Mount LeConte is a prominent East Tennessee mountain nestled in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Mount LeConte is notorious for being the third tallest peak in the Smokies – just behind Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot – making it a very popular and sought-after hike. It can seem daunting to hike Mount LeConte, but I promise, it’s doable!
So if you’ve decided you’re ready to make the trek up to the top of this coveted mountain, this blog post will contain everything you need to know to hike Mt. LeConte! You’ll learn the different routes you can take, details of the lodge that is perched atop the peak, where to see the best views, the benefits of hiking the trail in each season, and more!
How to Hike Mount LeConte
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Getting to Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte is situated in southeastern Tennessee and can be accessed by entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park via US 441.
The distance and hike time to Mount LeConte is dependent on which route you take. Refer to the map below for the trailhead locations.
There are five main routes hikers can take to reach the Mt LeConte summit:
- Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead. 11 miles roundtrip, 2800 feet elevation gain. You’ll pass Arch Rock and Alum Cave along the way.
- Rainbow Falls Trailhead. 13.8 miles roundtrip, 3,993 feet elevation gain. You’ll pass Rainbow Falls.
- Trillium Gap Trailhead. 13.9 miles roundtrip, 3401 feet elevation gain. You’ll pass Grotto Falls and may get to see llamas carrying supplies to the LeConte Lodge!
- Bullhead Trailhead. 14.4 miles roundtrip, 3993 feet elevation gain. Access this trail from the Rainbow Falls parking lot.
- Via Appalachian Trail and Boulevard Trail. 15.6 miles roundtrip, 3000 feet elevation gain. You’ll pass Charlies Bunion on a spur trail and get views of LeConte before summiting.
Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Bluffs: Trail Description
This is the shortest and most popular route to the summit.
The trail begins at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead. If you can’t find a parking spot, continue heading down the road and you’ll spot the overflow lot.
The beginning of the trail is fairly flat as it meanders along Alum Cave Creek. Within a mile and a half, Arch Rock, the first significant landmark on the trail, will appear. Hikers will walk through a set of slippery steps that are carved inside the giant rock.
At mile 2.3, Alum Cave comes into view. Alum Cave is less of a cave and more of a concave overhang that towers nearly 80 feet high, but it provides some nice shade and scenic views of the valley. This is a spot where many hikers like to take a break, eat a snack, and rest before pushing to the summit. For many tourists, this cave marks a turnaround point, so crowds tend to thin as you make your way up to the summit.
FUN FACT: Alum Cave was mined during the Civil War for saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder.
Underneath the overhang of Alum Cave, where a steep floor comprised of slippery sand rests, you’ll spy a sign for Mount LeConte. The summit is 2.7 miles from the cave.
From this point, the trail becomes steeper, more strenuous, and more exposed. Many sections along this route contain cables for hikers to hang on to because the narrow trails are quite literally etched into the side of the mountain. Vertical drop-offs are frequent. Take extra caution when snow or rain is in the vicinity. Fog and low-hanging clouds can also obstruct the trails.
At mile marker 4.9, you’ll reach a junction. Take a right to continue to the summit.
About a tenth of a mile from the junction, you’ll arrive at the lodge. This is a great spot to take in the views, use the public restrooms, and enjoy a snack.
Once you’re ready to push to the summit, continue to the left. The Mount LeConte summit is indicated by a pile of rocks, otherwise known as a cairn. For superior views, take the spur loop to Cliff Tops which is just before the summit, or continue past the summit to Myrtle Point.
Mount LeConte via Rainbow Falls: Trail Description
This is a favored route to the summit because of its 80-foot waterfall, Rainbow Falls, which hikers pass about 2.6 miles from the trailhead.
Parking at the Rainbow Falls Trailhead is limited and fills up early; there is an overflow lot but that will also fill by midmorning.
The initial part of the trail meanders along LeConte Creek, gradually and steadily gaining elevation. After many creek crossings, which in recent years have been restored with footbridges, you’ll reach the tallest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies!
Rainbow Falls is an ideal spot to cool off in the summer months, take a break, and draw in the views, but don’t attempt to climb the slippery rocks to the base of the falls. This can be very dangerous, and many have died attempting this. Enjoy the falls from the footbridge or the boulders right around the bridge. You’ll probably feel the spray from the water’s roaring force, especially on a windy day!
Once you’re ready to push to the summit, cross the footbridge and continue up the mountain.
Before reaching the Bullhead Trail junction, you’ll see a side loop trail that leads to Rocky Spur, which provides expansive views of the Roaring Fork Valley. Take a left at the junction to continue to the LeConte summit.
Proceed straight at the next junction, which merges with the Alum Cave hikers. From here you’ll reach the lodge in about 0.1 miles. Take in the views, use the public restrooms, and have a snack at one of the picnic tables by the dining hall.
Once you’re ready to push to the summit, continue to the left. The summit is indicated by a cairn. For better views, take the spur loop to Cliff Tops which is just before the summit, or continue past the summit to Myrtle Point.
Mount LeConte via Trillium Gap: Trail Description
The Trillium Gap Trail is the route that the llamas use to carry supplies up to the LeConte Lodge! For this reason, along with its trail rambling behind Grotto Falls, Trillium Gap is a beloved route to access the summit.
Park at the Grotto Falls lot and begin hiking the access trail to Trillium Gap. The first portion of this trail wanders through an old-growth forest with a smattering of wildflowers that bloom in the spring and linger into the summer months.
1.3 miles in, you’ll reach 25-foot Grotto Falls, the only waterfall in the Smokies that hikers can walk behind. Just like Rainbow Falls, this waterfall is a favored destination for summer tourists but hiker count slims dramatically beyond the falls, Grotto Falls is no exception.
If you’re looking for a bonus spur trail to add to your hike with astounding views of LeConte, take the side trail to the summit of Brushy Mountain; this junction will be about 3 miles from the trailhead. See if you can spy a llama hauling supplies to the top; a train of them heads up there three times a week!
Around 6.6 miles in, the trail comes to a screeching halt where it meets up with the Boulevard and Rainbow Falls trails. You’ll have just passed the LeConte Lodge. Turn left to reach the summit. As mentioned in the other trail descriptions, the summit is indicated by a pile of rocks. For better views, take the spur loop to Cliff Tops which is just before the summit, or continue past the summit to Myrtle Point.
Mount LeConte via Old Sugarlands and Bullhead: Trail Description
This is the route with the superior views.
A wildfire that two kids started back in 2016 caused this trail – among others – to close for nearly two years. Since it has reopened, many choose to take this path to access Mount LeConte.
When compared with Rainbow Falls, Bullhead is said to have superior views, so if you’ve already seen Rainbow Falls and are looking for more exposed ridges and less forested paths, take the Bullhead.
The trail begins on Old Sugarlands Trail on a gravel road for about 0.4 miles. Take the first left at the junction to begin on Bullhead. You’ll begin a steep ascent up Bullhead and pass several cliff faces and a couple of small caves.
About 3 miles in, hikers will reach the Pulpit, a cairn built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, which is backdropped by unmatched Smokies views. Sadly, the 2016 wildfire burned many of the trees and rhododendrons in this area.
Around 6.3 miles in you’ll reach the Rainbow Falls junction. Continue straight to the summit. You’ll soon reach the LeConte Lodge. Once you’ve enjoyed a snack, drank in the views, filled up your bottles, used the restrooms, and are ready to push to the summit, continue to the left. The pile of rocks is your summit. Again, for wildly better views, take the spur loop to Cliff Tops which is just before the summit, or continue past the summit to Myrtle Point.
Mount LeConte via Appalachian Trail and Boulevard: Trail Description
This is a more challenging, unique way of reaching the LeConte summit.
Park at the Newfound Gap lot and begin your hike on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll travel eastbound on the AT for 2.7 miles before reaching Boulevard Trail. This is a fun section of the hike because you’ll be weaving above and below the Tennessee – North Carolina border, so you’ll be in two states on this trail!
Also, be sure to enjoy views of LeConte and Myrtle Point during the first couple of miles. Hikers are rewarded very early on by the North Carolina side of the Smokies; the vistas are very impressive!
If you’re looking for an add-on, I’d highly recommend making the out & back jaunt to Charlies Bunion before heading back to the Boulevard Trail junction and turning right to reach the summit.
Another spur trail recommendation would be the Jump-Off, located 0.1 miles from Boulevard Trail and AT junction. It’s marked with a sign but is not an official National Park trail so proceed with caution. There are supposed to be stunning views from this vantage point, and it only adds one-mile roundtrip to your route. You’ll drop elevation and then gain it right back as you push toward the summit.
About 0.2 miles from the summit, you’ll reach the Myrtle Point spur trail. Take this trail to glimpse panoramic views of the valley because the official summit of Mount LeConte doesn’t provide any scenic views of the surrounding landscape. This is a beautiful spot for sunrise also.
Once you take the spur, continue 0.2 miles past the junction to High Top, the summit of Mount LeConte. The precariously stacked pile of rocks indicates that you’ve reached the summit.
Continue 0.3 miles past the summit and take the 0.5-mile spur loop to Cliff Tops, which is another spot that provides spectacular panoramic views of the valley and peaks. The lodge will be on your right if you wish to stop there for a restroom break, a snack, or a water fill-up.
Hiking Mt. LeConte: Should You Backpack, Day Hike, or Stay at the Lodge?
Backpacking Mount LeConte
There are over 100 backcountry campsites and shelters in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the shelters sits right beside the Mount LeConte summit!
Here are some things to note about backpacking in the backcountry areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
- Reservations and permits are required for all overnight stays in the backcountry.
- Backcountry reservation fees are currently $4 per person, per night.
- Reservations and permits may be obtained at any time up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip. The sites open for reservations on the website at midnight Eastern Daylight Time. Reservations and permits may also be obtained in person at the Backcountry Office, located at Sugarlands Visitor Center.
- The maximum party size for backcountry camping is 8 for most sites.
- You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. Some have a one-night limit. Check with the backcountry office before your trip.
- Check the weather and current road conditions and closures before you enter the backcountry.
- Parking passes are required for all vehicles, including backcountry campers’.
Day Hiking Mount LeConte
Day hiking Mount LeConte might seem like a daunting feat, but I’m going to share with you some tips on how to make this hike as smooth and enjoyable as possible!
📍 PICK A ROUTE
There are many route options to the summit. Don’t overthink this decision too much, as they are all relatively the same length and difficulty. That being said, some have different landmarks that are fun to add to your adventure. Refer to the section above labeled “Getting to Mount LeConte” to see which route is best for you.
If you are short on time or want to take the quickest, “easiest” route there, take the Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead to the summit. While none of these hikes are technically “quick and easy,” this route clocks the shortest mileage and involves climbing the least elevation.
If you want a route that is challenging and less crowded, try the AT and Boulevard Trails.
→ READ NEXT: How to Avoid Crowds When Hiking
⏰ Give Yourself Plenty of Time
Give yourself plenty of time to hike, rest, and take in the views. If you are a strong hiker and don’t take any breaks, chances are you could complete this roundtrip hike in four or five hours.
However, this hike warrants some much-needed rest breaks, a stroll through the LeConte Lodge village, and a jaunt through some spur trails to draw in some scenic views.
🌄 Arrive Early
Since Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the country – a staggering 14 million visitors enter the park yearly – you won’t be alone. Trailheads fill up by mid-morning, even on weekdays.
For your best chance at solitude, and, to be perfectly honest, a parking space, arrive at or before sunrise. Be prepared to hike in the dark. Rainbow Falls and Alum Cave Bluffs are especially busy areas, so if you’re planning to begin your hike at one of these areas, try to make an appearance before the sun does.
⚠️ Also, remember to display a parking pass on your vehicle at all times.
Staying Overnight at the LeConte Lodge
The LeConte Lodge is the highest guest lodge in the Eastern United States. It sits on an open glade just below the summit of Mount LeConte at an elevation of around 6400 feet.
Since there are no roads leading to the lodge, you must prepare to hike. Depending on the route, you could be trekking anywhere from 11 to 16 miles roundtrip, or more, if a longer or more complex route is chosen.
At the little village, you can expect propane heating, kerosene lanterns, clean linens, and warm blankets in their rustic log cabins. For Mount Leconte reservations, rates, and more information on the LeConte Lodge, visit their website!
⛰️ Which side of the Smokies is better? North Carolina or Tennessee? Read my guide to find out!
When to Hike Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte can be summited year-round, but here are some things to note about each season’s weather before attempting the summit:
Temperatures are warmer, afternoon thunderstorms are common, and tourist traffic is at its heaviest. Higher elevations experience cooler climates, so at the summit of Mount LeConte, the air temperature likely won’t rise above 80 degrees. Some routes have waterfalls, which are great places to cool off when the weather is hot.
Conditions are cooler but comfortable. Fall is the driest season in the Smokies, but snow is possible beginning in October at LeConte. Autumn foliage colors in the Smokies – the crimson reds, scorching oranges, and golden yellows – are unbeatable.
→ READ NEXT: 7 Fall Hiking Tips 🍁
While the Smokies have mild winters, extreme temperature decreases and high snow chances can occur at Mount LeConte since the peak sits at a higher elevation. Snow in the mountains is beautiful, so if you’re looking for peaks that look like they’ve been dipped in white frosting or valleys that have been stroked with a feathery white paintbrush, try hiking LeConte in January or February.
Snow on Mount LeConte is possible into March. Weather can be a bit unpredictable in the transition from winter to summer. By April, temperatures are usually milder, and snow is unlikely past this point, even at LeConte. The wildflowers begin to bloom during this season, making the trails pop with bright purples, oranges, pinks, and blues.
How to Make the Most of Your Hike to Mount LeConte
No matter which route you take, or how you choose to summit the mountain, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your hike!
The Best Views are NOT at the Summit
You heard me right. The best views are not at the summit. In fact, all you’ll see at the summit are a large pile of rocks alerting you that you’ve arrived at your destination. Not even a summit sign. It’s definitely a de-escalation.
While you may get a better view in the winter with the leaves stripped from the trees, you won’t see a darn thing if you’re up there any other time of the year.
So how do you get the views? What’s the point of climbing to the top if there’s no sweeping view of the peaks and valleys? Well, aside from the obvious accomplishment of summiting a prominent mountain peak, you can get the views you want by taking a short 0.5-mile spur loop right before the summit.
So after pushing to the summit, here are two ways you can get your beloved sweeping views of the Smokies:
- Continue to Myrtle Point. From the rock cairn marking the official summit of Mount LeConte, continue on the Boulevard Trail for another 0.4 miles until you reach Myrtle Point.
- Take the Cliff Top Spur. From the rock cairn, turn around until you reach the spur loop. It’ll be marked with a sign with “Cliff Top” etched into it. At the midpoint, you’ll reach an incredible viewpoint. If conditions are foggy, or the clouds hover low over the mountains, your view will be obstructed. If you have the time and patience, wait for the clouds to roll through, because if you catch the valley in clear conditions, you’ll be amazed. From the viewpoint, you’ll continue the loop, which will spill out right across the LeConte Lodge.
Bring Two Cars and/or Hike Two Trails
If you’re in a big group with multiple vehicles, or you live close to the park and can easily drive two cars, consider parking a vehicle at one trailhead and a different vehicle at a second trailhead.
This way, you can experience two trails on the same day.
OR, even better, some routes branch off from the same trailhead, so even if you just have one vehicle, you can still take two routes: one on the way up, and one on the way down.
Some Combination Routes I’d Recommend:
- TWO VEHICLES: On the way up: Rainbow Falls. On the way down: Alum Cave Bluffs.
- TWO VEHICLES: On the way up: Alum Cave Bluffs. On the way down: Trillium Gap.
- TWO VEHICLES: On the way up: Bullhead. On the way down: Appalachian and Boulevard.
- ONE VEHICLE: On the way up: Rainbow Falls. On the way down: Bullhead.
Stop at the Lodge for a Snack, Fresh Water, and a Restroom Break
Not too often do hikers get the privilege of peeing in an outhouse or purchasing snacks and drinks at the top of a mountain! Those luxuries are atop Mount LeConte; day hikers who have just trekked several miles are welcome to explore the grounds of the LeConte Lodge village, purchase a sack lunch from 12 PM-4 PM at the dining hall, fill up their water bottles at the outdoor pump, and utilize the public restrooms and picnic tables.
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