Hiking guide: Brave Mt. LeConte to catch panoramic views, stunning vistas and a historic cave trail

Photo by Jessica Swannie

This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.

[Related guide: How to get to some of North Carolina’s best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains]

[Related guide: Here’s where you can hike with wild ponies just 2 hours from Charlotte]

[Related guide: How to tackle one of the Appalachian Trail’s most gorgeous stretches—and maybe find some ‘magic’]

[Related guide: Want to scale ladders and explore plane wreckage? Check out this amazing route]

I munched nervously on a granola bar as I stared at the tree-threaded black hole that would begin my hike up Mt. LeConte in Tennessee. The promise of sweeping vistas and lush greenery seemed less appealing in the silent, pre-sunrise woods, save for a few (probably massive) bugs. Did I really want to hike 14 miles round trip? No.

But I did.

And I’d do it all over again.  

The 6,593 foot Mt. LeConte holds the title of the third highest peak in the Smoky Mountains. We chose it for its panoramic views and the promise of the Alum Cave, and it proved incredible beyond measure.

The first hour of the hike acts as a tease. Flat, paved trails feature rustic bridges and wooden staircases along Alum Creek – perfect for the pre-sweat photo op. Because if you’re going to climb a mountain, there may as well be proof!

About a mile in, we reached Arch Rock, requiring an ascent through a natural tunnel-esque formation. I channeled my inner Indiana Jones and climbed right up, thinking the burn in my thighs would stop once I reached the end of the stairs.

It did not, but the promise of the views made me push on.

About two miles in, we reached what’s known as “Inspiration Point,” as it offers picturesque views of the Eye of the Needle and Little Duck Hawk Ridge. We stopped here for a quick water break to watch the sun rise over the mountains.

Inspiration Point. Photo by Jessica Swannie

Just past Inspiration Point lies the Alum Cave (I’d actually classify it as more of a rock overhang than an actual cave), which boasts stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The area’s rich history dates back to the early 1800s, where a manufacturing company mined Epsom salts from the cave. The Confederate Army also mined saltpeter from the cave during the Civil War to manufacture gunpowder. Many hikers stop here, either for a rest or to head back down the mountain.

Alum Cave. Photo by Jessica Swannie

Pro Tip: Pack FUN snacks. Because when you stop for a food break at Alum Cave and hear all the moms ask their children whether they want Goldfish, Cheez-Its, or Cheetos, your healthy little Clif Bar with a mountain-climbing man on the wrapper seems 100% less appealing.

My hiking buddy (aka my way-too-fit boyfriend who did not want to hear suggestions of heading back down), continued on to Gracie’s Pulpit, which marks the halfway point to the LeConte Lodge (more to come on this below). I followed, silently hoping my legs wouldn’t give out.

Characterized by narrow trails, this two-mile stretch features cable handrails to avoid close calls with steep ledges. Standing less than two feet from the abyss did not couple well with my paralyzing fear of heights, but my Hulk-like grip on the cables made it okay, white knuckles and all. I requested we stop for a ‘Gram-worthy photo to prove my bravery.

This stretch went downhill for a bit, which offered relief from the otherwise uphill hike. However, what goes down must go back up (on the mountain, because #science), so we trekked back upward toward the Rainbow Falls Trail.

At this point, we passed a nice family on the trail, and wheezing, I asked how much further until we reached the top. To the nice young lady that said “about half a mile, 15 minutes,” you lied. And although I’m still a little bitter, I probably would’ve avoided the next hour had you not falsely motivated me. So thanks, I guess.

We turned right once we reached the Rainbow Falls Trail, named for the misty waterfall that trickles along the rockface, and a short walk brought us to the LeConte Lodge area.

At this point, I stared speechless at my boyfriend, who failed to mention the vast lodging options atop the mountain –lodging that offered an overnight stay so that travelers did not need to turn a 7-mile trek into a 14-mile round-trip hike. The scent of food also wafted from the restaurant, which offers meals for guests and day-hikers alike. It doesn’t open until noon, so if you started early, you’ll have to grab something when you pass it on the way down.

We trekked through throngs of smart overnight hikers to the Trillium Gap Trail, which led us to the summit, also known as Cliff Top.

The view. Photo by Jessica Swannie

As soon as I cleared the trees and caught my breath, I couldn’t imagine having spent the past three hours any other way. Incredible panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains surrounded us, with hues of deep greens and blues painting the landscape. We sat on the rock formation and listened to the cool breeze – the only sound atop the mountain.  

I would’ve stayed there all day — both because of the views and also because I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me all the way back down.

About three hours later, I collapsed onto the passenger seat in the car, grateful I hiked to the top (and back down), and we drove to town for the afternoon.

The nearby town of Gatlinburg deserves a mention, as it offered a hearty lunch and overnight lodging after our trip up the mountain.

Read all about Gatlinburg here, with this personality-driven guide.

Gatlinburg. Photo by Jessica Swannie

Post hike, we walked around the main strip, taking care to see all the highlights along the tourist-filled street.

I’d highly recommend stopping at Sugarlands Distilling Co., where visitors can pay $5 to sample 12 different flavored moonshines while hearing the story of each from employees doubling as standup comedians. Then stop for a snack at the European-style Village, featuring shops with ice cream, donuts, and chocolate as a reward for a tough hike. Make sure to dine at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp before heading back to Charlotte – think Rainforest Café with a mountain theme and massive cinnamon rolls!

Planning Your Trip

To get to the trailhead, drive 12 miles south of Gatlinburg along the Newfound Gap/U.S. Highway 441. Two parking lots sit at the mouth of the trail, but cars tend to line up along the side of the road, as it’s a popular spot. We arrived at the trailhead around 6:30 a.m. I’d recommend staying in Gatlinburg the night before, as the nearby parking fills up pretty quickly. More info on parking can be found here.

A few suggestions on packing:

  • Use a lightweight backpack. I purchased this one from Dick’s Sporting Goods, as it features a hydration pack and tons of pockets for storing snacks.
  • Bring ample bug spray and sunscreen. We hiked in September, and OFF’s active, sweat-resistant spray kept the massive black flies at bay.
  • Pack a sweatshirt. Even after sweating all the way up the mountain, the chilly breeze on the peak warrants a light hoodie.



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