Any visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park cannot be considered complete without a climb up to the highest peak in the entire state of Tennessee, Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, it is the third highest peak east of the Mississippi behind Mt. Mitchell (6,684 ft) and Mt. Craig (6,647 ft), both located in neighboring North Carolina.
The best part of hiking to the summit of this peak is the fact that anyone can do it! Located in the heart of the national park, Clingmans Dome is easily accessible by driving halfway between the Sugarlands Visitors Center and Oconaluftee Visitors Center along Newfound Gap Road.
Turning onto Clingmans Dome Road, you’ll be treated to gorgeous overlooks of the deep valleys that cut their way through the Great Smoky Mountains as you drive along the official state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. Its not uncommon for the road to get crowded with cars and hikers walking on foot.
This road runs parallel to the world famous Appalachian Trail and hikers often switch to walking along the smoother asphalt road for the final 7 mile long approach to Clingmans Dome. Having taken this drive on numerous occasions, I always get a little giddy as we approach the visitors area below the summit.
Most people are ill prepared for the AWEsome experience of visiting Clingmans Dome. At this high of an elevation, the temperatures can often range between 10-20 degrees cooler than in the lowlands of the park. Within any given visit, the weather can change from clear sunny skies, to a light drizzle, dense fog, and back to clear sunny skies, all within an hour or two.
As we pulled into our parking spot, a dense fog had begun to roll in, blocking out visibility to a mere few feet away. As the old timers like to say, “If you don’t like the weather in the mountains, just give it an hour.”
The 0.5 mile walking path to the tower begins at the end of the parking area near a stacked boulder landmark, often used for family photos. This path can be deceptively strenuous, as the 330 feet of elevation gain in such a short distance means you’ll practically be walking straight uphill for the 30 minute duration it takes most visitors to finish.
Despite the fact that we absolutely can’t see a thing past the tree line, the scenery is haunting in the best kind of way. We felt as if we had jumped straight into the scene of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
We stood in awe as drifts of fog and clouds would envelope us whole. Birds and butterflies fluttered from out of nowhere, through the wildflower meadow covering the hillside flanking the walkway. Due to the wet and cool conditions, not many people realize that they are walking through a coniferous rainforest.
With an annual rainfall of 82 inches, most of the plant species growing here have adapted to the conditions more commonly found in the mountains of Central Canada and the Pacific Northwest. The craggy mountain balds, dense stands of red spruce, and light mist, take me back to my time spent hiking in Glacier National Park.
After what seemed like an exhausting 5 mile walk, we finally reached the base of Clingmans Dome. Under normal circumstances, the ghostly sight of a tower rising through dense fog would scream BEWARE! The only thing we could make out from the ground below were the shapes of people moving about.
To reach the top, we walked up the long spiraling ramp that leads to the dome. The experience was unreal. Having made this pilgrimage since I was a young kid in the scouts, I can still remember what the views are like on a clear day.
Under optimal conditions, one can glance out over 100 miles of breathtaking mountain scenery, spanning the largest and most intact protected eastern spruce-fir forest remaining in the U.S. A relic of the last Ice Age, many of the plant and animal species found on this and other surrounding peaks are found nowhere else on earth.
While some people may be bummed out to have traveled all of this way to stare out into fog, I couldn’t be any happier. Where else can you experience anything quite like this? To feel like you’re floating on an island in the sky.
Upon returning back to the visitors center parking area, a strong updraft began to slowly unveil the mountains hidden behind the dense clouds. With each gust came clearer views of the surround rivers and mountain valleys stretching southwards into North Carolina. Directly ahead, we could see Noland Creek snaking its way through the sharp ridges of Forney Ridge and Noland Divide.
Standing up here, viewing out into the great beyond, its hard not to become enamored with the beauty of the natural world. I live for moments like this. To find myself awe struck by something I cannot find the words to explain, yet completely at peace.