Friday, October 14, 2016

On the summit of Clingmans Dome

It’s the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) at 6,643 feet. It’s also the highest point in the state of Tennessee. OK, it’s only the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi, but to make up for this shortcoming, it is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. And it was the first stop on our recent trip to GSMNP.

Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited National Park; the park receives over 9 million visits per year! Much of this traffic is situated along the northern edge of the park near Gatlinburg TN, and along the Newfound Gap Rd. (US- 441) that bisects the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, including the 7-mile spur road that follows the TN/NC border to Clingmans Dome.

The high point is named for Thomas Lanier Clingman, one of several explorers who studied and measured North Carolina’s peaks. Known as the “Prince of Politicians,” Clingman represented North Carolina in the United States House of Representatives (1843-1845 and 1847-1858) and the U.S. Senate (1858-1861). During the Civil War he refused to resign his Senate seat and was one of ten senators expelled from the Senate in absentia, after which he served as a general in the Confederate States Army. After the Civil War, Clingman explored and measured mountains in western North Carolina and Tennessee, and as half of the mountain is in the state of NC, the dome was named in his honor.

From the parking area it’s a short, steep, ½ mile hike to the summit observation tower, but the 360˚ view is worth the effort; we lucked out with a clear day and could see as far as Mount Mitchell outside of Asheville, NC, some 73 miles away.

Just before reaching the summit the paved Clingmans Dome Trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which follows it for a few hundred feet before veering off again to continue on to Newfound Gap, 7.5 miles east. The section that heads west to Cades Cove is a 24.4-mile rollercoaster over 7 gaps, 4 knobs and 3 mountains. Part of this stretch of the AT coincides with the Mountains-To-Sea Trail, which stretches 1,000 miles all the way to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.

At the summit, a concrete tower winds its way up above the treeline to offer outstanding views of the surrounding mountains. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and replaced a wooden tower that visitors had to climb to be able enjoy the view before the present concrete tower was erected (1960). Visibility from the summit and tower can be severely impacted by the haze; records show that during the last half of the 20th century the average distance it is possible to see decreased by about 40% in the winter and 80% in the summer.

It isn’t only the air quality that has suffered in the past 50 years. The Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that covers Clingmans Dome only occurs at the highest elevations in the southeastern US. It is more similar to forests at northern latitudes than to the forests in the adjacent valleys, and has been especially hard hit in recent decades by a small wingless insect native to Europe.  In the pictures you can easily see thousands of white skeletons in the forest; these are the victims of the balsam woolly adelgid, the culprit in the large die-off of Fraser fir. Balsam woolly adelgids have destroyed about 95% of the Fraser firs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We enjoyed the views and took dozens of photos before heading back down. Vilis wasn’t too impressed with it all, he fell asleep and missed the entire ride back to the visitor center (which is located just next to the parking area). Lauris and Mikus accompanied me in to stamp our National Parks passports, and we picked up a couple of Jr. Ranger booklets for them to work on over the coming days before heading back to the car.

I had hoped to arrive at Clingmans a little earlier in the day as this would have given us the opportunity to hike to Adams Bald, the highest grassy bald in GSMNP; the 3.5-mile trail departs from the Clingmans Dome parking area and would have given us the opportunity to get off the paved roads. However, a chill was settling in and we would have been cutting it close with daylight, and so Adams Bald was left for another day. As we wound our way back out on Clingmans Dome Rd. the boys quickly grew absorbed in their books as we descended in elevation, leaving Clingmans Dome with another state highest point checked off of our list…

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