|Trail Features:||Views, Geological Features|
|Trail Location:||Newfound Gap Road|
|Roundtrip Length:||4.4 Miles|
|Total Elevation Gain:||1125 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||511 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||4955 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||6.65 (moderate)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||35.63014|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-83.44936|
Directions to Trailhead:
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, drive 8.7 miles south along Newfound Gap Road to reach the Alum Cave Trailhead. The parking lot will be on your left. Due to the extreme popularity of the Alum Cave Trail, there are two parking lots for this trailhead. To ensure a spot you may want to arrive early during peak tourist season, or on any nice weekend throughout the year.
The first section of the Alum Cave Trail, up to Arch Rock, travels over a fairly gentle grade. Hikers will follow Alum Cave Creek over the course of the first mile. Just before reaching Arch Rock, however, the trail begins following the Styx Branch. This section of trail is choked with rosebay rhododendron, which offers beautiful blooms during the early summer.
The night before one of our hikes in the spring of 2008, a strong storm blew through the Smokies and dropped marble-sized hail, which still littered the trail the next morning. Guests returning from their stay at the LeConte Lodge the night before reported that the top of the mountain received nearly six inches of hail. They also related how they watched an incredible display of lightning below them, just before the storm moved up and over the mountain.
At just over 1.3 miles from the trailhead hikers will reach Arch Rock, the first prominent landmark along the trail. The arch was formed by freezing and thawing, which eroded away the softer rock from underneath the harder rock. The trail actually goes under the arch and requires a climb of several steps etched into the stone before exiting at the top.
Beyond Arch Rock the trail begins ascending towards Alum Cave. Anakeesta Ridge will dominate the views on your left throughout this stretch of trail. At roughly two miles from the trailhead hikers will reach the appropriately named Inspiration Point, a heath bald that offers commanding views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge to the west and Myrtle Point (near the top of Mt. LeConte) towards the northeast. The Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, can also be seen from this vantage point.
A much better view of the Eye can be found a little further up the trail. While descending the trail on our return trip we watched as two peregrine falcons playfully swooshed through the air near the Eye. In case you're unaware, peregrine falcons are also known as duck hawks.
At 2.2 miles hikers will reach Alum Cave, which really isn't a cave, but is actually a concaved bluff, about 80 feet in height, and roughly 500 feet in length. During the warmer months of the year water drips off from the ledges above. In the winter these droplets turn into large icicles.
The first two times we hiked to Alum Cave we were forced to dodge icicles falling from the top of the bluff, some of them as long as 3 feet. Every couple of minutes an icicle would drop down like an incoming missile and explode on the rocks around us. We were forced to time our entry and exits into the cave in order to avoid shrapnel, or worse yet, a direct hit. Needless to say, extreme caution is needed here during these conditions.
Fortunately we didn't have to worry about icicles during that spring 2008 hike, but we did have to contend with the unusual obstacle of several inches of hail at the base of the bluff. The last 50 feet to the cave is normally a bit of a slog, even with the help of steps. However, on this day, we were forced to advance through enough accumulated hail to have completely buried the steps. It was all worth it though. The views from the cave are always outstanding:
In 2015 the park launched a two-year project to rehabilitate the Alum Cave Trail. Restoration efforts focused on improving hiker safety by repairing cable handrail systems and reinforcing hanging trail sections. Efforts were also made to improve drainage in areas where minor landslides have occurred in the past. As part of this project the park also made changes to the access point into Alum Cave. This involved building a series of steps away from the water seeping over the top of the cave (see photo above). It appears this will significantly lessen the chances of hikers being hit by icicles.
Alum Cave itself is rich in history. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was established at Alum Cave in 1838. Until it was sold in 1854, the company mined epsom salt from the cave, which was used by mountain folk to dye homespun clothing a reddish brown. During the Civil War the Confederate Army began mining saltpeter from the cave, which they used to manufacture gunpowder.
Of course the Alum Cave Trail continues up to the summit of 6593-foot Mount LeConte. If you're considering going to the top you can click here for more information.