Alum Cave and Alum Bluffs, Alum Cave Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Alum Cave and Alum Bluffs - 4.4 Miles
Alum Cave Trailhead
Alum Cave and Alum Bluffs
|Round-Trip Length:||4.4 Miles (to Alum Cave)|
|Start-End Elevation:||3,865' - 4,975' (4,975' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+1,110' net elevation gain (+1,189' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
The North American tectonic plate collided with the African tectonic plate between 310 and 245 million years ago, forming the supercontinent Pangaea. This impact rippled across America, disrupting horizontal rock layers and forcing them up into mountain ranges.
One such range stretches 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, collectively known as the Appalachian Mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains are the tallest mountains in the Appalachian chain, featuring sixteen peaks over 5,000'.
The Appalachian Mountains are among the oldest in the world. Rock in the Smoky Mountains is mostly sedimentary, formed by the accumulation and compression of soil, silt, sand, gravel and small amounts of calcium carbonate.
The Park's oldest sedimentary rocks were formed during the Proterozoic Era 800-545 million years ago, with younger layers forming during the Paleozoic Era 450 - 545 million years ago. These rock layers were stacked 9 miles thick in some places.
These layers, which could be 9 miles thick in some places, are known together as the Ocoee Supergroup, and classified into many smaller groups based on climatic and topographic conditions that existed during their formation. Rocks of Alum Cave are from the Anakeestaformation, a subgroup unique for its high sulfur content.
Alum Cave is a large rock overhang draped in ferns, herbs, lichens and mosses. With so much of the Park covered in plant life, exposed rock surfaces are special. Visitors will enjoy biological diversity, pronounced geological features and terrific views on the hike to Alum Cave:
The trail heads northeast from the parking lot on a shifting course beside Alum Cave Creek. A tall hardwood-hemlock forest and thick understory of rosebay rhododendron envelopes the trail. It gradually bends north and crosses 3 consecutive bridges over Styx Branch to the base of Arch Rock (1.3 miles : 4,355').
Arch Rock is a massive boulder that split away from a larger rock wall by freeze-thaw cycling. Water gets trapped in small crevices, freezes and expands. Over time this mechanical action chips away at rock, exposing it to further erosion. Stairs thread a small gap between Arch Rock and the valley wall from which it's been separated by only a few feet.
Once through Arch Rock, the trail crosses one more bridge and veers away from the creek into overlapping hardwood, pine-oak and spruce-fir forests.
The forest breaks at 1.85 miles (4,740') with sweeping views across the Trout Branch drainage, Chimney Tops and several heath balds.
Heath balds are curious areas where timber yields to thick, shrubby evergreen layers dominated by rhododendron, laurel and sand myrtle.
Heath balds are sometimes call 'Laurel Slicks' because of their waxy, shiny appearance. Heath balds are lauded for their prolific blooms, which peak late May - mid July.
The trail continues up to Alum Cave (2.2 miles : 4,975'), whose towering walls are visible long before you reach it.
Explore the cave base and deep rock tunnels on its flank. Look for ravens, which are rare in the eastern United States but often seen in the Alum Cave area. So too are peregrine falcons, reintroduced in the 1980s and holding their own along inaccessible cliffs. The trail continues another 2.85 miles to the summit of Mount Le Conte (6,593').
GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84View these GPS points on a Google Map
- N35 37.748 W83 27.056 — 0.0 miles : Alum Cave Trailhead
- N35 37.953 W83 26.642 — .5 miles : Shifting course beside Alum Cave Creek
- N35 38.119 W83 26.295 — 1.0 miles : Trail steepens into thick, diverse forest
- N35 38.416 W83 26.331 — 1.5 miles : Pass thru high range of hardwood forest
- N35 38.344 W83 26.716 — 2.2 miles : Alum Cave - Veer left at sign for Le Conte
- N35 38.403 W83 26.792 — 2.5 miles : Steep grades above Alum Cave
- Although glaciers didn't reach this far south, they influenced climate in the region, notably with alpine conditions at higher elevations more typical of the Rocky Mountains we know today. Boulders found in Park streams were pried from cliffs and ledges by mechanical erosion, a direct byproduct of freeze-thaw cycling.
- Clingmans Dome(6,643') is the park's highest summit, and third tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. Mount Le Conte stands at 6,593', but from a base of 1,292', is the tallest mountain in the East.
- Bears are active along the Alum Cave Trail, particularly from the trailhead to Arch Rock. Be mindful of your surroundings and follow proper protocol if encountered. Carry out all that you take in, and help Park officials maintain the trail by taking out trash you find along the way.
- This is a very popular trail that sees heavy traffic in both directions, all times of day and year round. Get an early start to secure parking and avoid crowds.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- There are no designated backcountry campsites on the Alum Cave Trail. The Mount Le Conte Shelter is available by reservation (see related notes).
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit for all backcountry camping in the park. Backcountry permits are free and available at 14 visitor centers, campgrounds, and park office locations.
- Permit registration facilities are open 24 hours a day. Permits must be picked up in the park at designated locations. They are not available on the internet or through email.
- Advance reservations are required to camp at all Shelters and Backcountry Campsites 9, 10, 13, 17, 20, 21, 23, 24, 29, 36, 37, 38, 46, 47, 50, 55, 57, 60, 61, 71, 83, 86, 90, 113.
- Reservations for backcountry campsites may be obtained only by calling the Backcountry Office (865.436.1231). They are not available online or through email.
- If you do not plan to camp at a shelter or reserved campsite, then you only need to complete a permit.
- There is a 3 consecutive night stay maximum at any given campsite, and 1 night maximum at any shelter. The use of tents at shelters is prohibited. The maximum group size is 8 persons for sites and shelters.
- Open fires are prohibited except at designated sites and in established fire rings.
- All food and trash must be suspended at least 10' off the ground and 4' from the nearest limb or trunk, or stored as otherwise designated (e.g. bear box).
- The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily.
- Fishing is permitted year-round, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.
- The park allows fishing in all streams except Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek, and Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong.
- A valid fishing license from Tennessee or North Carolina is required to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online.
- Daily Possession Limits: Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.
- Size Limits: Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum. Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum. Rockbass: no minimum. Trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.
- Lures, Bait, and Equipment: Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used, with up to two flies on a leader.
Rules and Regulations
- Horses and stock are not permitted on the Alum Cave Trail.
- There is no entrance fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Pets, motorized vehicles, and bicycles are not permitted on backcountry trails in GSMNP.
- Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along roads, but are not allowed on park trails.
The Alum Cave Trailhead is located 8.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Highway 441. There are two lots on the east side of the road. The trail begins from the south lot.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Visitor Information - Recorded Message
Backcountry Office - Camping and Reservations
The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8 am - 6 pm daily (EST)
Backcountry Information Office - Trip Planning Questions
The information office is open daily 9 am - 12n (EST)
Sugarlands Visitor Center (Tennessee side - north entrance)
Oconaluftee Visitor Center (North Carolina side - south entrance)