Climb to Mount Le Conte’s stunning landscapes and summit views, following the Alum Cave Trail and Boulevard Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
LOCATION:in the Great Smoky Mountains
Scaling to over 6500 feet, Mount LeConte offers some simply stunning views from the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And while several routes lead to the summit, one of the most popular, and shortest (though more difficult) ascents is along the Alum Cave Trail. It’s an adventure that explores some incredible terrain, including Inspiration Point, the Alum Cave Bluffs, Arch Rock, and Gracie’s Pulpit. The final climb to the mountain’s summit is a steep adventure (and a great workout), scaling steep ledges with the aid of cables. And at the top, the hike visits the hand-hewn LeConte Lodge and backpacker shelter, while scoring some incredible views from two prominent features, Cliff Top and Myrtle Point.
It’s a twelve-mile out-and-back trek that’s sure to provide a day hiker or overnight adventurer memories that will last a lifetime. The views are simply outstanding.
Mount Le Conte: the hike
The adventure begins at the Alum Cave Trailhead, accessible via Highway 441 North from the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center just outside Cherokee, or via Highway 441 South from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg (view maps and driving directions). The start of the hike is denoted by ample signage alongside the trailhead’s two parking lots. During peak seasons, the trail usually sees large numbers of visitors and parking can be limited; arrive early (or hike in the off-season) for a better chance of scoring parking (and some trail serenity).
The hike begins with a moderate and winding ascent along the rhododendron-filled valley floor beside Alum Cave Creek. The creek’s astounding clarity is stunning as it cascades over rocks into clear pools below. The trail crosses several narrow bridges; this section of the trail is especially tricky in icy conditions and when traveling with a full backpacking pack. The trail’s topography begins to change dramatically as it veers northbound to reach Arch Rock at 1 mile, where a beautifully constructed staircase winds its way beneath an enormous rock outcrop.
The trail becomes noticeably steeper as it climbs to Inspiration Point, reaching the point at just under 2 miles. The aptly-named Inspiration Point is the first real showcase of the landscape below, with Myrtle Point dominating the northeastern skyline and Little Duck Hawk Ridge visible to the west. Peregrine Falcons can sometimes be spotted in flight from this vantage, as they make their way from their home on Little Duck Hawk Ridge.
At after rounding the hairpin turn at Inspiration Point, the trail resumes the ascent to Alum Cave Bluffs, which overhang the trail in a short two-tenths of a mile. The briny dirt below offers a great rest stop and views of Bearpen Hollow below and Sweet Ridge to the southwest.
The trail departs the bluffs on a moderate traverse toward Gracie’s Pulpit. This crag is named for the avid adventurer and purveyor of Mt LeConte, Gracie McNichol, who tackled the summit more than 240 times in her life. This location also indicates the halfway point to the LeConte Lodge, and just under half of the total ascent for this hike. As the single track winds its way around to the north, the elevation dips briefly at 2.5 miles. It’s a brief break in the climb before resuming the pitches to the summit.
Exposure increases over the next two miles, reaching cable-lined ledges. These cables are in place to help hikers navigate some of the more precarious sections of the trail. An abundance of water often seeps from the rock, leading to icy conditions in winter and slippery rock in warmer seasons. The last of these ledges routes directly beneath Cliff Top, which is one of the best sunset viewing spots on the mountain. At the culmination of the ledges, the trail turns up and away from the valley views. The narrow trail falls deep into the spruce-fir alpine forest, reaching an intersection of the Rainbow Falls Trail at under 5 miles.
The hike veers right, reaching the LeConte Lodge at just under a half mile from the Rainbow Falls Trail intersection. A primitive backpacker shelter lies another tenth of a mile further on the trail’s right, and short spur trail leads from the shelter to the stunning vistas at Cliff Top.
The hike continues eastbound to the mountain’s summit. At this point, the trail is now considered the Boulevard Trail, which leads to Newfound Gap after descending the mountain’s eastern side. The mountain’s true summit at High Top lies another half mile out, denoted by the large cairn on the trail’s right, buried deep in the pines.
Perhaps the finest spectacle on the summit is the Myrtle Point vista, located two-tenths of a mile from the High Top cairn on the Boulevard Trail spur. Myrtle Point often showcases brilliant sunrises from a nearly 360-degree vantage point, offering views of Pigeon Forge to the north, Clingman’s Dome to the south, and large swaths of the Smoky Mountains beyond. Arrive before dawn, and get the coffee on, for the finest show in the Smokies.
Descending from the summit, the hike retraces its outbound route to the trailhead. From Myrtle Point, the hike follows the Boulevard Trail past the LeConte Lodge and then turns to follow the Alum Cave Trail southbound. The path becomes perfectly silhouetted against a startlingly beautiful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, making this portion of the adventure on of the most engaging. The return route is nearly all downhill, and the hike reaches the Alum Cave Trailhead at 12 miles, completing the adventure.
More top hikes in the Smoky Mountains
In the area with some energy to burn? The Smokies hold some of the most ruggedly beautiful and hike-worthy trails in the South. Explore one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Abrams Falls, a five-mile roundtrip hike from the popular and ultra-scenic Cades Cove. Explore the stunning walk-behind waterfall at Grotto Falls on the Trillium Gap Trail. Descend from the towering heights of Clingman’s Dome along the Forney Ridge Trail to the grassy, sun-drenched mountain bald at Andrews Bald. Hike to expansive views from of a craggy pinnacle on the Chimney Tops Trail. Follow the Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion to Newfound Gap, catching some of the most stunning and rugged fiews in the Smokies on a difficult eight-mile roundtrip adventure. Or check out the list of our favorite hikes in the Smoky Mountains for more adventure inspiration.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
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Free parking is available at the Alum Cave Trailhead in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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