I’d heard about Clingmans Dome ever since arriving at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee – it being the highest point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet (“On Top of Old Smoky”), also making it one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States .
My first visit up there was at night for a photography workshop and that glimpse made me more determined to see as much of it as I could in the daytime.
Sunset at Clingmans Dome – April 12, 2014
Being that high with no light pollution makes star gazing here a popular event on clear nights. Above photo by workshop instructor April Love of f32 Photo.
It wasn’t until June that I made it back there during daytime to better explore and see the sweeping views.
June 21, 2014
It’s a 7 mile drive up to the top parking lot once you turn onto Clingmans Dome Road off of Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). The views were incredible and even though the skies were not totally clear when I arrived, the clouds didn’t really look threatening, so I headed first for the observation tower, then intended to hike the 1.8 mile trail to Andrews Bald on the way back. I’d been hearing about flame azaleas and how they can only be found above 3,500′ elevation and of course I wanted to see anything blooming that was in the least bit rare, and I’d heard this week they were at their peak blooming.
Andrews Bald Trail can be accessed here – a 3.6 mile round-trip hike with elevation change of 1,200 feet, rated “moderate” and that sounded reasonable to me.
But first, to the Observation Tower…
It’s 1/2 mile up a paved trail to the tower, but “up” being the important word here, although it didn’t look so bad at the start. The Visitor’s Center is on the right. Where the Appalachian Trail crosses here, it’s the highest point along its 2,144 mile journey.
And I discovered it’s plenty steep enough and a continual climb, so that I had to stop along the way a few times to catch my breath. But it’s worth stopping and looking around anyway, because the views are breathtaking in themselves.
From here on the trail, looking back you can see the parking lot and realize how high you’ve climbed and gaze in wonder at the wave upon wave of these amazing mountains.
But at the end of the trail, my feet weren’t too happy I still had to go up and around the ramps to get to the very top of the 54′ tower, but I wasn’t about to stop now.
But by the time I made it all the way, darker, more ominous looking clouds were rolling in and the views, as great as they sounded from the information boards, were disappearing.
So I decided to start heading back down in hopes of avoiding being rained on. I wouldn’t mind myself getting wet, but I was more worried about my good camera because of course I hadn’t thought ahead enough to bring something to protect it. And of course, a little ways down, with absolutely nowhere for cover, it started raining. I’m forever grateful nobody has video of this crazy lady running down the trail with her camera hitched up underneath her shirt, praying that it wouldn’t be ruined! (Thankfully, it wasn’t.)
Any thoughts of further hiking were done for the day and I headed back to Newfound Gap Overlook to watch the spectacular show going on there.
Some of my favorite views are here, so I sat in my car for a while waiting for the rain to stop and when the clouds started lifting, leaving some on the mountain crevices, I was enchanted. Something very magical about being on cloud level when you’re not in an airplane and can feel the mist from them in the natural air around you.
I’ll do another post soon about this incredible road, but the picture above shows the road winding from here into Cherokee, NC, another 20 miles away. Just around the bend from this overlook is the entrance to Clingmans Dome Road.
I ended up being glad I didn’t try to do the two hikes in one day, and I did make it back to Andrews Bald for my flame azalea hike the next week. Another post about that to come, too.
It doesn’t take the sign to clue you that this is a sacred place – any being with a soul can feel it all around. But the sign – Mountains: Refuge and Healing – tells us that:
Clingmans Dome is a sacred mountain to the Cherokees, where the Magic Lake was once seen. The Great Spirit told the Cherokees that, “if they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they can come to a magic lake and be made well again.”
For Cherokees, these mountains have meant a refuge, homeland, and a mythical and spiritual foundation for their people. During the Indian Removal Period of the 1800s known as the Trail of Tears, the mountains meant safety from pursuing soldiers. Today these slopes provide a refuge and offer inspiration for visitors from hectic modern society.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home.” ∼ John Muir, 1898
What do these mountains mean to you?
Well, I can’t help but sympathize with the tired, nerve-shaken Cherokees when over-civilized people drove them from their beloved ancestral mountain home.
As thankful as I am that I can be here, that doesn’t stop me from being sorry and sad at what our presence has cost the native inhabitants of these Great Smoky Mountains.
Weather conditions: NPS at 800-436-1200 ext. 630