The secret tunnel under Clingmans Dome that you never knew existed

The tunnel is no longer part of any regular path or hiking trail and simply leads to a cliff with a beautiful view where the other side of the trail once stood (stock photo)
The tunnel is no longer part of any regular path or hiking trail and simply leads to a cliff with a beautiful view where the other side of the trail once stood (stock photo)

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Nearly everyone who has visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is familiar with Clingmans Dome.

Completed in 1959, Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains standing at over 6,000 feet tall and offering 360-degree views. On clear days, it is said that guests can see almost 100 miles in any direction from the top of the tower. It’s easily one of the most visited landmarks in the park.

But have you heard of the secret abandoned hiking tunnel below Clingmans Dome?

Read Also: The controversy of Clingmans Dome, the observation tower that weathered the media storm

The tunnel is constructed of locally sourced stone and features an ornate archway on either side (stock photo)
You won’t readily find this old hiker’s tunnel on Google Maps. The Thomas Divide tunnel pre-dates the tower itself and has been stranded from its original trail due to evolving infrastructure changes in the park over the course of the past several decades (stock photo)

Why you won’t be able to find the tunnel unless you’re looking for it

You won’t readily find this old hiker’s tunnel on Google Maps, and it pre-dates the tower itself.

It’s a former hiker’s underpass most commonly known as the Thomas Divide Tunnel, but it is also occasionally referred to as the “Thomas Ridge Tunnel”, the “Old Mule Tunnel” or simply “The Hiker’s Tunnel”.

The tunnel was constructed in the mid-1930s by a group of young men known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. The tunnel is made of locally sourced stone and features an ornate archway on either side. 

According to the Great Smoky Mountains Association, it is speculated that tunnel is a relic of a section of the Thomas Divide Trail that used to connect to the Appalachian Trail on the far side of Clingmans Dome. It was built in response to the completion of Clingmans Dome Road, which required a rerouting of the trail. The Association also speculates that it’s possible the tunnel was constructed for equestrian use. 

However, in the 1960s, the tunnel was cut off from the original trail and stranded due to something called the Mission ’66 initiative.

It was the initiative’s mission to improve infrastructure across the entire national park system. That led to the rerouting of several old roads to improve overall driving conditions, including the Newfound Gap Road, which cut off the old trail forcing the trailhead to be relocated further south.

That’s why you won’t happen upon it, unless you’re looking for it – it’s no longer part of any regular path or hiking trail and simply leads to a cliff with a beautiful view where the other side of the trail once stood.

Read Also: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 3 spots you don’t want to miss

(archive photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Originally constructed in the mid-1930s, The Thomas Divide Tunnel has been referenced by many names throughout history, which is one of the reasons detailed annotated information about the tunnel can be difficult to find unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. (archive photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

How to find the secret tunnel

But never fear – just because you are unlikely to happen upon this secret tunnel on accident, doesn’t mean it’s difficult to find if you know where to look.

Take Clingmans Dome Road until you reach the access gate. From there, simply park your car and walk approximately 0.2 miles up the side of the road. When you reach the large stone bridge, that you’d normally drive right across from your car, walk down the hill and lo and behold you will spot the tiny abandoned tunnel.

Pro-tip: It might be a bit easier to access in the wintertime when you know traffic won’t be an issue. Clingmans Dome Road usually closes from December-April. This will also make it harder to miss the gate landmark as the gate will be blocking vehicle access. 

Did you know about this secret tunnel in the Smokies? What are some of your favorite secret spots in the park? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow,I’ve been there many times,I’m from S.C.an visit the Reservation to see family a couple times a month,also have lived in Cherokee N.C,a few times to,but never knew of this??When I go up,I always go over the mountian to Tennessee.I thought I had explored everything from Cherokee to Tennessee,But not this,Can’t wait to take my next trip, definitely a must do!!!

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