I just hiked the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and it was a real joy. The Fall weather was perfect, the trail was perfectly clean, and the scenery was as magnificent as any on God’s canvas. Here I’m hoping to provide you with some quick tips if you decide to take the same hike…things that they won’t tell you at the Ranger Station (or anywhere else, so far as I know):
Don’t worry about the parking-The Park Ranger told us that we should arrive no later than 9AM in order to secure a spot in the parking lot, which led us to believe we absolutely had to get there early or we wouldn’t be able to park…and “no park, no hike”. He made no mention of the fact that you can park along the side of the road before and after the trailhead parking lot, meaning you can plan to come and go at almost any time of day (so long as you get back before dark). We parked about one hundred yards from the entrance, along with hundreds of other cars (yes, it’s that crowded), so don’t worry if you’re a late riser or want to do something else that morning-you’ll have a place to park!
Allow 3 hours for the roundtrip-That’s what it took us. It’s a 2.3 mile hike. We’re moderately fit hikers, not looking to break any records or impress anyone. We stop regularly for pictures and an occasional rest stop and are courteous enough to pause for other hikers to pass. We spent about 30 minutes at the Cave Bluffs.
It will take you longer to get to the trailhead than your GPS tells you-…because your GPS doesn’t know that in October most of the eastern Seaboard south of the Mason-Dixon Line will come to see the Fall foliage. If you come at any other peak time, I’d imagine you’ll have the same results. You will sit in an Conga line of traffic snaking its way up the twisting mountain road through the park…and there’s only one way to get there. Add twenty minutes to your GPS time and you should be OK.
The trail is not “steep and strenuous”-That’s what the park literature says. Yes, we did see some 70+ year-old people fading fast on the way up, along with some fat Millennials who were huffing and puffing, but this is merely a matter of allowing more time. I’m pretty sure they all made it. There are no treacherous sections. The vertical element is only about 1100 feet spread across 2.3 miles. It’s a pretty gentle rise most of the way, and the trail itself is excellent. There are steps cut into the rock, guide cables for the steeper sections, and not many slippery parts. Unlike many other trails I have seen labeled “moderate”, which I have fallen on, there are no loose, round stones or sliding scree to slip on (unlike the Death March I took in the Grand Canyon). There’s no way to get lost on it, and if you do get into trouble there are plenty of people around to help. Don’t let the park advisory deter you. Almost anyone can do this trail. We saw multiple women carrying their babies to the top. ‘Nuff said? Note-This is only for the Alum Trail as far as the Cave Bluffs. I did not hike on to Mt. Le Conte, but it is significantly steeper and another 2.7 miles.
It’s crowded. Really crowded-If you don’t like crowds, avoid the peak periods. Duh! But you want to go during the peak period also, right? Well, it’s simple. Get up really early and be the first one there. If you do that, you’ll be surprised to see that there are still a few cars in the parking lot. No, they didn’t beat you that morning: they spent the night on top of Mt. Le Conte, and you’ll probably have to share some of the solitude with them as they head back down. Still, that’s only a few hardy souls-not the army that will arrive by noon time!
Hope this helps. It’s a great park. I’m not much of a photographer, so these pix don’t really do it justice, but trust me, it’s really pretty. Just go!