Clingmans Dome is one of the most popular places in the Smoky Mountains to visit for those who live for spectacular mountain views and challenging walks. Many visitors stop at Newfound Gap for a bit of history to go along with the wonderful photos that can be taken here, but the grandest views--and even a bit more history--can be found by taking the road up to Clingmans Dome, which is located just past Newfound Gap
One of the highlights of Clingmans Dome is how accessible it is to the public. Many of the other mountain peaks in the Smokies are only reached by able-bodied hikers, but here you can get almost to the highest point without getting out of your car. Clingmans Dome Road is an 8 mile road where you can find excellent views and several different trailheads--one of which is the Spruce-Fir Self-guiding Nature Trail. Once you reach the end of the road, you are now almost at the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and the entire Appalachian Trail some 6,643 feet above sea level. Here, is a large parking area that leads to a half-mile paved path up to a spiral observation tower. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s only a half-mile; it’s a very tough walk even for seasoned hikers. Keep in mind in high elevations the air is thin, and the path up to the tower is very steep, but rest assured, there are several benches on which you can take a break and catch your breath.
As you are laboring your way up this path, there are things that you can see that may take your mind off the walk itself. The balsam wooly adelgid insect has been causing havoc on the Fraser fir trees in the area, and this is clearly evident from the parking lot and path. Many of these trees are being treated, and thankfully, many young firs are sprouting up, despite the onslaught of the dreaded adelgids. Just before you reach the top, you will come across the path of the famous Appalachian Trail, which runs between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine--a length of about 2,200 miles.
Due to the dangerous snow and ice conditions that are common in high elevations, Clingmans Dome road is closed in the winter; normally, the dates are from December 1 to March 31, but can change based on conditions of the road. Even though the road is closed, winter enthusiasts may park at the base and hike up the road; some have been known to sled, ski, and even enjoy everyone’s favorite winter activity, snowball fights. It is always advisable to research road conditions before deciding to venture out in this area, especially during the winter, where winds and snow can result in blinding white-out conditions causing the road to be closed instantly.
Clingmans Dome Tower was built in 1959, as this is what you can see at the top of the paved trail. The spiral ramp is 375 feet long and rises at the same steep grade as the walkway. There is a platform at the top that is 28 feet in diameter allowing visitors to see 360 degree views of a seemingly endless display of mountains and Smoky Mountain wilderness. Unfortunately, if it’s an overcast day, there won’t be a whole lot to see, but the display exhibits offer the sightseer a detailed description of what can be seen with these amazing views. On a clear day, one should be able to see as far as 100 miles in the distance spanning seven different states. Remember: The weather in the mountains, especially the Smoky Mountains, can be quite fickle and change on a dime; so one minute the weather can be perfect, and the next can be overcome with haze. It would be prudent to take a look at the forecast for the Mountains so you can take the proper precautions in taking warmer clothes, since a T-shirt and shorts may not suffice at the third highest peak in the state of Tennessee no matter what the season. The tower is a great place for nature lovers to take in the views at sunrise or sunset. Even for those who aren’t easily awed by nature, this is one of the more truly speechless moments that should be witnessed. Photographers make their way here at this time to document the various shades of red and orange that are given off prior to dusk or dawn as the sun emerges and disappears from the horizon. Just like the eclipse, but happening much more often, this is one of those moments that should be at least once in a person’s lifetime--a definite bucket list item.
This tower would not have existed if it were not for the efforts of The National Park Service to upgrade its facilities due to the massive influx of tourists finding out about the beauty of the Park. This was all part of their “Mission 66” program during the post-World War II baby-boom era that featured the building of nine towers in Parks throughout the United States. The tower was designed by the architectural firm of Bebb and Olsen. The design was seen as more modern than previous structures in the Park that had been built, with some to complain that the new design was a little too modern, drawing inspiration from “urban” elements of culture. This was despite the fact that two other structures had been built with similarities to this design: Look Rock Tower on the Foothills Parkway and Shark Valley tower Everglades National Park. Hubert Bebb’s original design featured a stone tower with a fire observation cab, which ended up being rejected, because the fire observation cab wasn’t that useful for the purposes of detecting fire. There was pushback from the Park Director, Conrad Wirth, who argued for a spiral staircase instead of a ramp. After being convinced that a ramp was much for useful, the stone tower was scrapped in favor of a single central support column made of concrete. Finally, construction began on Clingmans Dome in December 1958. Unfortunately, weather pushed back the completion of the tower, but the firm of W.C. Norris completed the project at a cost of $57,000 on October 23, 1959. It was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, gaining this designation in 2012.
If the Bebb name sounds familiar to some, especially local residents, it should. Hubert Bebb is the brother of the original owner of the Buckhorn Inn, Douglas Bebb. For this reason Hubert Bebb at times is overlooked for his accomplishments, but he shouldn’t. His designs and buildings helped the area look the way it does today. He studied under one of the most famous American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, and worked on designs for the 1933 World’s Fair early in his life. Later, he would help design what came to be the most recognizable feature of the Knoxville skyline, the Sunsphere.
Before the Europeans settled in the area, the Cherokee’s name for Clingman’s Dome was Kuwa’hi, or “mulberry place”. The mountain was believed to be home of the White Bear, the great chief, and home to their councilhouses. Near Clingmans Dome, the Cherokee believed there was an enchanted lake, called “Gall Place”, that could heal wounded bears. A man named James Mooney was a famous ethnographer who helped us learn more about the Cherokee, living with them for several years and learning about their customs and rituals, especially regarding those living near Clingmans Dome.
Once the new settlers arrived here, they named the mountain, Smoky Dome--an obvious reference to the haze that settles over the area and what gave the Smoky Mountains its name. The most famous person who made an important impact on the Tennessee mountains is Arnold Guyot. He was a Swiss geographer who named many of the peaks in which he measured. His contributions were rewarded by the U.S. Geological Survey with the naming of Tennessee’s second highest mountain, Mount Guyot. The naming of Clingmans Dome is after North Carolina Senator and former Civil War general Thomas Lanier Clingman; it also has an interesting story behind the naming. Clingman was involved in an academically friendly argument with Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, over whether Black Dome--a peak in North Carolina--or Clingmans Dome was higher. Mitchell thought that Black Dome was higher; Clingman asserted that Smoky Dome was higher. Guyot settled the argument by concluding that Black Dome was just 39 feet higher. He then named the mountain, Black Dome, for Mitchell, while giving Clingman his consolation prize--a pretty good one at that--by naming Smoky Dome for him.
Just recently, Clingmans Dome closed for what will be a major rehabilitation project. Last summer the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Express, and National Geographic sponsored a grant competition where people voted for a project in which nine out of 20 selected would win a total of $250,000 each. Well, the people voted and through their support, Clingmans Dome became one of the recipients of the quarter million dollar prize. The money is now being used to fund repairs that have been long overdue to the Clingmans Dome tower.
Many visitors understandably take for granted some of the maintenance work that is done in the National Park on a daily basis. There is constant need for money used for the repairs and upkeep of important facilities throughout the Smoky Mountains. The Clingmans Dome tower is just one example of such projects that need attention. Over the years, it’s been battling the harsh elements brought forth by Mother Nature; whether it’s wind, rain, snow or ice, the mountain weather has taken its toll on the structure that is now nearing 60 years old. The problems don’t just begin at the tower, though, they actually start on the walkway. Rust has been accumulating on the hand rails, and some steel has been exposed on some areas of the walkway. It is important to note that while the structure is still deemed safe, there are enough areas of concern to merit repairs. The foundation has been settling up to four inches in spots, which results in uneven force on the tower. This would set the stage for major problems in the future if this issue isn’t addressed shortly. Some of the more minor issues include various cosmetic work done to the structure; each of these problems like many old buildings will result in added financial burden on the National Park Service and cause the deterioration of the beloved Clingmans Dome tower which thousands of tourists enjoy visiting every year. Such enjoyment was experienced here as part of the solar eclipse that took place here on August 21. Some 1,600 people were witness to this spectacular event that was held at Clingmans Dome. The admission price was $30 and the tickets were swiftly sold to these people in a matter of 5 minutes, and by all accounts, none of them were left disappointed by what they witnessed.
Clingmans Dome has been the setting for many historical events; many of which happen on a daily basis with the rising and setting of the sun. It is a beautiful place that is protected by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee used to call this place home, and while no person can reside within these borders anymore, it is still a place that resonates in people’s hearts as home. John Muir--the famous Scottish-American naturalist, author, and advocate for the preservation of the American wilderness--would certainly be proud of the efforts of the people to maintain the pristine beauty of mountains, and certainly the Park employees that work hard every day to ensure the safety of various aspects of the Park, and this is designed to help the visitor continue to make trips to the mountains. Clingmans Dome is definitely one of the places a person needs to plan to visit as part of his and her vacation to the Smoky Mountains, if they can possibly wait for 2018 when the rehabilitation project of the Clingmans Dome tower is completed.