Our second overnight backpacking trip begins the next day. Clarence, Mary, and I are hiking to the LeConte shelter. Mike, Mary’s husband, drives us to the Alum Cave trailhead on Hwy 441. We arrive at 9:00 a.m., and the parking area is already overflowing. The weather forecast is sunny and mild with temperatures in the 60s. Since this is a Sunday in October on one of the most popular trails in the park, the hiking forecast calls for mostly crowded conditions with occasional periods of solitude.
Mt. LeConte is a beautiful anomaly sitting apart from the main line of mountains. Just a hair shorter than Mt. Guyot and Clingman’s Dome despite the pile of rocks people have left on its highest point, LeConte features some remarkable amenities the other two can’t touch, like Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops — two large rocky outcroppings with stunning views of sunrise and sunset respectively and innumerable opportunities in between to savor sweeping vistas. No spiral concrete viewing tower is needed here. There is also the famous lodge with accommodations for 60 people in rustic but still fairly comfy style.
Five trails converge on LeConte’s sprawling summit, and each gets its share of use. Alum Cave, however, seems to be preferred. The trail resembles a major two-lane thoroughfare. Today, Saturday night guests at the lodge are returning to their vehicles while Sunday night guests and all manner of day hikers are trudging their way up the mountain’s shortest and steepest approach. There are lots of reasons to hike Alum Cave, not least of which are Arch Rock, great views, the Keyhole, and of course Alum Cave Bluffs, but it is also a very challenging trail. Narrow, steep, and rocky with certain sections that can quickly become downright treacherous due to the ever fickle weather enveloping LeConte, Alum Cave is not for the faint of heart. Maybe so many non-hiking visitors gravitate to this trail precisely because it really does feel like you are climbing a mountain…the whole enchilada in a five mile trek with the added bonus of a commercial enterprise at the top. Drinking water, food, bathrooms, beds, t-shirts…one stop shopping. Walking five miles can’t be that hard, right? Then you pass some of these visitors sitting in a stupor, sweating, and gasping for breath. Better be a damn good lodge up there!
I must say Alum Cave is one impressive trail. It is engaging scenically, geologically, biologically, and physically. Granted I am carrying a full pack, but it kicks my butt. Kudos to the non-hikers who actually make it to the lodge! The lower part of the trail follows Alum Cave Creek and one of its feeders Styx Branch and is covered in thick stands of Rosebay Rhododendron and Doghobble. The first unique feature is Arch Rock, a steep and darkly narrow passage carved out of slate in the Anakeesta Formation by the freeze/thaw action of water. Rock stairs have been placed within the passage.
Given that Alum Cave Trail begins at 3800 feet, in less than two miles you are in a heath bald at rocky spur Inspiration Point overlooking the wide valley. You can also see Little Duck Hawk Ridge to the right, a craggy line of Anakeesta shale with a couple of holes, one known as the Keyhole, also carved by the freeze/thaw phenomenon. The ridge’s curious name refers to Peregrine Falcons, called Duck Hawks by settlers for their ability to snatch a bird and even a duck in midair. These birds of prey once nested here. Along this open stretch I find Round Branch Ground Pine (Dendrolycopodium hickeyi) and Ground Cedar (Diphasiastrum tristachyum) growing together.
Next is famous Alum Cave Bluffs with its enormous rock overhang and dry, dusty ground. It never fails to impress and looks more like something from the western deserts than the Southern Appalachians. Supposedly, many people opt to turn around at this point, but today we are not the only ones intent on going all the way. The big attractions are over, and from here on, it gets really interesting!
Periodically, heavy rainfalls leave their mark in bare rock exposed by dramatic landslides as plants and soil wash down the mountain. The set of stairs about a mile from the top is a rerouted section of trail due to slides. The trail is often carved straight into the bedrock. Anchored steel cables provide a handhold when conditions are wet or icy. One rocky pass in particular could induce vertigo. Sheer rock drops away precipitously and the tops of trees appear far below.
We arrive at the junction with Rainbow Falls Trail by early afternoon and make our way past the lodge to the shelter. We are the first to arrive and lay claim to our corner for the night. I change out of sweaty clothes and place them in the sun to dry. We are ready to explore the summit of Mt. LeConte.