Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Hiking Trail Information

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he Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 270 miles of roads, over 800 miles of trails, and more than 500,000 acres of land. How much of it have you traversed? There are 50 species of mammals, 80 species of fish, 200 species of birds, and 1,300 species of flowering plants. The Park even boasts seven trees of record dimensions. How many of these have you seen?

More than ten million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park yearly, but most only see the park superficially. The best part of the Smoky Mountains area is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself, yet most people's views and experiences of the Park are limited to the main roads, a handful of the most frequented trails, the Cades Cove loop road, and the bumper of the car in front of them. While the individuals who experience these things are richer for the experience (except for the bumper), they are missing so much. Perhaps saving the rest for another trip? That's a worthwhile notion, but most will simply revisit the places which afforded them so much pleasure before, while there is a lifetime of adventure and experiences left undiscovered.

Though there is so much land and so many sites, discovering the beauty and solitude of this national park does not have to be a hit-or-miss effort. Rod's Guide will help you plan part of your visit to the Park. With the help of Rod's Guide, you can get out of your car and get lost (figuratively speaking) in the splendor of the Park. This month we feature a not-to-difficult hike from the trailhead at Newfound Gap Road to the Alum Cave Bluff--and for the heartier soul, a continuance on up the trail to the Mount LeConte Lodge and the Appalachian Trail.


Alum Cave Bluff

From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, drive 8.6 miles east on Newfound Gap Road. There you will find two Alum Cave Bluffparking areas, where a gravel path leads to The Grassy Patch and the beginning of a 2.3 mile hike to Alum Cave Bluff.

Summary: This moderately difficult hike is 4.6 miles round-trip or 5.1 miles on to LeConte Lodge. The round-trip to the cave bluff takes about 2 and 1/2 hours, but allow about 3 and 1/2 hours to LeConte Lodge. The Alum Cave Trail is the most popular and well-known route to Mount Le Conte.

Elevation: You gain 2600 feet on the way to 6400 feet.

Features: Arch Rock, 1993 summer storm damage, Inspiration Point, Alum Cave Bluff

Mother Nature's majesty and power are clearly demonstrated in this 4.6 mile (round-trip) hike. The views are great, particularly if you go on to LeConte Lodge and Cliff Tops, and the trail is not too difficult--even for children. To demonstrate, I recall an early visit (I was much younger and more fit) when I carried my sleeping daughter on my shoulder for the majority of the first half of the hike.

You'll begin this hike at the Grassy Patch just off the parking area. Shortly after entering the forest, you will parallel the Alum Cave Creek for approximately a mile and then follow Styx Branch, a main tributary of Alum Cave Creek. A few hundred yards beyond this point, you'll see the boulder and log remains of a 1993 flash flood and landslide on your left. A heavy thunderstorm dumped several inches of rain, with a force so great that huge boulders were exposed and tossed--its path is clear to the hiker and will remain so for years. At mile 1.5 you come to Arch Rock, where a set of stone stairs aids your passage through one of the few natural arches inside the park. At the 1.8 mile mark you will come upon Inspiration Point, affording the first panoramic view of the area. Thereafter, you'll pass through an area of low shrubs, and shortly thereafter arrive at Alum Cave Bluff (mile 2.3). Alum Cave is not what the name implies. Its not a cave--rather it's a jutting ledge of black slate, forming out over the trail to give the impression of a cave. The name Alum Cave comes from the deposits of alum found along the "cave" walls.

For the hardy souls who will continue on to LeConte Lodge, the trail curves up and around the bluff and begins following the ridge that forms the southern flank of Mount Le Conte.

Two hundred yards from it's finish at Le Conte Lodge, the trail is joined from the left by the Rainbow Falls Trail. Le Conte Lodge consists of several wood-shingled cabins, two lodges, and a dining room. There is no electricity and water is pumped into holding tanks from a spring. The lodge uses llamas to haul in supplies (that's a story for a future issue!). Reservations can be made at LeConte Lodge by calling (865) 429-5704.

Above the lodge you'll find Cliff Top, one of the best vantage points in the Smokies--when the view is not obscured by misty clouds.


If your trek to Alum Cave Bluff is a day-hike, take a knapsack and carry a few extra

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items. Include some bottled water and a snack. Never drink the water from a Park stream without boiling it first. Though the streams in the park are invitingly cool and deceptively clear, they contain bacteria that can wreck your trip and a substantial period thereafter, if you succumb to the temptation to drink from them. You might even include a camera in your knapsack too. If you are making an overnight trip to LeConte Lodge, you'll be carrying a backpack, and we assume here that you have included all the necessary items and arranged for the required reservation at the lodge. A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Certain campsites are reserved in advance. Permits are available at visitors centers or by calling (865) 436-1231.

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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on this hike can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. Our own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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