In a region defined by its rolling peaks and captivating scenery, Mount LeConte holds a special place for many visitors to the Smoky Mountains. While its summit is not quite the tallest point in the range, Mount LeConte is enjoyed for the numerous hiking opportunities that surround it. The trails offer a plethora of excellent photogenic spots and beautiful attractions that make the journey equally rewarding with the destination.
To reach the summit of Mount LeConte, you have a choice from among five hiking trails, each with unique features that make them worth traveling. Here is a little about each of the trails that lead to the top, and what you can expect to see on your way there.
At 11 miles up and back (5.5 mi each way) with elevation gains surpassing 2,700 feet, the full Alum Cave Trail is definitely not for inexperienced hikers, although the easier first part of the trail leading to the iconic and popular Alum Cave Bluffs is manageable by most people. If you are able to make the full trail, however, you will be rewarded with some singular views that will remind you why the route is so popular. Begin by passing over gentle streams and through dense forests, before ascending to notable landmarks such as Arch Rock and Inspiration Point – a favorite for people looking to capture a photo op. The Bluffs are a great place to rest and fire up the camera, on your way to the summit.
The Boulevard Trail connects to the Alum Cave trailhead and is also known for some serious elevation gains, taking you on a climb of approximately 3,000 feet. You can reach the trail from the Newfound Gap parking lot by following the Appalachian Trail for just over 2.5 miles, an area known for wildflowers during the warmer months. Much of the trail straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and it provides plenty of vantage points for you to gaze into the dramatic North Carolina peaks along the way. Many seasoned hikers call this one their favorite approach to LeConte.
Rainbow Falls Trail gives you the chance not only see the views from the top of Mt. LeConte, but also to savor the experience of the tallest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. Hiking the entire trail will take you over a distance of nearly 7 miles – one way, and the same for the return journey – so a day trip to the summit and back takes a very full day. You will be required to climb nearly 4,000 feet, but you don’t have to hike all the way to the summit to experience a lot of beauty on this trail. It traverses deep forest with plenty of deer and other wildlife. You will reach Rainbow Falls at approximately 2.7 miles from the trailhead, and it makes for a spectacular (and very popular) destination all its own.
If you want to immerse yourself deep in the woods and score some fantastic views of both the peaks and valleys on your ascent, check out the Bullhead Trail. This trail shares some of the route with the Rainbow Falls Trail, and you can actually combine the two to make for a challenging loop through the Mt. LeConte area. One of the most notable sights on Bullhead Trail is “rhododendron tunnel,” a long corridor shrouded by greenery that will make you feel as if you’re alone in the forest.
Trillium Gap Trail is considered by many the least arduous trail, although at about 7 miles long it’s not the shortest (Alum Cave is the shortest). The trail offers sights aplenty along the way for those who are able to make the journey. You can see the views from Myrtle Point – which many consider to be the most sweeping in all of the Smokies – and then spend some time lounging at the beautiful Grotto Falls, . Traveling on to the summit, you reach the LeConte Lodge, which is only accessible by hiking. Rooms at the lodge must be pre-booked, and are often reserved up to a year in advance, but you can drop in for lunch – a nice treat before beginning your descent.
No matter which path you choose and how far up you decide to go, the trails to Mt. LeConte are among the most rewarding in the park for serious hikers. Check out some photographs taken from a hike, here and here. Mt. LeConte has a prominent appearance and you will see it from many a Gatlinburg cabin deck, visible from afar. Now you know how to get closer.