Last year around this time we were training for our Spring Break trip to Bryce & Zion. So we decided to tackle one of the most popular trails in the Smokies as a warm-up leg strengthener for the season.
The trail up to Alum Cave is steep, busy, and beautiful. The views from Alum Cave are great but for us, nothing beats the feel of the forest and views from the Mt. LeConte village. Some overlooks along the trails provided views of the recently burned Chimney Top area, which was surprisingly beautiful in the brown winter.
Ice lingers in the Smokies well into spring. Even when things seem clear at the trailhead, you'll often run into rough patches. We did not bring our micro spikes on this trip and that was a bad idea. They're definitely worth carrying with you if you own them. Hiking poles are also a good idea for balance on slippery sections.
If you're planning this hike, getting started early is a must for a) a parking spot and b) a sense of peace and quiet, at least on the way up. The foot traffic settles down after Alum Cave itself as most people aren't up for the full trek up to LeConte. Ice lingers in the Smokies well into spring. Even when things seem clear at the trailhead, you'll often run into rough patches. We did not bring our micro spikes on this trip and that was a bad idea. They're definitely worth carrying with you if you own them. Hiking poles are also a good idea for balance on slippery sections.
From the Alum Cave parking lot, the trail is easy to find. After 5 miles, you'll intersect with the Rainbow Falls Trail. Take a right and keep climbing if you're headed to the LeConte village. Eventually the trail will stop heading uphill. I promise.
The lodge at Mt LeConte sells hot chocolate, coffee, lemonade, bagged lunches, and COOKIES. The beverages are refillable (from tiny little cups) and pretty watered down but you can't beat flavor on a mountain top. I think I refilled my tiny lemonade cup at least five times. The cookies are $1 and are just downright amazing (in addition to being enormous). The selection of cookies varies from day to day. On this trip, they had no bake cookies. So good.
Distance: ~5.2 one way, ~10.4 round trip, more if you wander near the top.
Elevation gain: Over 2500 feet of nearly constant gain on the way up to LeConte. Mostly flat once you reach LeConte village.
Bonus hike: From the top, you can add a brief side trip (that's mostly flat) out to Cliff Tops for some more views. By the time you've worked to get up there, you feel like you've earned the flat walking and the smell of the pine forest calls for lingering.