After nearly two years of restoration work, crews are just a few days away from officially cutting the ribbon on a revitalized Alum Cave Trail.
The popular trail stretches five miles along steep slopes from Newfound Gap Road to the top of Mount LeConte. Along the way, hikers encounter some iconic scenery in the Great Smoky Mountains, including Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and Alum Cave Bluff. Alum Cave is technically a concave cliff, not an actual cave.
""Of course, when you first come up here you wonder how you're actually going to get all of this work done. It has been pretty amazing seeing it all come together," said Josh Shapiro, project manager for the National Park Service. "We've had crews with the park and volunteers working on this trail for the last couple of years. To do this job right, we really had to have this much time. There are volunteers who spent months in shelters at the top of the mountain and worked on the rocky portions of the trail above the Alum Cave Bluff. We had to haul up large amounts of tools and generators through this really steep terrain."
The final result is a much smoother trail with far fewer rocks, roots, and other tripping hazards. Plastic culverts have been replaced with stone channels to improve drainage and reduce clogs that lead to erosion. Bridges have been rebuilt to provide better access for emergency personnel to reach injured hikers. Cables that act as banisters along the steepest and ice-prone portions of the trail have been replaced.
The stone steps through Arch Rock are among the improvements people are most likely to notice.
"A couple of years ago, the steps that go through the rock really hugged the edge. You had to duck down while you were walking through. We moved those steps out a few feet from the wall where the opening is larger and you can stand while walking through," said Shapiro. "We also added side-stones to the steps, so rain won't wash out any of the ground beneath the steps. This new stonework should last another 100 years."
WBIR VIDEO: Brief video tour of Alum Cave Trail improvements
While Shapiro may have spent as much time as anyone on Alum Cave Trail the last couple of years, he says the scenery never gets old.
"I love this trail. I could never get sick of this trail. The views on it are amazing," said Shapiro.
An official ribbon cutting ceremony to reopen Alum Cave Trail is scheduled for Thursday, November 17, 2016. Volunteers have spent a great deal of time cleaning up the trail and hauling down the hundreds of pounds of tools used during construction.
"The change here has been dramatic," said Zak Beyersdoerfer with the American Conservation Experience. "The trail is phenomenal. It's kind of brutal, too, if you're not really an avid hiker. But it's well worth it. All around here, you can just sort of lose yourself in the moment."
Workers say the greatest thing about the project is it did not change the character of Alum Cave Trail.
"You have it look natural and blend in," said Beyersdoerfer. "I've been to trails all around the country and the stonework on this trail is as good as it gets."
Beyersdoerfer said he is glad to see the project completed, but will miss making his office among the trail's spectacular scenery.
"When you're really working hard, you're in the moment, and you're focused on this small piece of the trail and trying to make it last forever. And then you look up and you see it all. You feel a quiet excitement."
The restoration was truly a labor of love to make an old friend as good as new.