Your alarm is blaring, it's 4 a.m and the mountains are calling. As you rise from bed, you're fully aware that you're heading straight into the unknown - because today's adventure is sunrise at Clingmans Dome. You grab your bag and run. Many things in life may wait for you, but never the sun. While rolling through Gatlinburg, you notice that the usually hustling and bustling city is looking more like a ghost town. As you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you hit a wall of darkness. Within minutes you begin the drive up Newfound Gap Road, a flood of curiosity and excitement take over the need for sleep. The tunnels of the Smokies feel as if they are portals to another life. A life in the wild and with each curve of the mountain, you leave another worry from mediocrity behind. You begin to notice that the forest is aglow from the night's full moon and as it comes into full view at Morton's overlook - you know that you'll be at Clingmans soon. In the midst of the infamous Smoky Mountain smoke, your drive begins to take you into the sky - to the park's highest point, to the highest spot that Appalachian Thru-hikers will stand on their journey of a lifetime. Just as the itch to explore the AT begins, the first light of day slowly starts to seep into the darkness. It's time. Time to climb the half mile to the observation tower that was built in 1959. Knowing that in the past 58 years, millions of people have found love in the same spot where you now walk. Unconditional love, for the Smokies and the Appalachian Mountains. As you reach the top, the fog and coolness of the air fill your lungs. You feel your heart beating in your chest and turn to face the sun, with only three words on your lips - "I am blessed." It is there, above Clingmans Dome, that you will find both your need to roam and your Smoky Mountain home.
5 Tri-Star Adventures to help you roam Clingmans Dome:
1. Hike to Andrews Bald: If you have taken in a Smoky Mountain sunrise and plan to hike to Andrews Bald, take the connector trail just off the Appalachian Trail. If you take the paved path back to the trailhead at the parking lot, you'll miss an entire stretch of beauty that is too often ignored. Within just a 100ft of stepping onto the AT, you'll begin to see the unique traits of the Spruce-fir forest and the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians. If you happened to miss the sunrise because of finding yourself inside of a cloud, you'll quickly discover that you have instead stepped into an entirely different level of storybook style magical mountains. It's always disappointing to be fogged in during the sunrise, but the fog gives the forest an indescribable mysterious allurement.
2. Get a taste of the AT: Invite some friends along for your Clingmans adventure, and before heading up, leave a car in the Newfound Gap parking area. Once you finish up at the dome, hop on the Appalachian Trail for a 7.9-mile adventure as you make your way back down to Newfound Gap. Have a couple of days or longer to explore? Plan an AT backpacking trip, or, if you just want a longer day hike - leave a car at Elkmont before coming up and hike 13+ miles back down via the AT, Goshen Prong Trail, and Little River Trail.
3. Stargaze and be amazed: Not a morning person? No problem! Clingmans Dome serves up gorgeous moments 24/7. Head up for a sunset and stay to stargaze on a clear, new moon, night. Climb to the top of the observation tower on a full moon night and see the area in a different light. During summer months, Clingmans is a phenomenal spot for taking in the mind-blowing sparkle and shine of the Milky Way.
4. Family fun: Bringing the little ones along or your grandparents? Take your time climbing to the top, it's only a half of a mile - but it is straight up. Explore, check out the visitors center, read the signs and learn about the threats of losing many spruce-fit species, including the endangered spruce-fir moss spider. The climb up isn't even necessary to enjoy the area, even the views from the parking lot are stunning. One experience that you can't pass up is wandering the Clingmans Dome Nature Trail. You'll find it along Clingmans Dome road and it's one of the most overlooked, yet wonderfully charming spots in the park. Please watch your step though because there's no need to step on a resident gnome, and please - don't wake the fairies, they need their beauty sleep.
5. A Winter Wonderland: Are you seeking a more challenging Clingmans adventure? Prefer to avoid the crowds completely or just looking for some serious serenity? From December 1st until Mach 31st, Clingmans Dome Road is closed to vehicles. The closure doesn't apply to foot traffic or even biking. During the winter months, the closure allows unique opportunities for other types of adventures. The park allows you to hike, walk, run, bike, cross country ski or even snowshoe your way to the highest point in the Smokies when the road is closed for the season.
- Know before you go. Check @SmokiesRoadsNPS for road conditions and www.mountain-forecast.com for weather conditions. Be prepared for temps to be up to 25-30 degrees below the temp at a lower elevation, as well as weather conditions to change unexpectedly.
- Dodge the crowds. It's worth the early trip up just for the beauty, but also for a parking spot. Finding parking mid-day during peak season can be close to impossible, arrive early and you'll be leaving as the crowd is rolling in.
- Always practice Leave No Trace and keep in mind that you are in bear country - be aware.
- Pets must be on a leash and are not allowed on any of the Clingmans area trails or on the paved path to the observation tower. Bicycles may not be on the path as well and the park has determined that the path is too steep to be wheelchair accessible.