Thursday – another hearty breakfast at the Riverstone Restaurant followed by another sightseeing expedition – a trip to Clingmans Dome! Our luck with the weather was about to run out – showers were in the forecast for Friday!
At 6,643 feet in elevation, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and the third highest east of the Mississippi and only 355 feet higher than our beloved Mt. Washington (6,288 ft) in New Hampshire. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. On the summit of Clingmans Dome is an observation tower allowing a 360° view of the Smokies and beyond. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Driving to Clingmans was totally awesome (I’m glad I wasn’t driving though) – twisty, turny roads, hairpin turns (egads!), spectacular views, colorful blooming wildflowers, and spooky tunnels through the mountains. Oh, my, at times it was a little bit hairy – of course you have to understand that’s coming from someone who doesn’t like heights. I especially don’t like looking out the window at a steep downward slope with no guard rail. But I do have to say it was so worth it! Did I already say totally awesome?
Higher and higher we went – it was kind of fun watching the elevation rise on the GPS! Not at the summit but at 5046 feet we pulled into a parking lot at the Rockefeller Memorial overlooking Newfound Gap (we call them “notches” in New England) which is where the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina crosses.
The Rockefeller Memorial honors a $5 million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation to help complete land acquisitions to bring about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wow, what breathtaking views and we haven’t even reached the summit yet!
After hanging out here for a bit, it was time to continue to the summit, another 7 miles to go. More twists and turns as you can see by the route on the GPS! And more spectacular scenery!
Finally we reached the parking lot for the summit. That was the good news…the bad news was that it was a 1/2 mile walk to the observation tower. I bet you’re saying to yourself that doesn’t sound so bad, why is she whining about that? Well, the 1/2 mile walk has an ascent of 330 feet which meant that it was steep as in very steep! Rob kept telling me that we had been there in 2000 but I’ll be darned I didn’t remember it, maybe I developed amnesia about the steep climb. Of course back then, I was 14 years younger and probably in much better shape than I am today (and so was he).
After visiting the visitor center/gift shop, we started up the paved road which leads to the observation tower. Yes, indeedy it was definitely steep! That combined with the thin air at the higher altitude made it really tough but I didn’t feel too bad – there were lots of people, even young ones stopping every few minutes. Remember that kid’s story about the little engine climbing the hill, saying “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” huffin’ and puffin’ all the way? And then on the way down said “I knew I could, I knew I could”. Well, on this particular day, I was just like that little engine!
Of course, the people on their way down in total sympathy would say, “just a little bit further” or “not too far now, you’re almost there”. I have to admit at the time, I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about – it seemed like there was no end in sight and we would never get there. Longest half mile I’ve ever walked! But lo and behold it did finally end – there it was – the observation tower looming high in the sky (and once I saw it I remembered we had in fact been there before). We were finally there! Whew thank goodness! And you’re probably asking if I thought it was worth the climb? Heck yes, the views were absolutely spectacular!
A little about the observation tower – according to Wikipedia, “Built in 1959, the 45-foot concrete observation tower features a circular observation platform accessed by a spiral ramp. The ramp is 375 feet in length, and rises at a 12 percent grade, in synch with the Clingmans Dome Trail. The platform, 28 feet in diameter, allows spectators a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding terrain.Cantilevered signs point out the various peaks, ridges, cities, and other features visible in the distance. Depending on the haze, visibility ranges from 20 miles (32 km) on hazy days to 100 miles (160 km) on very clear days.” At the bottom of the ramp, we struck up a conversation with a park ranger who was telling us that the original observation tower used to be a wooden structure. Don’t think I would have wanted to climb that! Not sure how far we could see but it was pretty far!
After soaking up the magnificent views in every direction, we finally decided it was time to head back down. At least the walk down would be a little easier and a little faster than the walk up. About halfway down, there was a group of people standing by the edge of the road pointing and aiming their cameras towards some trees and shrubs about 50 feet from the road – yep, it was another bear. Darn by the time we arrived it was pretty well hidden so we didn’t get a good look at it.
As we got closer to the bottom of the road, we saw three people heading up, an older couple and a young man. The young man was pushing an empty wheel chair and I could hear her say “it’s okay I can walk!” Huh? If you need a wheelchair, did she really think she could walk up the hill? And did he really think he could push the wheelchair up this very steep hill? Even if he could, what about the trip down? It would be pretty hard to control a wheel chair on such a steep descent! We had very disturbing visions of an out of control wheelchair flying off the edge of the mountain! Hopefully they decided to turn around and just enjoy the view from the parking lot.
By the way, in a lot of the pictures you see many bare trees. The Eastern Hemlock Trees, the most common and largest trees in the Smokies and often called the Redwoods of the East, can grow more than 150 feet tall on trunks measuring six feet in diameter. Some hemlocks in the park are over 500 years old. These trees as well as the Fraser Firs are under attack by a non-native insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid which “feeds on the sap at the base of hemlock needles, disrupting nutrient flow and causing the needles to change from deep green to a grayish green, then fall off. Without needles the tree starves to death, usually within three to five years of the initial attack.” The National Park is currently utilizing three different treatments in an attempt to kill the adelgid. So sad to see all these dead trees throughout the park.
Finally it was time to retrace our drive and head back to the hacienda. On the way back, we stopped at a parking area near where the original Indian Gap Road used to be and is now part of the Appalachian Trail. This road once was the major north-south road through the Smokies for Indians, explorers, farmers with livestock, and families. In the 1830’s it was widened and became a toll road with charges for pedestrians, riders, vehicles, and animals. Guess they had to pay whatever the toll was because it really was the only way to travel until the Newfound Gap Road opened in the 1930’s. Lots of wildflowers and blooming trees here.
Speaking of wildflowers, after seeing fields of brightly colored, beautiful dandelions (yes, in this instance, they actually were beautiful), I began to ponder the difference between a weed and a wildflower. Is the only difference dependent on where the plant grows – if it is in the middle of your lush, green, over fertilized, nicely mowed lawn and someplace where it is not wanted, then is it a weed? But if it grows in a field or by the side of the road where nobody cares then is it a wildflower? When we had our house, I would constantly be pulling out those gosh darned dandelions but now that I don’t have a house or a yard, a carpet of bright, yellow dandelions is really quite lovely! I found this article which gave an interesting perspective on wildflowers versus weeds.
Finally we arrived back at the
resort, er, campground where we spent some time sitting by the river under the gazebo. What a fantastic day!
Now we had planned on staying two more days (leaving on the 11th) but with the lousy weather forecast for the next few days, we really didn’t want to move to the other site only to sit in the rain. So we stopped by the office to see if we left early, could we get a credit for those two nights, thinking that we might want to come back in the fall. Not a problem we were told.
So that night, we prepared for our departure. We’ll tell you about our next stop in our next post.
Here are more photos from our day….