The observation tower at Clingmans Dome. Temperatures typically are 20-25 degrees cooler here than in the valley.
Written By: Shawn Dunnaway
Exploration Date: October 9, 2011
Weather: Overcast and 48°
GPS: 35.556774, -83.496137
Having been to Clingmans Dome several times, I figured I knew what to expect on my latest trip to the summit. Mother Nature is known to throw us a few surprises when exploring her natural wonder. This trip was no exception.
The drive to Clingmans Dome is about seven miles of winding two-lane road from US 441 at Newfound Gap. It is closed during the winter months due to poor road conditions, thanks to the unpredictable weather.
I had driven down this road many times in my life and had never seen any bears. In fact I didn't think there would be any "this high up," well above the 6,000-feet elevation mark. I proved to be quite ignorant on the creatures' habitat, as we saw a momma and two cubs about a mile from the dome parking area.
They appeared to be rooting around in the grass on the shoulder of the road, completely oblivious and unafraid of the slow-moving traffic around them. They were literally inches from the pavement, rooting around in the tall grass looking for food.
I grabbed the camera, stuck it out the window, and filmed some great footage of the bears. It was a pleasant surprise and an experience to remember. You simply cannot get any closer to bears than we were without being in danger.
My wife and I wished we could have stayed several more minutes, but we were backing up traffic along the road. So we continued up the mountain and arrived at the parking area.
The trail is paved, but it is a steep half-mile journey from the parking area to the observation tower.
The expedition to Clingmans Dome on this day was going to be different than previous trips. My wife didn't want to make the trip up the steep hill, and it was pretty darn cold. It was around 65 degrees an hour earlier in Cherokee, North Carolina. Now it was 48 degrees in the parking lot and probably a few degrees colder at the summit.
With her wanting to stay in the car, I grabbed my video camera and still camera and started up the hill. The path is about a half mile to the summit, and the incline is 300 feet. It's not an easy climb for inexperienced hikers, despite the paved trail.
I purposefully chose to go to Clingmans Dome at around sunset because I wanted some great photos. As I reached the summit (which is quite flat, I might add), I began to climb the spiral walkway to reach the 54-foot-tall observation tower.
A view of Fontana Lake from the observation tower. The lake is about nine miles away "as the crow flies".
At the top, I was quite surprised to see very few people there, and even more surprised that I couldn't see any further than 200 feet due to the summit being surrounded by clouds. It was a little disappointing, but at the same time the solitude was refreshing.
Within five minutes of me being there, the other visitors had left, and I was all alone up there for a good while. It was very cold, probably in the lower 40s, with a stiff 20 mph breeze.
I kept waiting to see if the clouds would break so I could get some photos. That really didn't happen, so after about ten minutes I decided to head back down. Once I reached the end of the observation tower's ramp, I was no longer in the wind.
Lots of ferns and other plant species can be found along the trail.
I could hear nothing or no one. The feeling was surreal and somewhat eerie. I just stood on the trail for a minute and soaked in the environment. There really isn't anyplace else in the eastern United States where you can experience something like this. I chalked it up to a win for Mother Nature and some dumb luck, because usually the trail is full of people.
Heading back down the trail, I stopped a couple times and took some sunset photos. It's mind-boggling to me that just a couple hundred feet above me at the dome were the clouds, but on the trail I could see for miles.
Back at the parking lot, I was able to get some decent sunset photos and some footage. You can check out the photos and video below.
The part of the trail that isn't so steep, near the observation tower.
If you are interested in checking out Clingmans Dome for yourself, here is some advice: Dress warm! Even in summer, when the temperature is 90 degrees in the valley, the summit of Clingmans Dome can be as cool as 60-65 degrees with a stiff wind.
The trail is paved, and there are restroom facilities and a gift shop at the trailhead. It is a half-mile to the observation tower, and the incline is approximately 300 feet. The round trip takes between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your stamina and how long you want to stay.
If nothing else, the parking area provides views of the Smoky Mountains that you cannot get anywhere else. It is definitely worth it for anyone to drive up there. And who knows? You might be lucky enough to see some bears - and experience the same solitude I did.