The elk battle we had witnessed was behind us by 30 minutes, 3,000 vertical feet, and 15½ miles of winding road by the time we reached Newfound Gap. Mike parked the car and I stepped out into a cold drizzle, almost a mile above sea level and directly on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. If not for the fact we were in the clouds, we would have been treated to a magnificent view of the mountains.
The bill of my baseball cap kept the raindrops far enough from my eyes that I felt no need to squint as I looked for the red van, which was supposed to shuttle us to the trailhead where our journey was to start. Sure enough, I saw it waiting about 60 feet away, over by the trailhead where our journey was to end.
The driver introduced herself as Samantha. Before long, my hiking partners and I had piled our stuff into the van and were listening to her talk about bear encounters as she drove us down the north slopes of the Smokies. Mike’s car remained locked in Newfound Gap’s parking lot, stocked with Gatorade and beer and waiting for our eventual return.
It was not raining where Samantha dropped us off, but knowing the forecast and knowing we were likely to hike back into the clouds, we opted to sheath our backpacks in rain covers. After finding somebody kind enough to take the following picture, we stepped onto the Alum Cave Trail and our adventure began in earnest.
Streams are the trail’s constant companion for its first 1½ miles. Almost immediately we crossed Walker Camp Prong on a wooden bridge and a minute later crossed Alum Cave Creek on another one. The trail travels alongside Alum Cave Creek for about a mile, heading upstream on an easy incline to the point where the creek veers off to the east. As you can see, Mike went right down to its banks to search for the perfect photo spot:
Most people fail to notice Alum Cave Creek’s departure because right as that happens the trail starts to follow one of its tributaries, a stream known as Styx Branch. It crosses Styx Branch four times, and after the third crossing it passes through this interesting geological formation known as Arch Rock:
The arch is actually a hole in the dark slate/sandstone sediment of the Anakeesta Formation. The Anakeesta is sloping in this spot, and as the trail passes under the arch it goes uphill on steps carved into the rock. Here I am climbing them:
Up to about 4,500 feet there are more deciduous trees than evergreens, but above that the evergreens get larger and more numerous:
Roughly two miles into the hike, the trail swings rightward around the mountain flank and straight ahead is an outcropping called Inspiration Point. The views from there proved that the word “breathtaking” is not always an exaggeration:
We did take a break there to eat some
Not long before our trip, Mark’s sister from Minnesota had casually mentioned LeConte Lodge and how she would like to hike to it sometime -- without knowing he even knew what it was, much less had plans to climb the mountain. Naturally, he held back on the specifics of our trip and had us take pictures of him outside the dining room to impress her:
This one shows our packs hanging from bear cables outside the shelter: