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

Striated outer walls of Alum Cave

Striated outer walls of Alum Cave

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)
Skill Level: Moderate
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
Related Trails:

Alum Cave and Alum Bluffs - 4.4 Miles Round-Trip

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 2000 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'.

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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 Anakeesta formation, 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 is rare. 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').

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • 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

Worth Noting

  • 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


Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Before planning your backcountry trip, please read through this important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.

Reserve your Backcountry or Thru Hike permits here:

Please direct questions concerning backpacking trip planning to the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. Phone calls are the preferred method of contact. The information office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.

Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations. Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a fine under Title 36, Code of Federal Regulations. Maximum fine for each violation is $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

General Backcountry Regulations

1. Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters.

2. You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. You may not stay consecutive nights at campsite 113 or at any shelter.

3. Maximum party size is 8. Two parties affiliated with the same group may not stay in the same campsite or at the same shelter on the same night(s). Special permits may be issued for a few sites that accommodate parties of up to 12.

4. Fires are only allowed at designated campsites and shelters and must be contained in a fire ring. Constructing new fire rings is prohibited. You may only burn wood that is dead and already on the ground. You may not cut any standing wood.

5. It is illegal to possess firewood originating from a location from which a federal or state firewood quarantine is in effect. Read information about this quarantine and the states affected.

6. Building a fire in the fireplace of any historic structure or removing any parts of a historic structure, including brick or rock, is illegal.

7. Backcountry permit holders may not use tents at shelters.

8. Hammocks may only be used within designated backcountry campsites. They may not be used inside shelters and may not be attached to shelters in any way.

9. All odorous items (e.g., food, trash, lip balm, toothpaste, stock feed, hay etc) must be hung on the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.

10. Human waste must be disposed of at least 100 feet from any campsite, shelter, water source or trail and must be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep.

11. All food, trash, clothing, equipment or personal items must be packed out.

12. Burning food, trash or anything other than dead wood is prohibited.

13. Carving into or defacing trees, signs, shelters or other backcountry features is illegal.

14. Soap, even biodegradable soap, may not be used in any water sources. Bathing and washing dishes should be done well away from water sources and campsites.

15. No dogs or other pets are allowed on any park trails except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. No dogs or other pets may be carried into the backcountry.

16. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the backcountry.

17. No hunting is allowed anywhere in the park

18. Feeding, touching or teasing wildlife is prohibited. You may not willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of elk or bears.

Fishing Information

  • 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.

Directions to Trailhead

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.

Contact Information

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)

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


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