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 existed (left photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com; right photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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Nearly everyone who has visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is familiar with Clingmans Dome, located along the state line of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Completed in 1959, the Clingmans Dome observation tower is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. It stands over 6,000 feet tall and offers 360-degree views.

On clear days, guests can see almost 100 miles in any direction from the top of the tower. Sadly, according to the National Park Service, air pollution usually limits the views to only 20 miles.

Still, it’s easily one of the most visited landmarks in the national park.

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

Read Also: Clingmans Dome controversy, the tower that weathered a media storm

Clingmans Dome with ramp
The Clingmans Dome observation tower is an iconic landmark, but it was once a source of controversy. It’s located along the state line, but the visitor center is on the North Carolina side (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Is there a secret tunnel under Clingmans Dome?

There’s an old tunnel near Clingmans Dome, but it’s not exactly “under” it.

You won’t readily find this old hiker’s tunnel on Google maps. 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 referred to as the “Thomas Ridge Tunnel”, the “Old Mule Tunnel” or simply “The Hiker’s Tunnel”.

The tunnel was constructed in the mid to late 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 of the road.

According to the Great Smoky Mountains Association, it is speculated that the tunnel is a relic of a section of the Thomas Divide Trail that connected the Appalachian Trail on the far side of Clingmans Dome Road.

The completion of Clingmans Dome Road required rerouting the trail. One option could have been rerouting the trail to cross Clingmans Dome Road on the roadbed. However, engineers decided to build the tunnel under the road.

Alternatively, the Association also speculates that it’s possible the tunnel was constructed for equestrian use. Some records show that it was used as a mule trail tunnel.

Clingmans Dome Tunnel
The tunnel is not difficult to find, although it is no longer part of the main trail (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What was the Mission ’66 initiative?

In the 1960s, the tunnel was cut off from the original trail and stranded due to 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 upper section of Newfound Gap Road. This rerouting 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.

It simply leads to a cliff with a beautiful view where the other side of the trail once existed.

Today, it serves as one of the hidden gems around the Smoky Mountains that hikers enjoy finding.

It’s an iconic landmark, a forgotten relic that is fun to discover, like the old springhouse from the Voorheis estate or relics from the ghost town in the Elkmont area.

Read Also: Where is the House of the Fairies in Gatlinburg? A landmark lost to time

A look inside the Clingmans Dome tunnel
The tunnel has been cutoff from the main trail, but visitors can still find it if they know where to look (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Where is the secret tunnel in Clingmans Dome?

But 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.

To find it, take Clingmans Dome Road until you reach the access gate. From there, simply park your car and walk approximately 0.2 miles up to the far side of Clingmans Dome Road.

When you reach the large stone bridge that you’d normally drive right across from your car, walk down the hill. Lo and behold, you will spot the tiny abandoned tunnel.

Pro-tip: It might be a bit easier to access in the off-season 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 since the gate will be blocking vehicle access.

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

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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6 thoughts on “The secret tunnel under Clingmans Dome that you never knew existed”

  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!!!

  2. So glad to learn about the secret tunnel. There is always something interesting to learn about the Smokies.

  3. It’s a piece of history regardless, they should make a way to it again so visitors can see it!

  4. I found the secret tunnel this year. Just beautiful. Everyone needs to see this.

  5. Park in front of the park service weather station. Follow the road towards Clingman Dome til you come to the rock bridge. It’s not a far walk. Maybe two city blocks Climb down under it. There it is.

  6. Thanks for sharing… we just found the Fairy House and Troll Bridge this year… will add this to my “To Visit” list!

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