Sunday, September 6, 2015

Day hike to summit with 100-mile views

Observation tower atop Clingmans Dome at Great Smoky National Park.
Topo map of Clingmans Dome Trail.

Paved trail heads
to summit of
Clingmans Dome

Day hikers can enjoy views of up to a hundred miles atop one of the highest points east of the Mississippi River.

The 1-mile round trip Clingmans Dome Trail heads to the highest spot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee and the third tallest east of the Mississippi. At 6625 feet, Clingmans Dome also is the highest point along the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail.

360 degree views
The road to Clingmans Done typically is open only from April through November. Autumn leaves usually change about mid-October, offering a spectacular red, orange and yellow display, but be aware that at this high elevation snow can fall as early as September.

To reach the trailhead, from the Newfound Gap Road, just 0.1 miles south of Newfound Gap, turn on to Clingmans Dome Road. Scenic pullouts with impressive views of ridges and valleys line the 7-mile highway. At the road’s end is a large parking area for the trail, which begins at the visitor center.

The paved but steep 0.5-mile trail heads to a 54-foot observation tower at the summit. The elevated trail and the tower itself has a space-age feel with its curved paths and flying saucer-like observation platform.

Still, the top rewards with fantastic 360 degree views. On clear days, 100-mile views are possible. Tennessee is to the north and west while North Carolina is to the south and east. A verdant spruce-fir forest sits at the ridge tops while in autumn the leaves of hardwoods below adds swaths of harvest colors.

Changing view
Unfortunately, a couple of obstructions can limit the views. A natural barrier is clouds. Due to the high elevation, precipitation at the summit is common.

The man-made barrier is air pollution. It can limit views to less than 20 miles. Due to air currents, pollution from vehicles, factories and other sources sometimes flow above the Great Smoky Mountains.

The view from Clingmans Dome is likely to change in the decades ahead. The invasive balsam woolly adelgid threatens stands of Fraser fir, which used to be the dominant tree at the park’s highest elevations. Meanwhile, the hemlock woolly adelgid is wiping out hemlock trees across the park; the latter bug’s devastating effects can be seen along Newfound Gap Road. In just a few decades, the existing forest will be replaced by younger trees of other species with a number of open areas where berry plants thrive.

Besides the disappearing view, two more good reasons to hike Clingmans Dome are the fantastic sunrises and sunsets. The latter time can be crowded, though, as those hoping to photograph the stunning scenery often line up for some 45 minutes before the sun sets.

Final notes: While the trail is paved, it is too steep for wheelchairs. Pets and bicycles are not allowed on the trail. Temperatures at Clingmans Dome usually are at least 10 F and sometimes 20 F cooler than the lowlands, so be sure to bring a sweatshirt or jacket.

Bonus trivia: The two highest points east of the Mississippi River are about 70 miles away, as the crown flies, in North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell State Park. They are Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647).

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.