Clingmans Dome

On Top of the Great Smoky Mountains

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Clingmans Dome is the air -- how cool and brisk it is. That's because, at 6,643 feet, this is the highest point in the Smokies. And that's why folks make the climb to the observation tower at the top. On a clear day, the views are outstanding. And when it's not so clear, well, it's still pretty cool.

In fact, the dome is the third highest peak east of the Mississippi, topped only by Mount Mitchell at 6684 feet and Mount Craig at 6647 feet, both of which are in North Carolina.

Even the drive up to the parking lot is an adventure. It's a 7 mile climb from the Newfound Gap Road, and there are many scenic spots along the way. I stopped at one point to take some photos of wildflowers and discovered a rather bizarre nature trail where you literally had to walk the planks that were laid over the boggy ground.

Once you reach the road's end, you'll find an ample parking area and a clean restroom. To get to the observation tower at the top of the mountain, you take a half mile path up. The path is broad, smooth and well-paved, but don't let that fool you. It's a pretty steep climb; you'll go up 330 feet in elevation. According to the official guide, it takes most people 30 minutes to get to the top. So take your time, stop and rest at the benches along the way, and enjoy the journey.

Clingmans Dome is located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can access the Appalachian Trail from here, and it's a convenient place to start (and end) a day hike to Andrews Bald (3.6 miles round trip, a moderate but rocky trail).

The views are, alas, marred by the numerous dead Fraser fir trees you'll see in this area. They're being killed by European invaders known as the balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect probably accidentally imported in nursery stock.

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