Bull Head Trail to Alum Cave Trail
Miles: 6.8 Elevation Gain: 3687↑ Grade: 12%
Hiking Time: 2:47 Pace: 2.4 mph Avg. Temp.: 80 – 64
Map Miles Completed: 6.8 Total Map Miles: 22.2 Total Miles Hiked: 22.2
At this point “Bull Head” is aptly named. By now we have had a few interactions with other hikers, exchanging the typical pleasantries like:
“How far is the falls?”
“Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” (Everyone knows this is the standard answer , even if it’s really 900 yards)
“Where ya’ll from?”
“Knoxville and Sevierville.”
“Ya’ll stayin’ up on LeConte tonight?”
Now the answer to that question get’s tricky. We could say “no” and move on. But if we say “sort of”, then we have to explain that we will, in fact, be spending the night somewhere up on the mountain, but we won’t be sleeping. Choosing which answer depends on several factors. First, are we due for a break? If so then we go with “sort of.” If the inquisitor is wearing street shoes, we quickly reply with “no” and tell them the trailhead is about a mile, mile and a half. On the other hand, if their pack looks cool and they’re not wearing bear spray on their hip belt, we usually engage.
Reactions are always mixed. Some think we’re crazy while others are duly impressed. Once the conversation starts, we know we are headed for the question. “To see if we can do it,” is the answer Brian and I have agreed on. Now back to the aptly named Bull Head Trail. I imagine most folks walk away with some analogous notion of the two of us being bullheaded.
The Smokies benefit from having four distinct seasons and each is beautiful. Winter brings the wonderland of snow and frozen waterfalls. Spring and early summer bring laurel, rhododendron and the incredible wild dogwoods. Summer is green and lush, and the Fall…. we are on the verge of a wildfire of color and some of the trees have gotten an early start. Bright crimson red and against a backdrop of lush green, all under a deep blue sky. Only one Artist is capable of this quality of painting.
Bull Head is a steady climb and not very rugged compared to Trillium Gap. Much of it was in the afternoon sun. About 2 miles in, a trio of college guys passed us and seemed excited to tell us about the bees up ahead. They gave us a pretty clear description of the trail with a stump on the left and the trail turning into direct sunlight. We asked them about how far ahead it was and they said, “about a mile, mile and a half.” (Who did they think we were, street shoe people?) Turns out they were right. For some reason, Brian insisted that I take the lead on this section. It was only fair because four years ago, on this very same trail, our quartet ran into a yellow jacket nest in a water bar log. Everyone got stung but me. We turned on a bend and saw trail that matched the description. We walked carefully looking for tiny flying beasts. It’s amazing how many flying insects you see when you’re looking for bees… We made it past the stump and I thought we were clear and then BANG! A yellow jacket hit me about six inches above my left heel. Could have been worse i guess. Brian, my buddy… my hiking comrade, my brother in arms simply said, “Well, now we’re even.” (How did he know???!!!!!!)
From this point on, we were obligated to tell anyone we met about the hazard. It became a bit. We would say hello and Brian would look at me and say:
“Should we tell them about the bees?”
“Nah, they’ll find ’em”
Of course we would pass on the description and wish them well.
The sun was headed down by the time we got to the Alum Cave Trail junction. We stopped for water and a few granola bars. We left the trail head with 80 degree temperature but it was 64 by the time we got to the top of the ridge.
Alum Cave Trail
Miles: 5.5 Elevation: 2419 ↓ Grade: 9%
Hiking Time: 1:56 Pace: 2.8 mph Avg. Temp.: 66
Map Miles Completed: 5.5 Total Map Miles: 27.7 Total Miles Hiked: 27.7
The first LeConte24 hike ended up descending on the Alum Cave trail. We caught a beautiful sunset and this segment would prove no different. Having already hiked to the summit on the Rainbow Falls Trail, we opted to take a quick right on Alum Cave. This year, the great folks in the Park Service and the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club are renovating the Alum Cave Trail to improve erosion control, shore up some of the rockslide areas and generally beef up the trail to handle all the traffic. This construction necessitates its closing on Monday through Thursday through November 2015. Fortunately for us, it was Saturday, at least for a few more hours. The main thing was the fact that darkness would catch us before we reached the trailhead but we were prepared with headlamps. A lot of hiking equipment has gotten cheaper over the years but not so with headlamps. My brand-new Black Diamond has a 200 lumen bright beam, a wide angle flood light and if you hold the button down just right, the red lights will turn on. All for a cool $50 bucks.
The improvements on Alum Cave became apparent as we got down the trail a bit. Sections were wider and there are a number of step constructions that smoothened out some of the more treacherous parts. There are still those sections on the edge of cliff one should take care to cross, especially in the fading sunlight. Fortunately, the trail was dry and safe.
The sun was really fading fast and yielded some incredible views while we were still on the upper section. We wanted to stop and contemplate the moment but the clock was ticking on so we snapped a few pictures and kept moving.
Alum Cave is popular for several reasons. It is the shortest route to the top of Mt. LeConte and the parking area is large and easily accessible. While steep, it is not as rugged as some of the other routes. It has some unique features like the cliffs, Arch Rock and the famous bluffs. After the renovations are complete it will be one of the best hiking trails in the park.