Saturday, February 13, 2016

Great Smoky trail heads to ‘caves,’ views

View from Alum Cave. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Topo map of Alum Cave Trail.

Popular Alum Cave Trail
refurbished during 2015

A pair of cave-like formations and fantastic vistas await day hikers on the Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The 4.4-miles round trip sports an elevation gain of 1120 feet but is well-worth the effort. In fact, the trail is so popular during autumn and on any weekend with pleasant weather, that you’ll want to arrive early or you won’t find a parking space.

To reach the trailhead, from Gatlinburg, Tenn., drive south on Newfound Gap Road/U.S. Hwy. 441 for about 10 miles; look for parking lot on left/east for the Alum Cave Trailhead. The dirt-packed trail starts at 3830 feet elevation in the Grassy Patch and immediately crosses Walker Camp Prong.

For the next mile, the trail heads through an old-growth forest of hemlock and yellow birch alongside Alum Cave Creek. The grade is gentle.

It then turns north and follows the Styx Branch, a tributary of Alum Cave Creek. During summer, rhododendron blooms here, making for an impressive sight.

Arch Rock
At 1.3 miles, the trail reaches the first cave-like formation, Arch Rock. Freezing and thawing created the arch by eroding away the softer rock beneath the harder black slate. The trail goes under the arch, and steel cables sometimes serve as handrails. Hikers take stone steps out of Arch Rock.

From there, the trail crosses the Styx Branch and becomes fairly steep.

At 1.9 miles, the trail reaches Inspiration Point, an outcropping at 4700 feet elevation. It offers great views. To the west is Little Duck Hawk Ridge; the Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock at the ridge's top, can be seen from here as well. To the northeast is Mount Le Conte, the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

Peregrine falcons – locally called duck hawks – can be spotted flying about in the area. In fact, the trail’s destination sits just below the aptly named Peregrine Peak.

Alum Cave
At 2.2 miles, the trail arrives at Alum Cave. Not truly a cave but a bluff of orange clay with a concave wall that stretches 80 feet high and close to 500 feet long, it technically is known as a rock shelter. Water often drips off the black slate ledges above, and during winter, icicles will form and drop, making this a dangerous stop during the colder months.

The cave takes its name from the alum that was mined there during the mid-1800s. A company dug out Epsom salt from the cave as early as 1838; this was used as a reddish brown dye for clothing. The Confederate Army in the 1860s mined saltpeter from the cave to manufacture gunpowder.

Sitting at 4950 feet elevation, the cave offers excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The trail can be taken all the way to the summit of Mount Le Conte (even better vistas are to be had on the climb up), but for a day hike the cave makes a good spot to turn back.

Other trail reports often claim the route can be muddy and with tree roots difficult to walk. While those reports are accurate, in 2015 the trail got a much needed makeover, repairing sections where erosion and landslides had caused damage.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.