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Clingmans Dome Hike: Is It Hard? What To Know Before You Go

The summit at clingmans dome

Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains is now an iconic destination (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

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The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower was designed, I believe, to punish those guilty of hubris. So, Clingmans Dome has a paved trail? That sounds easy! Not so fast my friend. The tower and its looping path are tricky little minxes. 

How far is the walk to Clingmans Dome from the parking lot?

The short distance from the Clingmans Dome parking lot to the top of the tower is only a half-mile. But the grade is something out of a CBS Wide World of Sport sky-jumping montage. If you start bold and cocky you’re likely to find yourself winded, begging for mercy and feeling the agony of defeat – or possibly “de feet” if you wore the wrong shoes. Wheelchairs and bikes are forbidden on the path for fear gravity will take hold and roll folks right down the ramp, through the parking lot and off the mountain. I do think they should close the Clingman’s Dome ramp to the general public once a year and let skateboarders and bicyclists go crazy, but nobody’s embraced that vision yet.


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The hike to Clingmans Dome
The half-mile hike to Clingmans Dome may be short and paved, but it’s also straight uphill (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Who designed Clingmans Dome? Why is the ramp curved?

To answer that question, we’re going back to another time. It was the 1950s and people were really into design. The site had been home to a wooden observation tower built in the 30s. But two decades later, it was decided it was a poor spot for fire spotting and a better spot for tourists.

According to the book “Blue Ridge Fire Towers” by Robert Sorrell, they hired a Gatlinburg architectural firm operated by Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olson to design the 45-foot high tower. Bebb’s original design included a cylinder that made the tower look more like a silo with a larger mushroom cap on top. Honestly, it would have been more than a little phallic. However, park officials determined the cylinder was unnecessary and – I think wisely – removed it.

But even without the giant mountain-top phallus, the design was controversial. A group called the National Parks Association vehemently opposed the design, saying it didn’t fit in well with the surrounding landscape and wasn’t in keeping with the values of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Essentially it was “modern” and ugly in a place that was ancient and beautiful. Ultimately, I suppose the ramp is curved because it has to be. They put a little bit of a winding curve to lessen the severity of the ascent. But you’ve got to go up a few stories in a short amount of distance. And there’s no easy way to do it.

Clingmans Dome Ramp
The design of Clingmans Dome, with its mushroom-shaped observation tower and long winding ramp, was quite controversial when it was first pitched to the National Parks Association (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

What is so special about Clingmans Dome?

Simply put: It is likely the premier spot in all of the Smokies. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the third highest mountain east of Mississippi. Only North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig rise higher. The 54-foot observation tower enhances those 360-degree mountain views from that height. On a clear day, it has some of the best views in the United States, expanding over 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles. Weather conditions can also frequently affect views at higher elevations. Still, the combination of accessibility and view is unrivaled. It’s a great place to see the Great Smokies.

Clingmans Dome observation tower
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

How do I get to Clingmans Dome? How long is the Clingmans Dome drive?

The 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road features multiple scenic pullouts with magnificent views along the way. If you have a fear of heights – or as I do, fear of ledges – there are a couple of sphincter tightening spots. But I’ve seen worse. The Dome is open year-round but the road is closed in the winter months.

Can you walk Clingmans Dome Road?

You are allowed to walk on Clingmans Dome Road, but keep in mind, it’s a 7-mile journey and it’s a pretty large elevation change.

The western view from clingmans dome
The views at Clingmans Dome are like none other in the Smokies (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

What else is there to do at Clingmans Dome?

Well, of course, you’re there for the view. But in addition to the Clingmans Dome Trail, there is some decent hiking in the area as well. The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome. The Forney Ridge Trail leads to Andrews Bald. Also, just past the end of Clingmans Dome Road is the Newfound Gap Parking Area and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. Rockefeller’s husband John D. Rockefeller essentially footed half of the bill for the park. The memorial is the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940. 

What should I wear?

Comfortable shoes, a jacket and clothes appropriate for a real workout – no matter the time of year. From the National Park Service:

“Clouds, precipitation, and cold temperatures are common at Clingmans Dome. Temperatures at the dome can be 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the surrounding lowlands.”

Also, the cool, wet conditions on Clingmans Dome’s summit make the spruce-fir forest a coniferous rainforest. Be sure to dress in layers and bring a jacket.

Dead trees at clingmans dome
Many of the trees are being affected by an invasive insect, the balsam woolly adelgid (photo by Allison Jehlicka/shutterstock.com)

What’s the deal with all the bare trees?

The spruce fir occurs naturally in southern Appalachia and tends to be quite common in higher elevations. It is often mistakenly believed that these trees were affected by a wildfire. However, they are being deprived of their nutrients by an insect. The balsam woolly adelgid is an insect that infests the stands of Fraser Firs in the spruce-fir zone. The adelgid was originally introduced to our region on imported trees from Europe. Unfortunately, the fir has little natural defense against it.

The adelgid injects the tree with toxins, blocking nutrients from reaching the tree. The park service has had some success in recent years battling the adelgids. And efforts to control hemlock woolly adelgids are being funded through the Save the Hemlocks initiative. To learn more about how you can help, visit the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s website or call (865) 932-4794.

Have you hiked to Clingman’s Dome? What did you think? Was it an “easy” hike? If so, let us know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Clingmans Dome Hike: Is It Hard? What To Know Before You Go”

  1. we Loved clingmans dome and the .5 mile hike to the tower is a bit of a challenge but worth it.
    recommend checking weather forecasts because twice we got there and the whole summit was socked in with cloud cover. overall a must see.

    smoky mountain fan

  2. My husband and went up in about 1968 but I don’t remember any hand rails. It was worse coming down. My shins were screaming on the descent. Has the ramp changed over the years?


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