|Date Visited: November 8-9, 2010|
|Check current conditions: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865) 436-1200|
|Clingman’s Dome Access: The site is open year-round to by foot, but the road to it is only open April 1 through December 1. Call the park to check Appalachian Trail access.|
Last Fall, we enjoyed eating and drinking our way across Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, but we really wanted to get some legitimate hiking in on at least a couple of days. We had a beautiful (and surprisingly affordable) cabin to use as our base of operations, right at the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just south of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. We had intended to hike to Abrams Falls on our first full day in the Smokies, when we did the driving/walking tour of Cades Cove, but ran out of time.
On our second full day in the Smokies (6th day overall), we finally got a little bit of exercise on our walk/hike to Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, and is accessible via Newfound Gap Road, which is the lowest pass over the Smokies. Newfound Gap Road (also known as Highway 441) comes right out of Gatlinburg, and the Gap itself is 15 miles from there, and 20 miles away from Cherokee, in North Carolina, and both sides of the Gap are beautiful, scenic drives.
The frequently crowded (even in the off-season, when we were there) parking lot at Newfound Gap gives nice views into North Carolina and Tennessee. There are restrooms here and paved paths around the lot to allow you to take in the views and capture them on film. There are also two trailheads to the Appalachian Trail here. In fact, this is the only place a road bisects the Appalachian Trail on the 70 mile stretch through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From here, you can actually take an 8 mile, 1600 ft elevation gain hike to Clingman’s Dome and attempt to hitchhike back to Newfound Gap (supposedly not too difficult), or simply (or not-so-simply) do the 16 mile round trip hike.
But on this particular day, we drove, rather than hiked, the seven miles up the road to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, and then took the steep 1/2 mile paved hike to the observation deck. The parking lot was quite full, so it was actually 1.4 miles round trip for us, and about a 325 foot elevation gain to get to the top. It isn’t a lot of mileage or elevation, but it was quite steep, and at a starting elevation of around 6300 feet, we were kinda winded. We blamed it on all the fried Southern food we’d been eating and the lack of exercise over the previous week and the high altitude, but we did manage to make it to the top nonetheless.
We were there the second week of November, and they had just received the first real snow of the season right before we arrived in the area, and there was still quite a bit of snow left along much of the road to Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome. And on the final man-made path up to the observation deck, there was enough snow that we really had to hold on tightly to the handrails to avoid slipping and sliding back down the corkscrew ramp like a bobsled run!
The views from the top were beautiful on the day we were there. I know it can be foggy (thus the name “smokies”), but it was a nice clear November day for us. They claim you can see up to 100 miles and to seven states from the observation deck, which seems unlikely, but the views were still pretty spectacular. They also had visual aids on all four sides of the deck, showing you exactly what peaks and natural features you might be looking at, which, as a geography geek, I always appreciate.
But the next day, we were determined to go back up to Newfound Gap and hike a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The entire Trail runs 2,181 miles, and over 70 miles are within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but we were simply hoping to hit a four mile or so stretch from Newfound Gap to Charles Bunion, which is one of the most popular stretches on the AT (that’s what the cool kids call the Appalachian Trail). The trailhead north, where we were headed is right there in the parking lot next to the restrooms (the southern stretch towards Clingman’s Dome is across the street).
We once again enjoyed the scenic drive up to the gap, and even got there on time for once, and began to make our way up the trail. Pretty quickly, we ran into snow on the side of the trail, and the trail itself was quite muddy from the melted snow. Within a mile, we started running into patches of icy snow on the trail, and shortly after that, the ice and snow was nearly constant.
We tried to soldier on through it, hoping that we’d hit a more exposed piece of trail that would allow us to continue, but instead, it just became more and more treacherous. We encountered a through hiker who was actually doing the entire trail from north to south, and a couple other day hikers who were also turning around after continuing to encounter snow and ice. We did see one guy with crampons on, who was very pleased with his purchase and moving easily, but we were just inching along at this point, fearing that we would fall and injure ourselves on the ice.
So eventually, common sense won out, and we decided we should just turn around and head back. We were disappointed that we weren’t able to complete a more substantial leg of the trail, but did thoroughly enjoy the scenery of the short stretch we completed, really just enough to make me want to purchase the t-shirt below, on our next day in Gatlinburg.
We returned to our vehicle early enough that we were able to hit another one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies, the hike to Laurel Falls–but that’s another blog post…
View Clingman’s Dome and Appalachian Trail in a larger map