panoramic view of clingmans dome

Hiking the Trail to Clingmans Dome

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At 6,643 feet high, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third tallest point in the eastern US.

This short yet steep hike rewards you with a 360-degree view of the surrounding Smoky Mountains.

Once at the top, you’ll immediately realize why this is one of the most popular trails in the park!

Curious to learn more about hiking the trail to Clingmans Dome? Keep reading!

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hike to clingmans dome

Hiking to Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains

Called “Smoky Dome” by early settlers, Clingmans Dome is now one of the most popular viewing points in the park.

They say that on clear days, you can see up to 100 miles in the distance and see 7 different states. But that is not common these days due to air pollution. So expect to see maybe only 20 miles max in the distance.

That being said, it’s still worth the trek and it’s very different than any trail you will hike in the area. It’s paved trail leads to a spiral ramp, which guides you up to the observation tower.

Its outer-space-looking observation tower is actually an air quality monitoring station ran by the EPA.

Let’s break it down some more.

Where is Clingmans Dome?

map showing location of Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is about 45 minutes to 1 hour away from both Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC.

Coming from Gatlinburg, you will turn right onto Clingmans Dome Road from Highway 441.

When coming from Cherokee, you will turn left onto Clingmans Dome Road from Highway 441.

It is well–marked so don’t worry about missing it.

Located off Highway 441, Clingmans Dome Road is 7 miles long and has several scenic stops along the way.

Is Clingmans Dome Open?

While Clingmans Dome is technically open year-round, Clingmans Dome Road is closed seasonally from December through March (and when weather permits).

blue mountains

The Trailhead

Clingmans Dome Road dead-ends into a large parking lot. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot.

This is a very popular spot in the park, so expect the parking lot to fill up quickly. I recommend visiting during off-peak times, such as mid-week and early morning.

There are restrooms and bike racks at the trailhead, along with a small visitor center.

The fact that they have a sign saying bicycles are not allowed on the trail is laughable to me. Who in the world would want to ride a bike up a 13% grade? Not me, that’s for sure.

Anyways, even if you don’t hike the trail, the views from the parking lot are still beautiful. It’s a great spot to have breakfast, lunch, or a snack.

Why are there dead trees up here?

If you notice dead trees in this area, it’s because insects are killing them. The balsam woolly adelgid to be exact. They inject the trees with toxins and the trees eventually die.

dead trees in front of mountains

Another way trees get damaged is from acid precipitation. Rain and snow at this point in the park are 5-10x greater in acidity than regular precipitation.

Clingmans Dome Weather

You’ll notice the scenery changes up here.

When visiting in fall, the lower elevations of the park are covered in gorgeous yellow and orange leaves. But at Clingmans Dome, no fall colors up here. The trees remain green as this is considered a spruce-fir forest.

Expect a temperature drop at Clingmans Dome. It’s often 10 to 20 degrees cooler up there than where you came from.

You may notice lots of clouds and haze. Although this limits visibility, it gives the surrounding mountains that “smoky” effect.

Fun Fact: From April through November you can check out the webcam for current weather conditions and air quality!

concrete observation tower at sunset

Trail Stats

  • Trail Type: Out and back
  • Distance: 1-mile round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 332 feet

As far as how long it takes, this is honestly variable depending on how fast you hike and if you like to take a lot of pictures. Plan on about an hour. I spent longer because 1) I’m not the fastest hiker, and 2) I take a ton of pictures.

Clingmans Dome Trail

Although the trail is paved, it’s way too steep to be wheelchair accessible.

Now, this is where I will warn you that this trail is probably more difficult than you expect it to be.

Yes, it’s only half a mile to the top, but this half-mile is quite steep. I knew it would be steep, but I totally didn’t anticipate having to stop several times on the way up.

paved trail with bench

Thank goodness there are benches along the way.

Side Note: Rest breaks are a great time to take pictures!

Near the top of the trail, you will notice where the Appalachian Trail intersects with Clingmans Dome trail.

hiking trail and sign
This is where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Clingmans Dome trail. This is the highest point on the AT.

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

Once near the top of the trail, you’ll see what looks like some sort of space tower with a winding ramp to get to the top.

concrete viewing tower atop a mountain

In the observation tower are signs that tell you which mountains you are looking at in the distance. Of course this all depends on the weather.

To the north are the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, along with famous points such as Mount Le Conte and Balsam Point.

The southern view provides you with Andrews Bald, Fontana Lake, and Snowbird Mountain.

paved trail among mountains and trees

Tips for Hiking the Trail to Clingmans Dome

  • Bring layers! As mentioned earlier, it can be up to 20 degrees cooler here than at lower areas of the park.
  • No hiking boots needed. Since the trail is paved, tennis shoes are just fine! That being said you may want hiking boots solely for warmth.
  • Bring your camera- this is a no-brainer. If using a DLSR or mirrorless camera, use a polarizing filter to make those colors pop!
  • Don’t forget water. Yes it’s only a 1-mile trail but I promise the incline will get your heart rate up & make you thirsty. Better to have it than not!

Once you’ve spent some time at the top soaking up the views, head back down and explore other areas of this beautiful park!

Hope you enjoyed reading this guide to the Clingmans Dome trail. While the trail wasn’t a favorite of mine, it’s definitely worth it & the views are just amazing.

melissa written in cursive

Want to read more about Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Check out these:

Hiking to Laurel Falls

Hiking to Alum Cave Bluffs

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Hiking the Clingmans Dome Trail

clingmans dome observation tower

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