At the Trailhead: Alum Caves Bluff

We’re not ones to sit around the house while the sun shines. There are too many trails out there just waiting to be explored, so when my husband and kids had a week off, the first thing we did was plan some hikes. One of my goals this year is to hike at least four trails that are new to me, even if the rest of the world has already been there. Twice. And Alum Caves Bluff trail seems to fit into both categories.

The Smoky Mountains are a bit of a drive for us, so we made sure to get an early start. According to the map, the trailhead was close by the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This well-staffed visitor center is a destination in itself, containing a fascinating 25 minute film on the history of the area, a museum with taxidermied native species, and short nature trails with guided tours.

After a quick visit (read: pee break) at the center, we headed to our final ultimate destination, the Alum Caves trail. It’s apparently a very popular trail, as both parking lots at the trailhead were full. We don’t actually know where all those people went, however, since we saw almost nobody on the trail itself. Not that we were complaining.

The trail is only 2.5 miles long. After more than a mile of hiking, I asked my husband if I should be getting worried that we were gaining almost no altitude. The answer was yes. Shortly thereafter, we hit Arch Rock, a narrow pass up a rock staircase, and it was all hard uphill from there.

Straight up, and hang on tight! The cable handrail was much appreciated!

There were a number of water crossings, all over wooden suspension bridges.

Just one of the many foot bridges along the trail

The trail got steep. Very steep. We gained most of the 1300ft elevation in the last mile of the hike, but we are made of stern stuff (read: we did a little whining) and we pressed onward.

Everything seems to spill downhill like water. Even the roots of the trees.

After what felt like an eternity, we heard voices. Friendly ones. And they weren’t inside our heads, so we knew that we were close to our destination. Another steep, rocky path with a cable hand-hold, and we got our first view.

Yep. That's it. For scale, note the tiny little handrail in the center of the photo. I

View from the top of the bluff. Note the delightful 45 degree angle. We're overjoyed that we didn't die here.

We discovered that the footing under the bluff is basically course sand. One wrong move, and we’d plummet to a painful death. What’s not to like?

This one gives a little better idea of the angle. It's incredibly steep. My advice: bring hiking poles and stay low to the ground!

I have an irrational fear of heights (more accurately a fear of falling from great heights), so we didn’t stay long. The descent was terrifying, but I am proud to say that no pants were pooped in the hiking of this trail. But it was close a couple of times.

Due to my irrational (or in this particular case, perfectly justified) fears, Squish remained in the Ergo for the entire trip. But he was okay with it. He got cookie cake.

If you enjoy hiking and are in the Smokies, I do recommend trying this trail. It’s short and scenic, and there are some views you just can’t catch anywhere else. But it’s not a trail for the faint of heart.

Trail Ratings

Difficulty: on a scale from 1-10, I’d give this one a 7. The first part is very, very easy. The last half, not so much!  It’s better suited to people who are in good shape.

Length: 2.5 miles. 3-5 hours, depending on how fast you move and how long you stay at the bluff.

Kid friendliness: I’d recommend it for ages seven and up. There are some very tricky spots, and when it gets steep, it’s a challenge even for those who hike regularly.

Scenery: It’s simply beautiful up there. We’ll go again, but maybe not with the kids next time. We’d like to continue the trail up to Mount Le Conte, but doing so means gaining another 1500 ft in under a mile.

Tips: Bring hiking poles if you have them. If the weather is rainy and you are bringing kids, skip it altogether. The path would be dangerous in several spots in inclement weather. Pack a picnic lunch to eat under the bluff if you are brave!

And a parting shot

There were a number of waterfalls on this hike, but this one is my favorite. It's a little thing - no more than 30 inches tall, but it thinks it's Niagara Falls.


Walkies With Phoebe

Love me

I walk my son to school. Everyday, rain or shine. Well, light rain or shine. I don’t want the kid to start the day a soaking wet mess. And everyday, we see the above fuzzy face with the sad eyes that clearly beg “Take me with you!” The weather has been so hot, though, that it hasn’t been safe to take her. All summer long, Phoebe has been on mandated slug-itude. Not much of a stretch, usually.  PBGVs are in the Basset family, after all, laziness comes rather naturally. But Phoebe is a “go-do” kind of dog and wants nothing more than to be with us. And since morning temperatures have recently dropped to the 50’s, she’s now good to go.

Walking with her family in brisk weather is Phoebe’s idea of heaven. She scampers ahead, tail tucked under like a furry rudder, then dashes back. She sniffs, she prances, she play-bows, chases squirrels. It’s a glorious thing. The entire walk to school is a joyful event. It’s hard not to laugh at her antics and join in the fun. I wish it could last forever. And so does she.

Here’s the fun. We walk to school daily. And every single day, Phoebe forgets what happens at the half-way point: she has to leave her boy. Each morning, we get to the sidewalk in front of the school, my son kneels and hugs her goodbye, and she is taken by complete and utter surprise as he merrily skips away to join his friends. “What the —” is her clear thought, as she strains at the leash, wags her tail and cocks her head in puzzled anxiety. Every day, she looks at me with the expression that says “He’s gone too far! Let me go get him so we can go home! Wait! Where is he going? Please bring him back to me!” And every day, my job is to drag her back down the sidewalk, ignoring her frantic backward glances and reminding her that we will get him in the afternoon. Phoebe has always had a special relationship with her boy, ever since the day we got her, but she is not above shopping for a new one. She takes a studious sniff at each passing child, as if to say “I came with one, I am leaving with one!” Every single day.

Usually about half-way home, Phoebe’s brain re-engages, and she becomes magically aware that food will be served upon her arrival. The spring returns to her step, and she bounces with glee. Most days.

Today was different. Today, instead of playing chicken at the crosswalk, a car actually motioned for us to cross. So we did. Out of appreciation and a bit of stupidity, we ran across the road. And all heck broke loose. Boy-child inadvertently kicked the dog in the hind leg. Son snapped at dog for nearly tripping him. Phoebe, always the drama queen,perceived the situation thus: playful romp interrupted by monster biting her leg. She yelped and bucked, dragging me the rest of the way across the road. Being yelled at by her boy just added icing to the poop sandwich. Having slipped her mind that her boy leaves her every single day in exactly the same place, Phoebe’s natural interpretation of his departure on this fair morning was that he no longer loved her. In the natural, healthy manner of a co-dependent, Phoebe became determined to make him love her again. Her attempts to drag me all the way down the sidewalk so she could demonstrate her undying devotion to her boy were creditable.

I somehow managed to encourage her back down the sidewalk and up the hill, but now her normal “leaving my boy behind forever and ever and ever” worry has expanded to include “boy no longer loves me, and monsters want to eat me.” She began trotting up the road, tail tucked, ears held so high that they met in the middle of her head, alert to any sound. Her sudden hurry had nothing to do with breakfast and everything to do with getting home and undercover before the leg-biters could finish her off. She responded to my calls and whistles with a wide-eyed stare. I attempted to get her attention again by means of an obedience lesson, but a frightened dog whose brain has taken a brief vacation is but a poor student. I settled for significantly slowing my pace to indicate that I did not share her worry. She didn’t buy that, either.

We were nearly home when it happened. I called her name, and she responded by trotting warily back to me. I took a playful swipe at her tail, and suddenly the light came. She play-bowed and scampered merrily up the road in clear anticipation of breakfast. Who knew that her brain button was in her bum? Maybe that’s why dogs are so attentive to that particular region. They’re trying to read each other’s minds.