Clingmans Dome is a distinctive mountain located on the state line ridge of North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s a popular destination as it is the most accessible mountain top in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Visitors can drive to the parking area near the top of the mountain and then hike a paved trail to the summit, where the well-known observation tower provides incredible 360° views of the Great Smoky Mountains. At 6,643 feet tall, Clingmans Dome holds many height records including being the highest point in the GSMNP, the highest point in Tennessee, the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Clingmans Dome Road is open from April 1 to November 30, except in the case of inclement weather. (You will find more need to know information for planning a visit at the end of this post.) Mr. Meena and I visited recently, on April 2nd, and were surprised to find crowds of tourists flocking to this attraction so early in the season. Fortunately, it does live up to the hype that we’ve heard from many locals.
Once you reach the parking lot at the top, you can hike the steep half-mile paved trail up to the observation tower. This is certainly a strenuous climb, but benches are provided frequently if you need to rest – and we observed people of all demographics making it to the top just fine. The trail is too steep for wheelchairs, unfortunately, and you are not allowed to bring pets or bicycles. We did see one dog being taken to the top in a stroller, however.
If you are unable to hike up to the observation tower for whatever reason, I still encourage you to visit because the views from the parking lot (and the access road) are beautiful enough to justify the journey.
Here is the view from the parking lot.
And the view from in front of the visitors center, where the hike begins.
Many fellow visitors were awestruck by these views and paused for several photos before turning their attention to the climb.
As we started to ascend Clingmans Dome, we noticed that the once thick spruce-fir forest is littered with dead trees. This is due to pests, disease, and other environmental factors, but park staff has stated that a young forest will eventually replace the dying trees. Another visitor remarked that the fallen trees and bare trunks gave the scene a ghostly feel – a sentiment I agreed with.
The forest is unusual for the region, as it only thrives in elevations above 5,500 feet. It’s also a coniferous rainforest thanks to the frequent precipitation and cool temperatures at the dome.
It was quite warm during our trip, but keep in mind that the temperature at Clingmans Dome can often be 10 -20˚F cooler than the surrounding cities and lowlands. You may find that you need a jacket even in the summer time.
We walked at a slow but steady pace up the trail and I took three short breaks to catch my breath. The trail started to level off as we finally approached the observation tower, which stands 54 feet tall. The tower was built in 1959 and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
There was some dispute during construction about the tower design, especially since it was one of the first modern structures in the GSMNP. It introduced concrete as a primary building material for a park tower and was the first to use a helical walkway ramp instead of the more typical spiral staircase. The effect is aesthetically pleasing and feels like an extension of the trail. The circular platform at the top of the tower rewards visitors with a view of over 100 miles and into seven states on the clearest days.
Air pollution or clouds can limit the view significantly; I recommend leaving several days open for a potential visit and then picking the best one based on the weather forecast. In fact, Clingmans Dome was originally called the “Smoky Dome” by early settlers due to the frequent cloud cover near the summit. Its current name comes from the Confederate war general Thomas Clingmans, who was an avid explorer of the region and the first to claim that the dome was the highest mountain in the area.
In addition to dressing in layers for potential temperature fluctuations, you should consider bringing water and snacks so that you’re comfortable enough to stick around and enjoy the views for a while (especially if it’s crowded or there is a line).
Signs on the platform will help you to identify the various peaks and landmarks visible in the distance.
The view from Clingmans Dome observation tower is made even more special because it looks out over one of the largest protected areas of land in the eastern United States. The landscape is largely unblemished, with few homes, structures, and cities visible on the horizon.
There are several hiking trails nearby, including the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail and the 1,150 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which starts at the mountain and continues to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. If you aren’t worn out from hiking up to the tower, the Forney Ridge Trail is a great addition to any visit as it traverses Andrews Bald at 1.8 miles into the 5.6 mile trail.
Need to know information for visiting Clingmans Dome:
+ Location | Clingmans Dome Road begins just past Newfound Gap and it’s a seven mile drive up the mountain to the Forney Ridge Parking Area. See it on Google maps here. The road is open annually from April 1 through November 30, except in the case of inclement weather.
+ Restrooms | There are several restrooms at the parking area; they are essentially permanent porta johns.
+ Crowds | We visited on the second day the road was open (Sunday, April 2nd), arriving at 10am to find perhaps two dozen parking spaces left. When we left at 11:30am the parking lot was completely overrun with people and there was nowhere to park for miles down the road. According to online reviews, this is a very common problem and traffic is often at a standstill in the parking area. Try to visit early in the morning and on a weekday if possible.
+ More information can be found at the Clingmans Dome website here.
Visiting Clingmans Dome and Observation Tower in North Carolina. Click To Tweet