Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies and is accessible by a 7 mile side road. One can drive almost to the top and then hike the last half-mile to the overlook tower. Take it slow because the high altitude means the air is thinner, but the fantastic, panoramic view is worth the effort. Clingmans Dome Road is a dead-end spur off the Newfound Gap Road at the crest of the Smokies.
Clingmans Dome is a popular park destination. Located along the state-line ridge, it is half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee. The peak is accessible after driving Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap, and then walking a steep half-mile trail. A paved trail leads to a 54-foot observation tower. The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, marking the highest point along its 2,144-mile journey.
Vistas from Clingmans Dome are spectacular. On clear, pollution-free days, views expand over 100 miles and into 7 states. However, air pollution limits average viewing distances to 22 miles. Despite this handicap, breathtaking scenes delight those ascending the tower. It is a great place for sunrises and sunsets.
Cloudy days, precipitation, and cold temperatures reveal the hostile environment atop Clingmans Dome. Proper preparation is essential for a good visit. Weather conditions atop Clingmans Dome change quickly. Snow can fall anytime between September and May; get a current weather forecast before heading to the tower. The cool, wet conditions on Clingmans Dome’s summit make it a coniferous rainforest. Unfortunately, pests, disease, and environmental degradation threaten the unique and fragile spruce-fir forest. Dead trunks litter the area, and dying trees struggle to survive another year. Berries thrive in the open areas, and a young forest will replace the dying trees.
Although Clingmans Dome is open year-round, the road leading to it is closed from December 1 through April 1, and whenever weather conditions require. People can hike and cross-country ski on the road during the winter.
Other motor trails exist; the most famous is the Cades Cove Loop, which is also a historical tour of those who settled in the valley. Northeast of Gatlinburg off Route 321 is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Loop, which takes you up the western flank of Mt. LeConte. This paved, narrow, winding jewel of a road fords streams and cuts across a deep gorge.