Distance: 1 mile, RT on a paved path
Elevation gain: 330 feet
Bathrooms: Located at the visitor’s center
Jill: March 2012
I procrastinated for weeks on this summit report because there are just so many other places in Great Smokey Mountain National Park that I like more than Clingman’s Dome. Unless you’re a highpointer if you only have time to visit one place in GSMNP I’d suggest Cades Cove or Cataloochee. But if you’re a highpointer Clingman’s it is, so here’s my report.
To get to the summit you drive up a 7 mile road to the parking area. The walk up Clingman’s is actually quite steep even though it is paved and crowded. It’s only a half mile long though so it doesn’t last long. At the top is a 1950’s looking observation tower with a few exhibits. The good part about the popularity of this highpoint are the public bathrooms and gift shop. A few snacks never hurt anyone, right?
Update April 2015: I’m still not a Clingman’s fan, but did find a good restaurant in nearby Sylva, NC. The Mad Batter shows movies while you eat, and the menu is a nice alternative if you’re tired of Gatlinburg’s Flinstones sized portions (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Raina: April 2015
Clingmans and I started our journey on an interesting note. When I booked the trip, I was blissfully unaware that the 7 mile (one way) road to Clingmans Dome CLOSES to cars every winter! Even more maddening, it was scheduled to open on April 1, mere days after our planned visit. We briefly considered biking the 14 miles, but the type of person who carries that out successfully tends to be of the Ironman triathlete variety, of which I do not claim to be. One of our Twitter connections apparently reached the summit of Clingmans via horseback in early March. This sounded exciting, something I’d be all over if not for bringing my daughter on this journey. Instead, we moved the trip.
As you’re planning your trip, Know that the ROAD CLOSES IN WINTER! This generally is defined as being OPEN from April 1-November 30, which they caveat with, “Weather permitting.”
After maybe 11 hours of driving, a winding road on Clingmans on the heels of the curving roads at Mitchell the day before, my daughter was struggling to keep her breakfast down. With little warning, we made an emergency stop for a brief bout of car sickness. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t share such a detail in this forum, but I’m proud of how tough she is. She not only proceeded to hike Clingmans, but climbed another two highpoints that same day.
Unplanned stop complete, we made it to the parking lot, which was just starting to fill up. The lot hosted cars from around the country. Parked on either side of us was a family from Wisconsin and a group of Mennonites from Pennsylvania. I noticed about a dozen other different license plates on the short walk to the trailhead including states such as Indiana, Oklahoma, Montana, and Illinois. This mountain is clearly an attraction that appeals to more than just the highpointing community.
With Clingmans being such a draw, it is also probably the most crowded highpoint I have visited. Picture a constant flow of people going up and down, almost like a highway of foot traffic. I expected crowds in the heart of summer, and I’m betting this was an uncrowded day. So, perhaps plan your visit either early in the season (once the road opens) or early in the day to ensure you get a parking spot and won’t have to fight for elbow room along the trail and at the top.
On the climb up, we had the privilege of watching a woman wearing a fanny pack and a hat best suited for a cartoon giant, who decided to create her own switchbacks. Maybe the trail was too steep for her or perhaps she was just adding in angles to maximize her view on the way up. My money is on the first theory since it’s doubtful she could see around her oversized hat. Three adults could have walked under that hat and received sufficient shade on a sunny day. I wish I’d taken a photo. Oversized hat woman took up the width of the trail in a repeated large S shape, not yielding our left side to hikers on their way down. I’ve never seen anyone swerve like that on a hike, certainly not on a paved trail. And, I don’t think I’ve seen a hat quite that large. Made for an entertaining trip up.
As a positive, the path is paved and easy to follow. Bathroom needs are easily met with fixed port-a-potties in the parking lot or at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the approach drive. For those who find the trail too steep to tackle in one push, large benches are well placed every so often (maybe every tenth of a mile). Or, just make your own switchbacks – it’s evidently the thing to do. The views are fantastic along the way and, of course, from the observation deck at the top. Finally, the store near the trailhead offers Smokey Mountain National Park souvenirs, a nice treat to reward your little one who gets car sick on the way up and still goes along with your crazy jam packed schedule with a positive attitude.
Although Clingmans and I did not start off in harmony, I appreciated the views, the movement after the being in the car for hours, the quality time with family, and the contentment of having good friends who support me even when I upend a joint vacation schedule. I find it nice that people traveling our country consider it important enough to include a highpoint on their itinerary and muscle through the experience even if hiking or fitness isn’t their thing. On a clear day, you’ll enjoy great views, the company of a wide range of people, and the satisfaction of having achieved something toward your fitness. Maybe you’ll see a giant hat woman. Just be sure to pay attention to the road closure dates when planning your trip and all should go well from there.