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 parking
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
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"
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
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
Order Your Park Area Maps Here....
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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies
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".
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
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