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Alum Cave – Impromptu Hike To A Smokies Icon


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This past Thursday and Friday, I took an impromptu trip to the Smoky Mountains. Tuesday evening I found a single campsite available at Cades Cove Campground for Thursday night, so with my wife’s approval, I went ahead and reserved it. I spent part of Wednesday packing and putting together a quick itinerary. That itinerary included attempting to hike the Alum Cave Trail on the drive up. The Alum Cave Trail is 4.4 miles long for the round trip and leads to one of the more iconic hiking destinations within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve been wanting to do this particular hike for years, but for one reason or another, it just hadn’t worked out, until now.

Below are some of the images from my hike and a short write-up. Thanks for reading.

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After two hours of driving, I reached the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along Newfound Gap Road (US 441).

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The road passes the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, then begins a steep and steady climb as it makes it’s way up towards Newfound Gap. The views get increasingly more spectacular as you gain elevation.

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Newfound Gap is about 18 miles north of the parks entrance. At 5,046 feet in elevation, the gap is the highest point along the route between Cherokee, North Carolina and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The parking area at the gap was full, so I didn’t get out of my vehicle. I was, however, able to snap this photo through the open passenger-side window. US 441 can be seen far below, winding it’s way through the mountains.

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This is the first of two or three tunnels that I drove through while in the Smokies… You’re supposed to turn your lights on, blow your horn, put your hands in the air like you just don’t care (or something like that)!

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Anyhow, after another 40 to 45 minutes of driving in moderately heavy traffic, I arrived at the trailhead for Alum Cave. This is a very popular trail and since this is also peak season, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that there were probably a hundred or more cars parked in the two parking areas and along both sides of the road. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to find a spot, but as luck would have it, just as I pulled in, a couple was walking to their car, which happened to be parked practically right beside me.

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It was a little past noon by the time that I had put my pack on, grabbed my poles, and begun to hike. Not far from the trailhead, the Alum Cave Trail crosses over Walker Camp Prong on this footbridge, then follows Alum Cave Creek as it makes it’s way up towards Arch Rock.

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I don’t know what kind they are, but I thought that the fungi growing on the side of this large, mature tree were rather cool looking.

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Here, the trail crossed an unnamed stream. This stream feeds into Alum Cave Creek, which in turn, empties into the West Prong Little Pigeon River.

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Another footbridge. This one’s quite basic compared to the previous one, consisting of little more than a simple handrail attached to a large flat sawn log.

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After hiking for approximately 1.4 miles, I arrived at the entrance to Arch Rock. Arch Rock is a large natural arch, formed by erosion, and is a notable landmark in its own right.

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The trail passes through the arch on steps, which have been carved directly into the stone.

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This is a view of the arch, looking back from the top of the steps.

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This picture was taken maybe two miles into my hike. I thought that the view was great and that the jagged ridgeline in the foreground was pretty interesting. What I had forgotten at the time, was that the Eye of the Needle is supposed to be visible from along the Alum Cave Trail.

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While preparing this post, I went through my images and enlarged and cropped this one. Sure enough, the eye of the needle was right in front of me and I hadn’t even realized it.

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Here, the trail narrowed and began to climb more steeply as it traversed a large rockface just below Alum Cave.

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Finally, after an extended climb, I reached Alum Cave. In actuality, Alum Cave is not a cave at all, but is in reality, a huge concave bluff.

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In 1838, the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company began to mine for salt and other minerals on a 50-acre tract of land that included Alum Cave. The salts were depleted by the mid-1840’s, and all mining ceased by the end of the Civil War.

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A look up into the trees.

I spent some time meandering and exploring at the top while taking in the views, then turned around and headed back down the trail. In all, by the time that I arrived back at my vehicle, I had hiked 5 miles. My total vertical was 2,350 feet, which included 1,165 feet of climbing. The trail difficulty is rated as moderate, which I would tend to agree with.

This had been a great hike, but from where I was parked, I still had more than an hour of driving to go to reach Cades Cove. It was time for me to get moving and to get on up the road. Thanks again for reading.

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Aaron Zagrodnick

This was a great report and photos. Thanks for the read!

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