Clingmans Dome Sunrise & Hike From Clingmans Dome to Newfound Gap - Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Well, 2017 to this point had been a quite unusual year for us for many reasons. We hadn't hiked nearly as much as in years past, and I needed to get out. So the plan was an early morning start to watch the sunrise from the Great Smoky Mountains highest peak, and then an 8-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.
I had been itching to do a hike, but we've been in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area enough times that we had done most of the hikes that interested me. Still, I had to get out, so I decided a sunrise from the park's highest point and a few miles on the Appalachian Trail would scratch my itch.
Linda surprised me by saying that she would join me on the 8-mile hike and would get up with me at 4:30 a.m. in order to make the sunrise. It's been such a weird year for us and it's hard to believe it has been twelve months since we've been hiking. I guess she was ready to get back in the woods as well.
My plan was to go to the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest mountain in Tennessee, the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, and the third highest mountain in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. I recall going there before (maybe in my youth or maybe more recently), but it is such a popular (crowded) place in the park, we have avoided it the last several years.
We would get there early and watch the sunrise from the observation tower, and then we would hike from the tower on the Appalachian Trail for about eight miles to the Newfound Gap Overlook on Hwy 441, the only place in the National Park where the Appalachian Trail crosses a road. We had been watching the weather and trying to give ourselves the best opportunity for clear skies in the early morning - today was the day. And even then, there was no guarantee that Clingmans Dome wouldn't be covered in fog/mist/clouds, whatever visibility obstructing weather term you prefer.
As planned, we got up at 4:30 a.m., stuffed our backpacks with water, food, and rain gear, and headed out in the truck and the Jeep closer to 5:30 a.m. than the 5:00 a.m. start I was hoping for. We drove in the dark on the curvy Hwy 441 watching out for bears and other critters until we finally reached the Newfound Gap Overlook parking lot. It took about an hour to get there.
Photographers were already at Newfound Gap setting up cameras for the sunrise. We dropped the Jeep off, and then took the Clingmans Dome Road (on the right just north of Newfound Gap) seven miles to the end where there is a large parking area. More photographers were setting up.
Yikes, it was cold up there - only about 50 degrees after being in the 80s and 90s at our RV park all of August. Glad we had our rain jackets.
From the parking lot it is a half-mile, steep hike on a paved path (which the park calls a "trail") to the summit.
And, as you can see from the sign below, the Appalachian Trail is accessible at the tower, as is North Carolina's Mountains-To-Sea Trail. In fact, the 1,175-mile Mountains-To-Sea Trail begins here at Clingmans Dome.
You would think it would be an easy walk, but it's not. With the altitude and the steepness, even in-shape people were huffing and puffing. Heck, we've been walking four to five miles every day for weeks, and that little half-mile jaunt had us out of breath. There are, however, several benches along the way to stop and rest.
The mountain wasn't fogged in and it looked like we were going to have some clear views for our sunrise.
At the top, there is a an observation tower with a long, circular ramp. There were four others there when we arrived just before 7:00 a.m.
It was breezy and even colder up there. I took a few photos of the surroundings before the sun rose above the clouds on the distant horizon.
Fluffy, white clouds had settled into the valleys below.
The sun was getting closer to making an appearance out to our east.
Eventually, the sun peeked above the clouds.
That's Mt LeConte in the distance on the left in the photo below.
Here is Linda silhouetted on the tower.
Trees and mountains to the west were lit by the sun.
Linda looked out to the cloud-filled valley to the southwest.
After taking in the sunrise and having a little early-morning snack, we walked down the ramp ....
to the bottom of the tower and took a photo from there.
I'd say it was around 7:45 a.m. A few feet away was the sign for the Appalachian Trail (AT).
And just in on the trail a little farther was another sign showing distances to the nearest Appalachian Trail shelters - one to the west (left) and one to the east (right). We headed east noting the familiar AT white blazes on the trees.
Now, this section of the AT from Clingmans Dome to Newfound gap is 7.5 to 8.3 miles depending on which source you believe. Signs at one intersection on the trail indicate a total of 7.9 miles, so I'll stick with about 8 miles. Of course, don't forget the half-mile hike from the parking lot to the observation tower.
We started at Clingmans Dome because of the sunrise and the fact that the hike is mostly downhill from there, although there is one fairly significant climb and several short, easier climbs along the way. Overall, it's a total descent from 6,643 feet to 5,046 feet at Newfound Gap Overlook. But, again, don't make the assumption it's all downhill. Some sources call it "strenuous" while others call it "moderate". Let's split the difference and call it "moderately strenuous".
That section of trail itself isn't particularly interesting as there are no waterfalls, streams, or viewpoints and it parallels the Clingmans Dome Road much of the way so you can hear road noise in all but a few spots. It's not a trail section I would normally choose, but the motivating factors were the potential for a nice sunrise on Tennessee's highest mountain, the easy two-vehicle shuttle, and the reasonable, but challenging, day-hike distance. Also, if Linda didn't want to go, I could have taken one vehicle and pretty easily gotten a ride back to the starting point.
The trail traveled through lush, green moss-covered, fern-filled areas like the photo below. This is indicative of much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is considered a temperate rainforest.
So, though it's a trail I probably wouldn't do again, it was pretty, uncrowded, and challenging without being extremely strenuous. And it's shaded and cooler at the higher elevation, so it's a nice option for a summer hike.
With our early morning start, we were hoping for some good wildlife sightings, but except for a few common birds, all we saw was this Red-cheeked Salamander, ....
and a few snails. This one below was the coolest of the snails.
Now, did you know that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is considered the "Salamander Capital of the World"? Apparently, there are 30 species of salamanders and a greater diversity of species than anywhere else in the world (as far as land areas of the same size).
And one of those 30 species is endemic to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where it is found at the highest elevations and doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. That one species just happens to be the Red-cheeked Salamander that we saw. Nice. But if I would have known that at the time, I would have gotten better photos of its cheek patches.
Sun rays in the forest made for one of the few great photo opportunities on the trail.
As did this spider web.
After completing the trail's longest climb (though fairly gradual and not too tough), we eventually came to this intersection where we decided to take a little break.
The sign indicated we had traveled 3.4 miles and had 4.5 to go.
It was also the intersection with the Sugarland Mountain Trail, but that trail is only open to the shelter located a half-mile in. Beyond that, the trail is still closed due to the Chimney Tops fire from last November.
After a brief rest, we were back on the trail. We saw less than ten people as we meandered up and down (mostly down) along the Tennessee/North Carolina border and back and forth to and from the Clingmans Dome Road. At one point on a ridge, we came to these strange ramps.
According to a sign nearby, this was one of twenty sections of beech forest that had been fenced off to keep out wild hogs. And these ramps allowed hikers to easily go up and over the fence which continued on below.
That was the second of the two that we encountered.
We were doing well, but our feet started getting tired and Linda's were hurting with about two miles to go. We took a couple more breaks, and our pace slowed a bit. But I was quite proud of Linda for hanging in there, and she said she was fine except for her feet. Eight miles is a long hike for her anytime, and this one was certainly not an easy stroll, so she did great especially considering this was our first hike of 2017.
We made it to the Newfound Gap Overlook around 1:15 to 1:30 p.m., so it took us somewhere between five and a half and six hours.
When we arrived, the big parking lot was full, and people were driving around looking for spots. Linda took off her hiking boots and rested her feet while I took a couple more photos.
It was a beautiful, low humidity day and the temperatures at that altitude were perfect. But there were too many people, so we drove over to get the truck. Wow, we thought Newfound Gap was crowded. There were cars and people everywhere at Clingmans Dome. People were parking on the shoulders a quarter mile away from the main parking lot. So, I quickly hopped in the truck and vacated my parking space for the lucky person that was next in line, and we headed down the mountain back to the RV park.
All in all, it was a great day with the sunrise at Clingmans Dome, before the crowds arrived, being the highlight.