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.