails in the National Park, pets are not permitted.
Is Alum Cave safe for kids?
Families with fairly young children should not attempt to tackle the trail. Older children who are experienced backwoods hikers, however, should be fine.
All hikers should wear proper gear, especially good hiking boots and bring plenty of water for the hike out and back.
The first recorded reference to the cave goes back to the 1830s when a trio of farmers tried to claim 50 acres of land that included the cave and its salt deposits.
The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was formed and the area was mined. Materials such as Alum, magnesium sulfate, saltpeter, magnesia and copperas were harvested. The minerals, which were easily assessable, were depleted in less than a decade.
Despite its strenuous reputation – or perhaps because of it – the hike is generally considered one of the most popular serious hikes in the mountains.
As such, the parking lot area can fill up quickly.
To get a good parking spot, be sure to arrive early.
How long does it take to hike the Alum Cave Trail?
The hike to the caves should take about an hour and a half, and roughly the same coming back out. If you’re planning on going to the summit and back, it’s best to start early and give yourself most of the day.
If not, many hikers pack a lunch and have a picnic under the protection of the bluffs.
Overall, the trail offers beautiful scenery.
Should you decide to continue on, the first half mile or so after the bluffs present the trail at its steepest. Eventually, the trail merges with the Rainbow Falls Trail and the LeConte Lodge. If you’re planning on staying in one of the cabins, you need to plan early. Usually, guests need to book more than a year in advance.
Have you hiked to Alum Cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Where do you like to hike when you visit TN? Let us know in the comments.