Julie United States 12 Comments

Summiting Mt. LeConte is one of the Smoky Mountains great hikes. It is a long way to the top but it’s an interesting experience, hiking through caves and along trails that, at times, cling to the side of the mountain. On a clear day, the view from the top of Mt. LeConte can be magnificent.

There are several ways to reach the summit of Mt. LeConte. We hiked up via the Alum Cave Trail, which is the focus of this post. However, you can also summit Mt. LeConte via the Boulevard Trail and Rainbow Falls.

Facts About the Hike (via Alum Cave Trail)

Distance: 11 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2800 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Length of Time: 6 – 8 hours
When to go: Any time of year. The best time to go is during the late spring and early summer months (catch the rhododendrons in bloom) or in autumn (see the Great Smoky Mountains ablaze in yellow, orange, and red).

LeConte Elevation Profile

Mount LeConte Elevation Profile

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

Hiking Mt. LeConte

Getting to the Trailhead

The Alum Cave Trail starts at the Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead parking lot, located right on US-441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From Gatlinburg, it is a 13-mile drive (30 minutes).

There are several parking lots here. Even so, during the midday, overflow parking spills out on the shoulder lining US-441.

This trail attracts a lot of hikers, but not all have plans to hike all of the way to the summit. Most people turn around at Alum Cave, a much shorter day out on the trail.

Alum Cave Trail Trailhead

The Start of the Hike

The first part of the trail is beautiful, as you hike along Alum Cave Creek. There are a crazy number of rhododendrons lining the Alum Cave Creek and this must look spectacular when they are blooming in June and July.

During this first part of the hike, the trail climbs slowly and steadily but it is not overly strenuous.

On the Trail

Alum Creek


Arch Rock

1.4 miles into the hike you will reach Arch Rock. Here, you will climb up through a staircase carved from the mountain, while walking underneath a huge arch of rock.

Alum Cave Trail

Alum Cave

At 2.3 miles into the hike, you will reach Alum Cave. This is an enormous but shallow cave that overlooks the valley. Alum Cave is a great spot to take a break, catch your breath, and enjoy the view. It can be a crowded spot and for many people, this is the turnaround point of the day.

Alum Cave

A short distance past Alum Cave the trail descends, just for a little bit. Enjoy it. It doesn’t take long for the trail to start climbing again, and now it feels steeper (or maybe that is because fatigue is starting to set in).

Hiking Smoky Mountains

Between Alum Cave and the summit, the trail gets to be more exposed. There are sections where the trail is literally carved into the rocky cliffs on the mountain. At these points, cables are attached to the mountain to help you keep your balance. Take care here. There are several short sections where the trail drops off the side of the mountain.

Tim Rivenbark

Near the top, the trail levels off and heads through a forest of evergreen trees. It’s quiet and very peaceful here.

Julie Rivenbark

Just past the forest, the Alum Cave Trail joins the Rainbow Falls trail. Turn right here to continue on the Rainbow Falls Trail and to the LeConte Lodge and the summit.

LeConte Lodge

After just a few more minutes of hiking you will reach LeConte Lodge.

LeConte Lodge

You can turn this one-day hike into a two-day trip by staying overnight in one of the cabins. Dinner, breakfast, and your cabin are included in the cost.

For full details about LeConte Lodge, click here.

Summit of Mt. LeConte

From the LeConte Lodge, it takes about ten to fifteen minutes of hiking (about .5 miles) to reach the true summit of Mt. LeConte.

To get here, continue up the Rainbow Falls Trail (if you are standing with your back to the lodge, take a left).

Just past the lodge, the Rainbow Falls Trail ends. Stay to the right to continue on the Boulevard Trail to the LeConte summit (follow the signs to the LeConte Shelter).

Trail Marker

You know you have reached the summit of Mt. LeConte when you reach this giant rock cairn (located several more minutes past the LeConte shelter). At this point, you have hiked 5.5 miles from the trailhead.

LeConte Summit Cairn

Two Viewpoints to Consider

From the rock cairn, you can turn around and retrace your steps back down the mountain. Or, you have the option to take a quick walk to two different viewpoints. This is absolutely worth it on a clear day.

Myrtle Point

From the rock cairn, continue on the Boulevard Trail for another .4 miles until you reach Myrtle Point.

Cliff Top

Cliff Top looks like the better of the two viewpoints on Mt. LeConte. To get to Cliff Top, the trail starts directly across from the LeConte Lodge on the other side of the Rainbow Falls trail. It’s about .5 miles round trip to the viewpoint from LeConte Lodge.

Tim and I hiked to Cliff Top and all we could see was white mist, since the mountaintop was stuck in the clouds on our less than ideal day for our visit here. But this spot has some serious potential to provide breathtaking views on a clear day.

About Our Experience

Tim and I hiked Mt. LeConte at the very beginning of November. Most of the leaves were gone, especially at higher elevations. Two weeks earlier (the middle to the end of October) would be a great time to do this hike if you want to see the Smoky Mountains at peak colors.

We also did this on a cloudy, rainy day. From the top of Mt. LeConte, we had zero visibility. It was a big disappointment to miss out on seeing those sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. It rained during our descent back down the mountain, leaving us wet and a bit chilly once we got back to our car.

What to Bring on the Hike

Hiking Shoes. I highly recommend hiking shoes, not walking or running shoes. Sections of the trail are carved out of the rocky cliffs along the mountain. These surfaces are uneven and can be slippery, especially if it is wet. Hiking shoes will give you better traction.

Water. Bring plenty of water, especially if you will be hiking midday or during the warmer months.

Hiking poles (optional). Hiking poles are my new favorite hiking gadgets and I highly recommend them. They take about 30% of the weight off of your legs as you descend, easing knee pain and other symptoms. I use Black Diamond Distance Z poles and love them. They easily collapse down to fit in your luggage and hiking backpack, plus they are extremely lightweight. The poles come in several sizes, so make sure you pick the right length based on your height.

Hiking Gear Guide

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Gatlinburg. It is very new with an excellent location in Gatlinburg, in walking distance of the center of town.

Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountains? What is your favorite hike? Comment below!

More Information for Your Trip to the Smoky Mountains:

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK: Learn how to spend a weekend at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in our Weekend Getaway Guide to Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains.

MCAFEE KNOB: McAfee Knob is a great hike to do in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE: For recommendations on what to do, check out our article Best Things to Do in Nashville. We also have a list of great restuarants to try in our Nashville Restaurant Guide.

NEARBY DESTINATIONS: Asheville, North Carolina makes a great weekend destination. You can also spend a few days on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or visit nearby New River Gorge National Park. 

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK: In our articles about Shenandoah, learn about the top experiences in Shenandoah National Park and 10 great hikes to do while you are here.

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.

Are you planning a trip to the United States? Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Travel Guide.


Smoky Mountains LeConte Hike


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Comments 12

  1. Avatar for Erik

    I’ve been on a few hikes in the Smokies and I’d have to say Grotto Falls is my favorite so far inside the park. Just outside the park in NC along the Blue Ridge Parkway is Waterrock Knob which boasts the Plott Balsam trailhead. That’s my favorite overall. It’s moderate to difficult, and leads to Browning Knob where you can investigate a crashed plane, and then on to Mt. Lynn Lowry where you can find a 60′ tall cross. The mountaintop views are breathtaking at this elevation, above 5800 feet, as you are hiking from peak to peak. The forest up there is ancient, primordial, and amazing.
    I really enjoyed your writeup of the Mount LeConte trail. We’re visiting again in July and i just may add that to our itinerary. Thanks and happy hiking!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Thank you so much for these suggestions. I would love to come back and explore more of the park and the surrounding area at some point. Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Shawn T Wandell
        Shawn T Wandell

        Additional paths to Mt. LeConte include Bullhead, and Trillium Gap trails. While staying at the lodge cabins are highly sought after(and pricey); reservations can be made at the Mt. Le Conte Shelter. $4 per person. You need to be a prepared backcountry backpacker. Each visit to LeConte is a one time experience… if you made the trip daily you’re experience will be new and impressive each trek. It was the last hike I did with my son, Josiah, before he passed away. The memories made on that hike will be with me forever. Thank you for this post. I have not hiked much at all since losing my only son… yet, I have two Amazing daughters to share this experience with. I must get back in hiking shape ASAP!!!

        1. Avatar for Julie Post

          Hello Shawn. Thank you for writing in. I’m sorry to hear about your son. Hopefully you can get back out on the trails with your daughters. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for Alice

    I did this hike with my parents and sister when i was about 13 remember hanging on the cables and we stayed overnite in the shelter what an unforgettable experience . wasnt too happy about it then but looking back it was a memory filled hikecand glad we did it !!

  3. Avatar for Jennifer

    Great info, lots of details in this review.
    We will be climbing Mt LeConte next week and I am a little nervous. I am a prairie girl…. no mountains where I live. Are the “several short sections where the trail drops off the side of the mountain” manageable for a newbie mountain climber or should I look at a different trail? I have bought very good hiking boots that I have broken in and am planning to buy poles. Any additional info will be appreciated.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      There aren’t many difficult drop-offs on this hike. You can see in one photo Tim standing next to a “drop-off,” and this is about as “bad” as it gets. If you haven’t done many hikes on mountains or with exposure, this hike is the perfect introduction…not too difficult, with short sections of exposure but nothing crazy. Don’t be nervous…you’ll be fine. And hopefully you will have a clear view from the top. Good luck! Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Sherri Coker
        Sherri Coker

        We hiked Mt. Laconte last year via Alum Cave trail and spent the night in one of the cabins – it was AMAZING! Our view from the Cliff Top was stunning! We are headed back up in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait! If you plan to stay in one of the cabins, you have to reserve way in advance. I think they start taking reservations in October for the following year. Well worth planning ahead for!! Happy hiking everyone!!

  4. Avatar for David Ingraham
    David Ingraham

    Went with a group of 42. Spent Friday and Saturday night in Gatlinburg and took in the sights. Hiked up Alum on Sunday, spent the night at the top and hiked down Monday. Food was great and trip was fantastic. Take your time and enjoy what nature has to offer.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      It sounds like a cool experience to spend the night on top of Mt LeConte. Glad to hear that the food is good…I wondered about that. Thanks for sharing! Cheers, Julie

  5. Avatar for SAM
    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      We wear Merrell hiking shoes. Tim and I both wear the Moab waterproof shoe (not the boot). Tyler and Kara wear the Moab ventilator shoes (a little more budget friendly right now while their feet are growing so fast). The waterproof version does a better job keeping your feet dry, worth it for the extra money. Merrell also has an even more waterproof version with Gortex that we have not tried yet. Cheers, Julie

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