If you only have a limited time to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there's no doubt that you want to find the best hiking trail to enjoy during your visit.
But with over 850 miles of hiking trails and over 80 hiking routes to choose from in the national park, it can be daunting to find the perfect hike for your trip.
If you only have one day to hike in the Smoky Mountains, we can recommend what's widely considered to be the best hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains: The Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte.
What is the Alum Cave Trail?
The Alum Cave Trail is a 5.5-mile hiking trail located a short drive from Gatlinburg, TN. This popular trail takes hikers from Newfound Gap Road to LeConte Lodge near the summit of Mt. LeConte, the 3rd tallest peak in the Smokies. This popular trail is arguably one of the most beloved hikes in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Why is Alum Cave The Best Hike in the Smokies?
Truthfully, there are dozens of worthwhile hikes to enjoy in the Great Smoky Mountains, so it can be difficult to pick the best from the rest.
Here are 8 reasons why Alum Cave Trail stand above the rest when compared to the other trails of the Smoky Mountains.
1. Lots of Highlights
Rather than just offering a beautiful destination like a single overlook or waterfall, the Alum Cave Trail offers beautiful sights to enjoy during its entire length. From beginning to end, the trail offers beautiful streamside settings, unique geologic formations, and stunning mountain vistas. The terminus of the trail, Mt. LeConte, is a fitting destination for this iconic hike in the Smokies. At no point does this hike feel tedious or dull, there is a beautiful sight around every corner.
2. Incredible Mountain Views
One of the best things about the Great Smoky Mountains is its impressive mountain scenery and there are few trails that showcase this natural beauty as well as the Alum Cave Trail. There are numerous overlooks on this high elevation hike and they all offer excellent vantage points of surrounding mountains. As a result, Alum Cave Trail is arguably one of the best hiking trails for mountain views in the national park.
3. Unique Geologic Features
Alum Cave Trail travels up the side of Mt. LeConte in one of the most interesting geologic regions of the national park. Early in the hike, the trail passes through Arch Rock, an unusual rock arch cave created by millions of years of freezing and thawing. At the midway point of the trail, hikers can witness Alum Cave Bluffs, an 80 ft high overhanging cliff. This is the largest of its kind in the Smokies and it's an unusual and striking sight in the park.
4. Historic Significance
Alum Cave Bluffs is a topic of the Cherokee Indians, who say their great Chief Yanugunski discovered the bluffs when tracking a bear. In the 1830s, a mining company used minerals from the bluffs to make clothing dyes.
Later, during the Civil War, the bluffs were used as a saltpeter mine to produce gunpowder for the Confederates. To help preserve this source of gunpowder, a Confederate fort was built near the modern day Newfound Gap Road to control this resource.
At the top of Mt. LeConte, you'll find LeConte Lodge, a historic lodge that was indispensable in convincing significant backers to campaign for the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, were it not for LeConte Lodge, the national park might not even exist today.
5. The Reward
At the top of Mt. LeConte, there are 3 main attractions to enjoy: The LeConte Lodge, The Cliff Tops Overlook, and The Myrtle Point Overlook.
The Alum Cave Trail reaches its terminus at the Historic LeConte Lodge near the summit of Mt. LeConte. Overnight hikers can make reservations to stay at the lodge and visitors can even buy a bag lunch there during the summer months.
From here, you can hike a short distance further to Cliff Tops or Myrtle Point to enjoy some of the most incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
6. A Unique Place in the Mountains
Compared to other mountaintops in the Great Smoky Mountains and the rest of Appalachia, Mt. LeConte is very unique. A high elevation spruce-fir forest that looks like something out of a fairy tale dominates the peak.
Mt. LeConte also has dramatic cliffs and rocky outcroppings that provide nearly panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Additionally, Mt. LeConte is a standalone peak separated from the main ridgeline in the national park.
The result is that this mountain peak provides one of the most dramatic views in the Smoky Mountains. Since Mt. LeConte stands at an elevation of 6593 ft and since it is the 3rd tallest peak in the national park, you'll be able to see for miles and miles from the summit.
7. Just The Right Distance
At 5.5 miles in length, Alum Cave is the shortest route to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Though this trail requires a full 11 miles of round-trip hiking, it's actually short compared to some other trails in the Smokies. While this hike requires a full day to complete, it is a manageable distance for most hikers in the national park.
8. Just The Right Challenge
Mt. LeConte offers an appropriate amount of difficulty for most hikers. Thankfully, this trail is not the most difficult hike in the Smokies, but it's a worthwhile physical challenge.
This strenuous hike has a total elevation gain of 2,763 feet and an average elevation gain per mile of 502 feet, so you'll definitely feel a burning sensation in your quads. By giving yourself 7-8 hours to complete this hike, wearing appropriate clothing, and packing plenty of food and water, this trail is manageable for most hikers.
The Bottom Line
Alum Cave Trail is a true classic in the Great Smoky Mountains. Few other trails showcase all of the best aspects of the Smoky Mountains and few others are worth hiking more than once. No other trail in the Smoky Mountains offers so many things to see. Additionally, there is no other place in Appalachia that looks quite like the summit of Mt. LeConte. In fact, there probably isn't another place like it in the world.
Even in bad weather, the Alum Cave Trail does not disappoint. It's a classic hike through and through. If you can only hike one trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Alum Cave Trail is a perfect choice.
One possible downside of choosing Alum Cave Trail is that this hike is one of the most popular trails in the national park, so you can't count on having complete peace and privacy on your hike. One thing working in a hikers favor is that the second half of the hike is much less busy than the first half of the trail since many visitors are only hiking to the halfway point at Alum Cave Bluffs.
Alum Cave Trail Quick Facts
- Round Trip Distance: 11 Miles
- Avg. Elevation Gain Per Mile: 502 Ft.
- Highest Elevation: 6593 Ft.
- Est. Hiking Time: 7-8 Hours
- Getting There: The Alum Cave Trailhead is located just off of Newfound Gap Road on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You'll find this trailhead 8.7 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center on the road to the Newfound Gap parking area.
For more on Alum Cave Trail check this guide to hiking Alum Cave Trail.
What are some of the other best hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
- Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower
- Chimney Tops Hike
- Andrews Bald
- Hike To Charlie's Bunion / The Jump Off
- Mt. Sterling Firetower
We'd love to know, what's your favorite hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Have you hiked the Alum Cave Trail? Do you think that Alum Cave is the best hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment section on our website!
Written by Hayden Brown