On our second day in the Smokies, having officially warmed up the day before with our hikes to Grotto Falls and Porters Creek, Mom and I decided it was time to tackle much more ambitious hikes. Alum Cave isn’t one that either of us had hiked before, but it’s one of the most popular trails in the entire park. At 4.4-mi roundtrip, the trail has 1,125-ft of elevation gain, so it’s not a simple stroll in the woods by any means.
Alum Cave actually has an interesting history outside of being part of the National Park system. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined Alum Cave in the 1830s and 1840s for various minerals, including alum and magnesium sulfate. The area was also mined during the Civil War for saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder (see T. Dennis Coskren and Robert J. Lauf, The Minerals of Alum, Cave Bluff: Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee., Mineralological Record. March/April 2000).
We arrived at the trailhead parking lot around sunrise and there were already other hikers there, unloading their vehicles and readying their gear. After confirming we had everything in our packs, we hit the trail. The first 1.3-mi was a steady, gradual grade that was fairly easy to navigate and acted as a good warm-up for our legs. The temperature was in the high 40s and eventually rose to the mid-70s, but the trail stayed mostly in the shade, keeping us nice and cool.
At the 1.3-mi mark, we came to Arch Rock, which is a massive rock with a stone staircase carved through it. The staircase was very narrow and steep, but there are cable handrails for hikers to use in order to keep their balance (or in my case, to pull oneself up some very tall stairs with one’s very short legs).
The next 0.9-mi gets pretty steep, pretty quickly. On the (eventual) way back down, Mom and I passed a young man shortly before we reached Arch Rock who was heading towards Alum Cave. He was incredibly disheartened to realize that he still had almost a full mile left to go to reach his destination. Apparently he didn’t look at any trail map before setting out and well-intentioned, but navigationally challenged people hiking back down had been telling him for quite some ways that he only had a mile left to go. Yikes!
Finally reaching Alum Cave felt amazing. I was tired of climbing too-tall stairs and both Mom and I were needing a food break, so we found a (relatively) flat rock and sat down to enjoy the view. Calling Alum Cave a cave is a bit of a misnomer – it’s actually more of a concave-shaped bluff. Regardless of what you call it, though, Alum Cave is gorgeous. The cave/bluff rises to over 70-ft off the ground, providing plenty of protection from the elements. I would just warn potential hikers to watch their step: the floor of the cave is basically rock covered in a lot of sand. I saw people slipping and sliding all over the place while trying to navigate their way around.