Our second full day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated to climbing Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak at 6,643 feet. Named after Thomas Lanier Clingman, a U.S. senator, member of congress, and Confederate brigadier general, it is not only the highest point in Tennessee but also the highest point along the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, one of the longest continuous footpaths in the world.
Stretching like a narrow ribbon through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is at its most remote and difficult in this area of the Smokies, where hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps workers cut rock, felled trees, and built shelters in the 1930s.
The drive along the 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road was, in a word, spectacular. The brilliant fall colors were on full display, prompting us to stop at several places to take in the view.
We also stopped at the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, named after the mother of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated $5 million of the $12 million required to purchase most of the park’s 520,000 acres. On September 2, 1940, surrounded by several thousand spectators, president Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated “the mountains, streams, and forests” of Great Smokey Mountains National Park “to the service of the American people” at this very site. Never before had a national park been created by buying private lands. In the 1920s and 30s, the states of North Carolina and Tennessee purchased more than 6,000 tracts of land and donated them to the federal government for the park.
The road ends at a parking area about a half-mile from the summit, adjacent to a small visitor information center, park store, and almost unbearable toilet facilities.
A short, steep, paved trail leads to a 45-foot observation tower at the top of the mountain. Completed in 1959, the concrete tower includes a circular observation platform at the end of a 375-foot-long spiral ramp. It is, without question, one of the ugliest structures we’ve ever seen in a national park. The so-called “modern” structure is a stark departure from other “rustic” elements that are common throughout the park. Upon arrival, we found a platform packed with people taking selfies against the 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding terrain.
Our visit to “Old Smoky” made us aware of the plight of the Fraser firs that grow at these high elevations. During the past 30 years, more than 70 percent of the mature firs in the Smokies have been killed by the balsam woolly adelgid, a non-native insect introduced from Europe. About a dozen years ago, a second invasive species, the hemlock woolly adelgid (an Asian cousin of the balsam woolly adelgid) was discovered in the park’s hemlock forests. Today, 80 percent of the hemlocks have died in some areas because of the insect.
The only thing that is more devastating than these invasive insects: air pollution.
We eventually made our way back to base camp for a delightful Date Night, complete with Eisenhower-style steak and grilled veggies, followed by another crackling campfire under starlit skies.
We learned a few lessons worth sharing:
- Whilst trekking up a mountain, remember: slow and steady wins the race. In due time, we passed all those robust young people who had passed us earlier on their way to the top as they had stopped to catch their breath.
- That scene at the end of The Sound of Music, the one showing the Von Trapps traversing the Alps, the captain leading the way with Gretl on his shoulders–it’s pure Hollywood fiction. In reality, anyone who tries to carry a child up a mountain is a fool.
- The sign that advises against ascending the mountain in a wheelchair is there for a reason. You may, with great effort, get a wheelchair up the mountain, but the trip back down will surely be much faster than you can imagine.