Alum Cave Trail to LeConte Lodge

New Miles: 5.5

Total Miles Hiked: 11

Overall Progress: 87.9 out of 900 miles

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August 27, 2014

What an amazing day! I didn’t realize that so much of the Smokies paralleled that of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Of course, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I was shocked and amazed as this trail rolled on and upward towards the summit of Mt. LeConte. I had no idea that the Smokies held so much beauty, beyond what is seen out of the car window on 441. I didn’t really have any expectations for the day, but what I got was far more than I could have imagined.

It was great that today’s hike went as well as it did because I had to alter my plans drastically. I had intended on completing 2 trails on this trip–the Smokemont Loop and Alum Cave, but it  became quite obvious that this goal just wasn’t going to happen! I came straight from working 4 nights on the ambulance and they were brutal! Needless to say, I was spent before I even began. No worries–a good night’s rest was achieved and I was refreshed the next morning.

I decided to catch the sunrise on Newfound Gap; I sat there on the vista while heating up some water for hot oatmeal and a steamy cup of coffee. It was something of beauty to be atop such a busy place while no one else was there.  Once I had finished breakfast I commenced my trip. The trail starts from a parking lot located off 441. Large rhododendrons and an eerie white mist call the hiker into the dark forest.  The tree branches seemed to weave themselves together forming an endless green tunnel. The trail crosses a wide creek and begins to make a slow, but constant upward march. The first mile or so follows the sounds of the creek; it is loud and constant, but soothing all the same.

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The path zig-zags across the creek over a series of footbridges. Large pine trees skirt the trail as it meanders over large rocks and old downed trees. The air was cooled from the stream and the sun shone through the leaves faintly.

I continued pushing forward at a steady pace; I was trying to walk efficiently to keep time, but slow enough to appreciate the scenery. I arrived at Alum Cave shortly after I began the hike. The cave is a naturally occurring cleft in the rock face. It sits at the base of the mountain located adjacent to the stream. Fog rose up from the creek and mist poured out of the mouth of the tunnel to create a foreboding scene. Outside it looked dark and damp, but the neatly placed stairs invited me inside. Up, up, up I climbed within in the cleft, until I saw the sunlight on the other side.

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I was hit by a wall of heat and humidity. No longer did the trail parallel the creek, but lead up into the hot clouds. It was a steep climb for a while, but suddenly the trail opened up to the sky above. The trail followed a long and gnarled vein of granite through some short shrubbery. It paused at a beautiful vista overlooking the backside of Newfound Gap. I kept thinking how much it reminded me of the Whites in New Hampshire.

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I paused for a moment and talked with another hiker. He too, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. We exchanged trail names and stories for a little while. Then it was time to move up the trail.

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Shorty thereafter, the path arrived at Alum bluffs. It was a spectacular site reminiscent to Mesa Verde National Park. Under the cliff walls of this great mountain was a huge void, hollowed out by wind and time. Although, there weren’t any cliff dwellings like Balcony House or Cliff Palace there, one could imagine all sorts of images of natives or settlers camped underneath the bluff. I stopped to take some photos and watched some tourists come in; it was quite amusing to see them hiking in blue jeans and cotton. One woman decided that being in the woods was no reason to look bad; she drenched herself in perfume and caked her face with makeup.

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Onward and upward I continued. From Alum Bluffs, it’s another 2.7 miles to Boulevard Trail on Mt. LeConte. I have to say that the scenery just kept getting prettier. At times the trail followed more of these long veins of granite. As I ascended, the flora and trees of the forest changed. About hour-and-a-half into the hike, I started to smell the familiar scent of Christmas trees filling the air. The trail sunk into the mountainside like a big rut and the sun speckled through the trees.

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I encountered several tourists along the journey, most of which, had no idea what they were doing. I came upon one burly man; he was wearing all cotton clothing and noise-reduction head phones. He had a tripod with a camcorder affixed and his tripod was set up across the entirety of the trail. There was no room to pass, of course, as he picked a narrow section of trail atop a precipice. I had to laugh at how ridiculous he looked and how disrespectful he was to the other hikers. If I could complain about anything today, which there really isn’t anything to complain about, it would be the tourists. That’s the one thing I miss about the AT–way less tourists and way more thru-hikers with a healthy respect for mother nature.

After several breathtaking views, the trails arrives at the top of Mt. LeConte. I thought I was back on the Appalachian Trail again, hiking over Mt. Washington or Mt. Mousilake in the Whites. The trail was surrounded by medium-sized Christmas trees and the sky above was a deep azure. The air was cold and crisp and the breeze unwavering. It really had all the character of the Whites–being almost above tree line…and of course LeConte Lodge stood amidst the trees like Zealand Falls Hut in NH.

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I lingered for a moment at LeConte Lodge. It amazed me how similar this was to the AMC huts in New Hampshire. I stood at the top of the stairs, taking in the view and reliving memories of my time on the AT. It was an amazing journey to the top and I was grateful to have made it. I didn’t stay long at the lodge before starting my descent. I kept moving downward. After 45 minutes of hiking I caught a glimpse of where I had just been and it was pretty awesome to realize that I had just climbed to that distant point. See the knob in the middle?

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All-in-all, I was greatly impressed by this hike. It was so nice to hike a trail that I had never trodden before. It was so wonderful to hike in place that filled me with so many memories of New Hampshire. And now I must succumb to the desire for much-needed sleep! Good night!

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