Often engulfed in the famous blue smoke that gives the Great Smoky Mountains its name, Clingmans Dome offers visitors a chance to get above the tree line. Sitting atop the highest mountain in the Smokies, this spectacular 360-degree viewpoint is the highlight of any trip to the National Park.
They say, on a crystal-clear day you can see up to 100 miles. Though we’ve been about a half-dozen times, we’ve never been that lucky. However, on a good day, 20 miles of spectacular panoramic views await you.
Don’t worry, we’ve got a few tips for improving your chances of a clear day. Plus, we’ll answer some of the most asked questions about visiting this remarkable site.
Straddling the North Carolina – Tennessee border, Clingmans Dome is the central point of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located roughly an equal distance from Gatlinburg, TN (24 miles) and Cherokee, NC (25 miles), it’s easy to access.
The mountain that is Clingmans Dome, is the highest peak in Tennessee, at 6,643 feet. It’s the third highest peak in the U.S., east of the Mississippi. The highest mountain being Mt. Mitchell only a few hours away in North Carolina.
Though the road crisscrosses over the state border, the actual observation tower sits in North Carolina.
Road to Clingmans Dome
U.S. 441 is the main thoroughfare through the Great Smoky Mountains, connecting Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. About half-way between the two cities is the turnoff for Clingmans Dome.
You’ll find several great viewpoints on US 441 and along the seven-mile road to Clingmans Dome. One of our favorites is that the Newfoundland Gap rest area.
Also keep an eye out for black bears. Every time we have been in this area, we have seen them. We spotted this beautiful mama bear encouraging her cubs to climb at one of the pull offs along Clingmans Dome Road. It caused quite the traffic jam as everyone tried to get a safe peek.
It’s worth noting, though Clingmans Dome is open year-round, the road to the observation tower closes between early December through late March, and during inclement weather.
Visibility at Clingmans Dome
Our very first visit to Clingmans Dome was around five years ago. Starting our ascent from the city of Cherokee, the weather seemed in our favor.
As we made the drive up Clingmans Dome Road, the sky became dark. By the time we hit the parking lot, a damp thick fog covered everything.
Since we were already there, we made the 1/2-mile trek up to the viewing platform. However, no surprise, we couldn’t see a thing.
For a mountain peak, the area has a unique ecosystem. Similar to a rain forest, Clingmans Dome receives an average of 85 inches of rain a year.
Since our first trip, we learned about the national park’s web camera at Clingmans Dome. Even though weather in the mountains can change quickly, coupling it with the weather forecast gives a pretty good idea of what visibility to expect at the top of the mountain.
Even if you have good weather, you’re likely to still find visibility limited by a white haze of air pollution.
Also, be prepared for cooler weather, even in summer you may need a jacket.
Visiting The Observation Tower
The parking lot at the base of Clingmans Dome fills up quickly in summer and fall. You may need to get there early or be patient when waiting for parking.
The most direct route to the observation platform is a very steep, but 1/2-mile trek which takes around 30 minutes one way. Though paved, the trail and platform, are not recommended for wheelchairs due to the steep grade.
If you are up for a longer, but more natural hike to the top, opt for the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. It also starts from the parking lot, but heads down into the forest. Follow it north where it meets with the Appalachian Trail. From there, follow of the mountain ridge northeast to the observation tower. Keep a lookout for the signed turnoff, as the Appalachian Trail comes close, but doesn’t actually go to the tower.
From the top of the observation platform, useful signage provides the names of the mountain peaks laid out in front of you.
Most Asked Questions
Why Are There So Many Dead Trees?
It’s hard to miss all the dead trees surrounding the observation tower. At one time, Fraser Firs were the dominant tree at this elevation. Inadvertently introduced by trees imported from Europe, the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) injects a poison into the trees. This poison blocks the Fraser Firs’ ability to absorb nutrients, and therefore the tree starves to death.
How Much Does Clingmans Dome Cost to Visit?
Like most areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome is free. However, there are donation boxes available if you’d like to support the park service.
This is probably why the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the country. It is not only gorgeous, and easy to access, it also makes a really affordable destination.
Can Dogs Hike Clingmans Dome?
No. Dogs are not allowed on the Clingmans Dome hiking trail. Unfortunately, there are very few trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that does allow dogs.
Does Clingmans Dome Close at Night?
It doesn’t. Actually, lots of folks visit the observation tower for star gazing. Plus, it’s a great spot for sunrise and sunset since you get 360-degree views.
Other than Cades Cove, we’re not aware of any other areas of the Great Smoky Mountains that does close at night (outside of seasonal road closures).
Where to Stay for Clingmans Dome?
Both Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC make great locations for visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All four of these hotels are in great locations, with clean comfortable rooms, and have free onsite parking.
Gatlinburg Hotel Suggestions
Cherokee Hotel Suggestions
What are the Best Books on The Smoky Mountains?
If you are spending a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, or plan on doing a few return trips, it’s worth picking up a book on the area.
- Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Hike, Camp, Scenic Drives – Makes a great travel guide on the area
- Falcon Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park – If you plan on doing lots of hiking, this book is a must.
- The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – We love books like this. It tells the history of the park through historical images.
Planning a trip to The Great Smoky Mountains? Bookmark or pin this guide so you can find us later. Plus, check out our other guides on the area.
- 8 Reasons You Must Visit Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains
- Cades Cove Wildlife Safari In The Great Smoky Mountains
- Tubing & Hiking Deep Creek – Bryson City, NC
- Mingo Falls – Near Cherokee, NC
What’s your favorite spot in The Great Smoky Mountains?