Clingman’s Dome was once called Smoky Dome by early English settlers. The Cherokee Indians called it Kuwahi, the mulberry place. In 1859 it was renamed by Arnold Guyot for his compatriot Thomas Lanier Clingman (1812-1897). Clingman was a lawyer, a member of Congress, a Senator, and a Confederate Brigadier General. He explored the area and thought Smoky Dome was the highest mountain in the Appalachians. Mount Mitchell (once called Black Dome), named after Elisha Mitchell, proved to be 41 feet higher. Still, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River behind Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mount Craig (6,647), both located in the Mount Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina.
Any visit to Clingman’s Dome requires some hiking in order to reach the summit. For the less vigorous, the seven-mile ride to the parking area leaves only about a half-mile hike to the top. However, it rises steeply another 400 feet in altitude from that of the parking area. Finally reaching a height of 6,643 feet above sea level, this can be a significant workout for the less physically fit. The weather also changes significantly from Gatlinburg TN and Cherokee NC, two nearby locales. The temperature can easily drop 10-15 degrees due to the height of the mountain. The alert hiker will need appropriate gear to keep away the chill.
Driving to the parking area is not an option from December 1 through March 31 as the road is closed, although the Dome itself is open. Only the most fit hikers should attempt the trek during those months as it is a seven-mile walk from the New Found Gap parking area. The walk may require snowshoes or be suitable for cross-country skiing during that time.
Other hiking options on and around the Dome include the Forney Ridge Trail (which leads to Andrews Bald) and the Forney Creek Trail (leading to the Benton MacKaye Trail on the shores of Fontana Lake). The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which connects the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, intersects the Appalachian Trail 3.5 miles east of Clingman’s Dome. With all of these trails, many hiking options are available. The Appalachian Trail reaches its highest point at the Dome.
Once on the summit, visitors can see as far as 20 miles on hazy days up to 100 miles on clear days. Visitors will also notice the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest which covers Clingman’s Dome. This occurs only at the highest elevations in the southeastern United States, and has more in common with forests at northern latitudes than with the forests in the adjacent valleys.
From Knoxville, it is about a 90 minute trip (Google map) to Clingman’s Dome. Other attractions in the area include Cades Cove, the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge. Many events and festivals take place year-round in these places, so it is possible to schedule several activities during a weekend trip to Clingman’s Dome.
Visit the park website for more information and also see this driving tour map and hiking map of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
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