Surprising Things You Should Know Before Hiking Clingmans Dome

clingmans dome

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

What you should know before your hike to Clingmans Dome, from a local

Since Clingmans Dome has a paved trail, many people think it’s an easy trail. But my opinion? Not so fast my friend. The tower and its looping path are tricky little minxes.

Some people assume the trail to Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easy because it is paved. However, it can prove challenging for some due to its elevation change and steep incline. The 7-mile road is the easiest way to get to the Dome, but it is closed in the winter months. When the dome was first designed, it was controversial due to its design.

How far is the walk to Clingmans Dome?

The short distance from the Clingmans Dome parking lot to the top of the tower is only a half-mile. But the grade is significant. If you start bold, you’re likely to find yourself winded and begging for mercy and feeling the agony of defeat – or possibly “de feet” if you wore the wrong shoes.

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/

How do I get to Clingmans Dome?

The easiest way to get there is via Clingmans Dome Road. The 7-mile 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, from late November through late March. 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.

Clingmans Dome is a famous landmark in 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. 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.

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

Tips and what you should know

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, a jacket and clothes appropriate for a real workout – no matter the time of year. 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. Wheelchairs and bikes are forbidden on the path for fear gravity will take hold and roll folks right down the ramp.

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/

Who designed Clingmans Dome?

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. 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.

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

Bare trees at Clingmans Dome

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. 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.

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

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3 thoughts on “Surprising Things You Should Know Before Hiking Clingmans Dome”

  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?

  3. Yes we have climbed back in the 70s when the path was not paved !
    We had two children and still made it to the top. Lol very strenuous but we accomplished it!


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