Monday, April 29, 2013

I have never understood people's obsession with the Great Smoky Mountains, it's far too crowded for my liking, I have always been the type person that prefers seclusion to socializing, especially when I hike. Recently, I have had a change of heart. I have completed the Rainbow Falls, Chimney Tops, and Ramsey Cascades hikes and have loved each of them. The surprising part is the difficult and ruggedness of each trail despite the thousands of visitors each year. So last Thursday I chose an eleven mile round trip hike that has been billed THE hike to take in the Smoky Mountains.
The start of the Alum Cave Trail
Here comes Jeff!
Arch Rock to the right.
Steps leading through Arch Rock
Top section of the steps.

The Alum Cave Trail is insanely popular and known as the ultimate Smoky Mountain sampler, so it was no surprise for Jeff and I when we arrived at the trail head and found the lots to be full and we had to park along the road on the opposite side. Our spirits stayed high because the thick cloud cover that had plagued us on our way in was breaking up rapidly and bright blue skies were peeking through. Jeff is one of the obsessed with the Smokies folks I mentioned earlier and had already vanished over the road bank toward the trail head by the time I got my pack and camera gear ready. The temperature was brisk that morning and the road was wet from a passing shower. I hiked quickly to catch up with Jeff and found him at the long bridge that starts the Alum Cave Trail or as I will call it, the ACT.

The trail turns rocky near Inspiration Point.
Morning fog lifting near Eye of the Needle.
Eye of the Needle using the 250mm lens.
Same spot but with 18-55mm lens.

The first mile and a half of the ACT is easy and follows a really nice stream, there are a few foot bridges along the way and the second one brings you to the first point of interest. Arch Rock is across the bridge and the trail goes through it! A staircase rises through the rock tunnel and emerges on the other side. Jeff had been here before but failed to illustrate to me just how unique it was, and despite the crowded parking lot, we had it to ourselves for pictures. The trail remains flat for another half mile before turning away from the stream and begins the climbing toward Alum Cave. The sun was beating down on us in our warm clothes and at each shaded area of trail we paused for water or trail mix. The trail has a few switchbacks before rising to a sharp hairpin turn at a beautiful clearing, hikers have bestowed this spot with the name Inspiration Point. A rocky spined ridge is directly across the gorge and middle ways up the ridge is the Eye of the Needle, a large hole from one side of the cliff to the other. The remaining clouds from the morning rain were lifting when we arrived and made for excellent pictures. I checked the GPS and noticed we were less than half a mile from the cave. The trail continues to climb and a long set of wooden steps takes you into Alum Cave. The cave is not a natural occurrence, years ago, the spot was mined for the ingredients for Epsom Salts. At least half the people from the parking lot were here and were lounged about in different places having snacks. The grade underneath the rock shelter is steep and I about face planted in front of them all. I found a small rock to rest and look out over the Smokies, for most people, their hike ended here.
Near the entrance to Alum Cave.
Inside of the cave, you can see the rail helping hikers on up the trail.
The start of the cable runs.

Jeff must have been feeling good because he was first to his feet and toward the far left side of the cave and the continuance of the ACT to Mount LeConte. A sign indicated that we still had another 2.7 miles to the summit and I knew we were in for some suffering between the cave and those sweet porch rockers at the LeConte lodge. We moved briskly and passed several other hikers as started seeing the first of countless cable runs up the mountains. The cables are in place for your safety, over the years several rock slides have scared the mountain leaving a narrow passage from one side to the other, a few of these were a little nerve-racking. I checked the GPS as we passed the 4.5 mile mark and Jeff's legs were starting to fade. I scouted on ahead as he rested and found another slide area with views that were inspiring to say the least, I yelled back to Jeff and when he caught up he was equally impressed. The epicness of the moment refreshed us and we made a decent push into the fifth mile. The final cable runs were so high in the air icicles were dangling from them. We journeyed under a large cliff with low clearance (especially for me) before the trail finally and mercifully leveled.
Taken from one of the huge rock slide areas.
The upper portion of trail in the slide area.
Fantastic views of the Smokies.

The final half mile to LeConte Lodge was more of a coronation than a hike with us both relieved to have the climbing behind us and in a matter of minutes we were seeing the roofs of the shelters popping up along the trail. A large staircase led us down into the center of the lodge and the dining hall was straight ahead of us with the date and elevation posted above the doors. We visited the office and I had to get a few souvenirs before settling into a rocker on the porch and enjoying the views back toward Pigeon Forge and the less mountainous areas below. Jeff toured the lodge and picked out his cabin for his return trip in June. It was chilly now that I was sitting still and I noticed a thermometer on the wall behind me was pegged on 40 degrees. I gathered my belongings and wandered down to the dining hall and entered it, the sign on the wall said it seated 75 people but I was more interested in the stove and the heat radiating from it. I warmed my hands and took some pictures before joining Jeff for the return trip down the mountain.
Ice accumulated near the last cable run before the summit of LeConte.
The never ending climb.
Looking back for Jeff.
Finally the top!
Amazing views, almost dream like.
Heading to the lodge.
LeConte Lodge
Jeff at the dining hall. Notice the date and elevation.
The view from the office porch at LeConte Lodge.
I made it!
Heading home.

The hike down was a breeze compared to the uphill drag we had just done but after three miles of nonstop descent my legs were jello and my big toe was on fire. We continued to move at a fast pace and arrived back at Alum Cave to find we had it to ourselves! When we finally made it to the creek again my legs were hiking on instinct, the conversation had ceased and we both trudged the two miles to the truck almost speechless with the occasional "whew" as our only banter. I don't think I have ever felt better as I took the pack off my tired shoulders and threw it in the back of the truck, we both were exhausted but had done what had been a dream hike for us both. The weather couldn't have been any better and we both had cameras loaded with pictures. The ACT is a must for any hiker looking for the best that the Smokies has to offer, just don't go unprepared or unmotivated or you will never make it. Until next time, happy trails!

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