About 10 months ago, me and my sister-in-law, Jen, hiked Mount LeConte’s Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For both of us, it was the first time traveling to the Appalachians and eastern Tennessee.
I’ve done the peak-bagging thing in the Rockies for awhile now, as well as chasing crags in my home state. But the Smokies had an impact on me, and I hoped I could come back soon.
I got that chance this last week: A trip to visit family with the wife, and a few days in Gatlinburg.
There was a lot to gain from this, but something struck me as particularly cool. So go with me on this…
Back in November, Jen and I did the full hike of the Alum Cave Trail to LeConte’s summit (elev. 6,594 feet). That’s 11 miles, and nearly 3,000 feet of vertical gain from the trailhead to the top. Other summit hikes on LeConte or the surrounding mountains are even longer. A lot of people do it, but the fact is, many, many more won’t. Or can’t. Eleven miles is a big day of hiking for most folks, and seeing that the park attracts gobs of visitors who aren’t hardcore hikers, it’s important to find ways to enjoy it without having to commit yourself to a major, day-long effort in the hills.
Personally, I like the big days. I dig the challenge, the wildness and the solitude. But many others would love to see what I see without having to blow themselves out physically.
I came up with a couple of alternatives to the traditional big hike when you’re in the Smokies.
ALUM CAVE HIKE
I had no problem returning to this trail. It’s incredible. And to do it when everything was still green was awesome.
The trick here is finding a couple fun things to see, but save the trouble of committing to a summit hike.
Many people like to hike this trail, and a bunch of them opt for the halfway point, the Alum Cave Bluff. From the trailhead, it’s about 5 miles round trip. What you get is a glimpse of an interesting rock formation you get to hike through (Arch Rock), and at the turnaround, the bluff itself. In between are some scenic vistas overlooking the mountains and forests below.
This is still an effort: In those 5 miles you’re going to pick up 1,100 feet of vertical gain, and you’ll be close to 5,000 feet above sea level when you get to the bluff. But the distance and effort is within most people’s abilities. It will take most folks about three hours to complete, allowing for breaks to snack, take pics, or just enjoy the views. The bluff itself is a nice visual reward, and you’ll get to see a couple different ecosystems the higher you go.
One word of caution: Any time you go hiking in a national park or other public lands, it’s a good idea to take a first-aid kit with you, among other things. Bec rolled her ankle on the way down, so I had to do a quick wrap and tape job on her ankle before continuing. That and a couple of ibuprofen and she was good to hike out the last 2 miles. (Check out the hiking 10 essentials to have in your pack here.)
The trail is an easy-to-follow Class 1 route on a well maintained trail. Improvements to the section leading up to Alum Cave have also been recently added.
This is another one where it can be as hard as you want it to be. Clingman’s Dome is a big Appalachian peak (elev. 6,644 feet) that marks the highest point in Tennessee. It’s also the high point of the Appalachian Trail, which goes over its summit.
As you might guess, there are a number of lengthy trails to get up there, but the National Park Service also built a road which leads to an overlook very close to the top. There are several pullout sections on the roadside for nature walks or scenic views. The road ends at a large parking lot with a visitor’s center and restrooms.
Best of all, NPS also built a paved walkway that goes about a half mile from the parking lot to the summit of the mountain, where an observation platform gives you sweeping views of the Smokies.
There are a couple of reasons I like this. First, most summit views in the Smokies aren’t views at all — you’re usually surrounded by trees. The platform on Clingman’s Dome rises above all that, giving you some of the best scenery in the entire park.
Second, this is about as accessible as it gets for the general, non-hiking public. The setup gives almost anyone a chance to see what it’s like to stand atop a mountain and view the glory of the Smokies without having to exhaust themselves on a more traditional — and lengthy — Appalachian summit hike. The allure also includes the sweet scents of spruces and cooler temperatures that greet visitors at higher elevations. During last year’s LeConte hike and last week’s travels, I would swear that the woods of Tennessee’s high country smelled a lot like the alpine forests of the Rockies.
Now I know a lot of purists will scoff at the idea of “micro adventures,” summit roads and paved walkways. But think of it this way: The best way to get people to appreciate the outdoors is to find ways to get more folks immersed in something they’ll remember. Your grandfather, or your mom, or your 6-year-old might not be up for a 14-miler up one of these mountains. But I’ll bet you can coax them up that half-mile walkway and give them the “wow” factor that leaves an impression. Positive outdoor experiences often lead people toward adopting conservationist views. And we need more of that.
Bottom line, there is plenty of challenge for hikers and backpackers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But there are also shorter adventures that less-seasoned folks can enjoy and gain an appreciation for an American treasure.