Ambitious trail restoration project comes to close, new project begins

Posted at 12:58 PM, Dec 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-11 04:54:41-05

The most ambitious trail restoration project in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park officially ends Friday when the Chimney Tops Trail reopens to the public on an unlimited basis for the first time in three years.

Now that the Chimney Tops Trail is fixed, the park has turned its attention to the Alum Cave Trail, the most popular of the six trails that lead to the top of Mount LeConte. Like the Chimneys Trail before this recent makeover, the Alum Cave Trail is badly eroded and will require a major overhaul.


“Alum Cave Trail has so many unique natural and historic features,” said Tobias Miller, Smokies trails supervisor. “Our crew will be working alongside the park’s cultural and natural resource managers to ensure that features are protected as we improve trail durability and safety.”

Funding for major trail projects in the Smokies comes from a special endowment called Trails Forever. Launched in 2009, the program pays for a special trail crew that repairs the most severely damaged hiking trails in the Smokies. The park’s first Trails Forever project was the Forney Ridge Trail that lasted from 2010 to 2011. Work on the Chimneys Trail began in 2012, and work on the Alum Cave Trail is scheduled to begin this spring.

Improvements to the two-mile Chimney Tops Trail include flights of rock steps dug into the steep mountainside, as well as new drainage ditches and water bars to reduce damaging water flow. For the last three seasons, the Chimney Tops Trail has been open on weekends but closed to the public Monday through Thursday when workers were on site.

The Chimney Tops Trail will reopen to the public on Friday morning, but a dedication ceremony has been postponed until the spring when the weather improves.

To give the 5.5-mile Alum Cave Trail a similar face lift, crews will focus on the most serious damage near the top where the trail is narrow and rocky. Plans are to improve overall trail safety by repairing the cable and handrail system. Crews also will reinforce hanging trail sections and improve drainage to prevent further erosion.

Every year park rangers respond to numerous accidents along the Alum Cave Trail. The trail’s upper reaches include several narrow sections damaged by small landslides, making for hazardous hiking, especially in bad weather.

Plans are to close the Alum Cave Trail and parking lot Monday through Thursday from May 4 through Nov. 19 in 2015. Park officials say a full closure is necessary due to ensure the safety of the trail crew and visitors. Hikers still will be able to reach Mount LeConte by the Boulevard, Bull Head, Rainbow Falls, Brushy Mountain, and Trillium Gap trails.

During the Alum Cave Trail rehabilitation, LeConte Lodge and the Mount LeConte backcountry shelter will remain open and may be accessed from the other hiking routes.