The Smoky Mountains Part 1 – Article Clingmans Dome
“Wow, look at those trees!” the natural beauty struck us as we drove closer to our next destination, Pigeon Forge, located just on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The higher and deeper we drove into the area, the clearer the air became.
The drive along the country roads from Knoxville to Pigeon Forge took less than an hour. We arrived there in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel. As we just had a busy morning in Knoxville, we decided to take it easy and recharge our energy for the next day when we planned to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We got up early the next day and headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a very rainy day and the Smoky Mountains seemed more likely to be Rainy Mountains.
As we drove along the road from Pigeon Forge to the center we suddenly saw a sign about a by-pass. We just missed it and therefore had to drive through Gatlinburg. Compared to Pigeon Forge Gatlinburg was very pedestrian friendly. We normally love places which are pedestrian friendly but this time this was not in our favour as we were driving and the main road with a single lane in each direction was peppered with pedestrian crossings. As we drove along the road, we saw many pedestrians wandering about. At first glance we found Gatlinburg to be quite a characterful place with several picturesque shops. It seems a good town to visit when you are in the area but you really want to avoid driving through Gatlinburg. Our visit was just before the main vacation season in the US and it was already packed with people. Someone local told us that cars can hardly move during the high season.
When we managed to exit Gatlinburg, the drive to the visitor center did not take very long. We picked up a free map in the visitor center and spoke to the first available guide. He showed us a few standard points to visit and then referred us to another corner where you can actually buy special starter kits with maps and information of special trails to take. We also enquired about less busy roads and then he showed us two roads. The first road was the unpaved road from Cataloochee to Big Creek and the second road was the Parson Branch Road. The Parson Branch Road just reopened and as we found out the next day, for people like us without a 4×4 or SUV it should have stayed closed! After we had a look at the very good nature museum, we tried to speak to another guide to get a bit more information. The second guide was much older, he had grey hair and wore a beard. The hope for a wiser person giving us more information was not really fulfilled. He repeated the same points and advised us not to go to Clingman’s Dome because it was very cloudy. Unfortunately, they were just too busy to give any more information. With nearly ten million visitors each year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the USA.
The National Park is also free to enter. No entrance fees are being charged. Some old law is preventing this. Perhaps the number of visitors and the fact that it is free to enter, were the reasons why the guides referred us to the corner with the paid tourist packages. Understandably, they have to make some money to keep up the park.
From the visitor center we drove South along the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. Highway 441) and as there were a few tiny spots of light breaking through the thick clouds we decided to ignore the advice from the elderly guide and headed to the Clingman’s Dome.
On our way the smoke of the Smokys finally revealed itself. There was a little mist left on the leaves of all those green trees. It felt as we were driving into an enchanted forest.
Shortly after we had passed the sign for the Chimney Tops, which were closed that day, we stopped at the Newfound Gap at an elevation of 5046 feet (about 1,538 metres) to take a few pictures. When we walked around the parking area, we were quite surprised by the Tennessee and North Carolina State Line.
If someone would have asked us in what state the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in, we would have answered Tennessee.
We didn’t know that the National Park was not just in Tennessee but also located in North Carolina.
After our short stop at the Newfound Gap, we drove up the Clingman’s Dome Road for 7 miles until we reached the Forney Ridge Parking Area. The parking area also contained restrooms and trash bins.
The clouds in the sky at the parking area started to clear bit by bit and we soon felt very lucky that our risk was worth it.
We took our gear and started the walk/climb up to the Clingman’s Dome which is with 6,643 feet (2,025metres), the highest mountain in the Smoky Mountains.
At the beginning of the path were some information signs, a view point and some huge stones. I (Kristin) immediately climbed up the stones. Once I managed to climb back down, Paul put on his head camera and our proper 0.5 mile (800m) walk up the very steep trail began.
The trail was paved and along the trail were several benches for people who needed a little rest. After a while our legs seriously felt exercised. When we reached the Observation Tower the hard work was well worth it. The tower is built at the top of the mountain and is about 54 feet (about 16.45 metres) high.
When we reached the top of the tower we had an excellent view over several states. On clear and pollution free days, it is the perfect spot to have a 360° view over the area. When you are up there, you are actually higher than the highest mountain in the National Park.
The Clingman’s Dome is a MUST SEE when you are in the National Park. Unlike the main roads of the National Park, the Clingman’s Dome Road is not open during the winter months. You can also find more information about the opening hours of some of the roads from the website of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.