It rises into the air at 6,643 feet. The base covered with thousands of spruce, turning into a forest of fir as you near the peak. Hundreds and hundreds of hikers cross it every year, but long before these intrepid park visitors, it was crossed by the hunters and tribes of Cherokee. This is the highest point in the state of Tennessee, the mountain known as Clingmans Dome.
Many people have heard of Clingmans Dome, but most think of the concrete observation tower that sits on the top of the mountain, completely unaware that Clingmans Dome is the actual name of the mountain that they are about to hike on. Clingmans Dome is the highest point in all the Great Smoky Mountains. For this reason, it sees many more hikers and tourists throughout the year that are wanting to get a glimpse of the beauty that you can only see from this spot. As previously mentioned, it’s the highest place you can go in our great State of Tennessee. It is also the third highest point east of the Mississippi River, barely trailing behind the neighboring Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet and Mt. Craig at 6,647 feet. If you decide to walk to the top of the mountain from the parking area, you will see the concrete observation tower on top standing another forty-five feet in the air. Many people like to say that by climbing up the 45 feet to the tower’s highest point, it puts you at 6,688—four feet higher than Mt. Mitchell, so you are actually standing in the highest point you can walk to.
Many of you that have made the trek up New Found Gap road to Clingmans Dome Road have probably asked yourself or someone in the car with you, “what is wrong with the evergreen trees up here on the mountain?”. The dead-looking trees in the middle and higher elevations are the remains of what was once a healthy evergreen forest. In the lower elevations, the air is mixed with a lot of pollutants and toxins that blow down from all the plants in the Ohio Valley and when moisture is in the air, it causes acid rain. The acid rain is then coming down on the spruce trees and eventually kills the crown in the top of the tree. Once the crown dies, the tree has no way to continue growing and the slow death takes its toll all the way down to the ground, thus leaving behind the white skeleton looking remains you see today. All the increased production in the factories and burning of fossil-fuels with no filters in place to catch or stop the pollutants put in the air, the acid rain is becoming more and more frequent in the Smokies. Effects are not limited to just the spruce forests, but also hurt other plants and even the fish populations further down the mountains.
As you drive further up in elevation, you leave the spruce forest behind and start to enter into the fir forest. These forest in the Smokies were once very dense and covered many of our mountain tops. This type of Fraser fir only occurs naturally in the southern Appalachians. Unfortunately, you will see the same type of skeletal remains on the slopes from dying trees as well. Here not so much from acid rain, but from a very small little pest called the balsam woolly adelgid. This small insect, only about the size of a gnat, is not native to the Smokies or even North America. In the early 50’s when people started importing ornamental trees more abundantly from Europe, they hitched rides over on the trees and made their new home here in our Smokies. Our firs have little to no natural defense from the adelgid. They block the path of nutrients and other things the tree needs to grow by injecting a toxin into the tree as they live and eat on it. This toxin basically “starves” the tree to death. The National Park Service has been working for many years to find ways to rid the trees of the adelgid.
Along the roadway, you will see many pull-offs with trailheads you can enjoy. At the end of the seven-mile road, you will come to the parking area for the hike to the top of the mountain. While this half-mile trail is paved, it is very steep. It reaches the summit at the base of the spiraling Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Clingmans Dome has several other trails leading to the summit. One of the most famous trails which crosses directly over the top is none other than the Appalachian Trail. Yes, you guessed it, where the AT crosses on the mountain is the highest point on the entire trail from Maine all the way to Georgia. Make sure you check the weather for the area because it is normal for clouds, precipitation and colder weather to be on top of the mountain. Sometimes the air temperature can be 10-20 degrees cooler than down below. A fun fact to know about this mountain is that the wet and cool conditions on Clingmans Dome summit make the spruce-fir forest that grows there a coniferous rainforest!
How to get to Clingmans Dome: If you are traveling from Gatlinburg, stay on Hwy 441 (Newfound Gap Road) into the National Park for 23 miles. Once you reach the top (Newfound Gap) you will make a right turn onto Clingmans Dome road and travel 7 miles to the parking area.