Some weeks, life just does not cooperate with my need to hike. Whether it is weather, work, injury, or out of town travel I don’t always get a hike in every weekend, which does make it awkward to figure out what to fill this blog space with. Luckily for me, Chet and I have learned to “bank” a hike or two here and there for just such occasions. This week’s blog installment is going to be a look back at our trip to LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier this summer. We blogged about our hike up, but left our faithful readers hanging by not blogging about the trip down. Don’t worry – we aren’t still stranded up there, nor did we have access to alien technology to teleport down or anything. We actually did walk down; we just banked that hike to tell you about later, and “later” is now.
After a surprisingly restful night, we woke up just in time to dress and make it down to the dining hall for breakfast. I’m pretty sure the breakfast menu at LeConte hasn’t changed in decades, but it always hits the spot. They serve pancakes, bacon, grits, biscuits, scrambled eggs, and Tang. Tang! I honestly don’t know anyplace else that serves Tang, do you? Our group posed for a group photo, figured out who was hiking what trail, coordinated rides back into Gatlinburg, and then split up to start packing and heading out. The morning was foggy and a bit damp, but it wasn’t actively raining. Chet and I had decided to hike down via Alum Cave Trail so we took the stairs leading up the hill from the dining hall towards the trail, and met a deer boldly taking the stairs in the other direction. She (he?) stepped off into the high grass pretty quickly though and we continued on our way.
Alum Cave Trail is the steepest trail to Mount LeConte, but it is also the shortest which makes it one of the most popular and therefore heavily traveled trails to the summit. Starting from the top, though, we didn’t share the trail with anybody for the first mile or so. The actual start of the trail on Mount LeConte is a few hundred feet from the lodge, where it intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail. We hiked from the lodge to this trail intersection quickly, then turned left onto Alum Cave Trail proper after stopping to note the surprisingly informational “Trail Closed” signs put up to explain the two year Rainbow Falls Trail rehabilitation project. The trail was very foggy and the views off the mountain were pretty much non-existent here, but we enjoyed this pretty stretch, where Frasier firs were putting out bright green new growth all around us. Soon, though, we left the forest and came to the steep rock face below Cliff Tops. This area is rocky and in the fog and damp I was glad there were steel cables strung along the rocks to hang on to.
The trail then goes in and out of forest and across some old landslides. Many of the trees in this section are the dead Frasier firs – killed off by a combination of balsam woolly adelgid and acid rain. However, all was not fog and dead trees – we also saw blackberry vines in bloom, mountain saxifrage, and banks of deep purple catawba rhododendron lining the rocky, foggy path.
About a mile into the hike, we actually started seeing hints that the rain, fog, and clouds might lift. Here we found blooming mountain laurel, and a beautiful example of a pin cherry, with its distinctive shiny reddish-brown bark and orangish horizontal stripes.
The sun actually came out in force, and we started meeting folks heading up to the top. We’d been hiking with the views to our left, but after crossing the saddle that links Mount LeConte to Peregrine Peak, the views were on our right. I knew we were close to Little Duck Hawk Ridge. This sharp ridge was once the primary path to the peak of Mount LeConte. That pathway is no longer open to the public, in part because there is a protected nest of duck hawks (or peregrine falcons) on the ridge. It’s also very rugged and surely pretty dangerous. The Park Service would much prefer the tourists take the better maintained Alum Cave Trail. There are actually two Duck Hawk ridges – Big Duck Hawk Ridge is farther up the hollow formed by Trout Branch – closer to Mount LeConte. We reached it first hiking downhill. Little Duck Hawk Ridge is better known. It’s where the falcons nest and it’s the site of the “Eye of the Needle,” a nature-made hole punched right through the top of the knife-edged ridge. Big and Little Duck Hawk Ridge flow down from Peregrine Peak almost directly below Alum Cave Bluffs. Alum Cave is not a cave at all, but a deeply overhanging bluff with a uniquely dry and dusty soil covering the base. Though rich in minerals, scientists say there is actually no “alum” here but it is still a fascinating spot. It’s an arid desert in the middle of one of the wettest places around. The Cherokee claim their great chief Yanugunski discovered the bluffs while tracking a bear. Later, Dr. John Mingus headed up a group of early settlers who formed the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company, hoping to exploit the minerals found here. During the Civil War, the Confederates supposedly built a small stockade called Fort Harry in the area, believing that the minerals in the bluff were a vital resource. No trace of that fort remains now, but what you will find is lots of people enjoying the scenery and very friendly chipmunks scurrying close by over the rocks. After walking along the base of the bluff, a long set of stairs leads down the rest of the way towards Inspiration Point.
Inspiration Point is the spot where the trail turns sharply back on itself to head north. To one side is a rocky outcrop that has beautiful views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Mount LeConte. When my dad and I hiked Alum Cave when I was young, Inspiration Point was our traditional lunch spot. I took a photo of myself here in his memory. The sun was really out for good by this point and the trail changed character, too. It became broader and less steep, but was still flanked by rhododendron. We also saw galax and a stunning bee balm. About a mile down the trail from the bluff, we came to Arch Rock. This iconic landmark is a narrow passage through a sloping rock, formed by water seeping into fractured rock, freezing, fracturing the rock more, then thawing. Over time many cycles of this formed a jagged passageway.
I always think of Arch Rock as being almost the end of the Alum Cave Trail when heading down, but I’m always wrong. There’s another 1.4 miles to the trailhead from here, but the character of the trail is much different. It is a broad and more gently graded trail that runs along next to the beautiful Alum Cave Creek. Rosebay rhododendron blooms in abundance here. Views of this creek are what I think of when I describe the typical Smoky Mountain creeks that I love so much. The 1.4 miles flew by, and soon we were at the trailhead, where our ride to Gatlinburg awaited. We got a bit of everything on this hike: fog, rain, and solitude at the top, and sunshine and fellow hikers at the bottom. In between we saw some beautiful flowers and, eventually, took in some stunning views. It’s one of my favorite hikes in the Smokies.