Last Updated on February 22, 2023 by Maggie McKneely
Doing the Clingmans Dome Hike is one of the must-do activities when visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Read on for all the info you need to do it.
Clingmans Dome Hike
It’s the one thing almost every visitor to the Smokies does, and it’s probably the thing most people are most unprepared for – hiking to the summit of Clingmans Dome. It sounds like the sort of ridiculous thing I’d drag my parents on (remember our accidental 16-mile hike?) until I tell you that the trail is only a half-mile long and it’s paved. So you won’t blame me, or every other tourist, for thinking this was going to be a pleasant jaunt to a scenic vista, or for my mom wearing a dress and flip flops for this supposedly easy and short excursion. I’ve never written an article about a half-mile hike, but I do love saving people from making my mistakes, so here goes a first.
I love spending a full day trekking in the mountains, but sometimes it’s nice to get to a summit with very little effort or time required. Trails like that are actually hard to come by in the Smokies, where most mountain peaks require some amount of work to get to. Despite my family being unprepared for it, the Clingmans Dome hike really is perfect for those who want to say that they summited a Smoky Mountain without killing themselves on a strenuous hike, but is also great for those looking to add a short break into an itinerary filled with longer treks.
In a park full of big (for the East Coast) mountains, Clingmans Dome gets the title of being the biggest. At 6,643 ft, the peak is the highest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the third-highest on the East Coast (behind only Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig, both nearby in North Carolina). But despite that, Clingmans Dome is actually the most accessible of all the peaks in the park – after all, there is a paved road that goes almost to the top. The short hike from the parking lot to the summit is a necessary part of almost any Smokies itinerary.
What’s With the Name “Clingmans Dome?”
But before I tell you about the hike, humor me with a side trip into the story behind how the mountain got its name.
Clingmans Dome was actually originally known as “Smoky Dome” by the original settlers in the area. While Smoky Dome may be more descriptive of the mountain itself, what with its haze-covered peak, the story behind its current name is more entertaining.
Thomas Lanier Clingman was a general in the American Civil War and spent several years exploring the Smoky Mountain region. It was his belief that “Smoky Dome” was the highest mountain in the area. However, Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, disagreed – he argued that a peak known as “Black Dome” was taller. The argument went on until Swiss explorer Arnold Guyot determined that Black Dome (now known as Mt. Mitchell) was, in fact, higher (though only by 39 feet). Guyot renamed Smoky Dome to Clingmans Dome in honor of the argument.
Things to Know About the Clingmans Dome Hike
- Length: 0.5 miles one-way/1-mile roundtrip
- Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 330 ft
- Time Required: 15-30 minutes
- When to Go: The observation tower is open year-round, but the Clingmans Dome Road is closed December-March.
- Weather: Clingmans Dome is about 2,000 ft higher than the valley, so expect it to be at least 20 degrees cooler. Rainstorms, snow, and generally cloudy weather can also be expected on the mountain even if it’s clear down below. Bring appropriate clothes.
- Bathrooms?: Yes, there are bathrooms located in the parking lot.
- Accessibility: Though the trail is paved, dogs are not allowed and it’s too steep to be wheelchair accessible
How to Get to the Clingmans Dome Hike Trailhead:
Highway 441 runs through the park between Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. The halfway point between those two cities is Newfound Gap. At Newfound, there is a turn off for Clingmans Dome (there’s a sign, you can’t miss it). Follow that road for 7 miles until you reach the parking lot. At the edge of the parking lot, you’ll find the trailhead.
About the Clingmans Dome Hike
If you’re an avid hiker, this isn’t exactly a “hike” – the trail is paved and only a half-mile from the parking lot. But if you’re more of a “sit in the car and watch the trees go by” sort of tourist, don’t think that this is a simple walk to a pretty overlook – the trail is only a half-mile, but it’s straight up the whole way, right from the very beginning.
Which, judging from the number of high heels I saw being worn and “hikers” who didn’t look like they had ever hiked anything, I don’t think anyone expects – I certainly didn’t. And the fact that there’s a gift shop at the start of the trail doesn’t help with the misconception that this is a flat walk to a nice vista. (The Visitor’s Center and gift shop is open from 10 AM-4 PM in the summer and 6 PM in the Spring and Fall, in case you want to visit during business hours).
From the Visitor’s Center, the trail begins its steep climb up to the summit. If you feel like you’re a bit out of shape, don’t be deterred – there are several benches along the way in case you need to rest.
In addition to the benches, you can use the scenery to distract you. Along the way, there are meadows filled with bee balm, coneflower, and other wildflowers that only grow here because of the high altitude. You’ll also see some of the last remaining members of Clingmans Dome’s Fraser Fir grove. The tree only grows here in the Southern Appalachians; it once used to be the dominant tree at higher elevations but has been slowly dying off due to the wooly adelgid infestation.
Just before you reach the summit, you’ll cross the Appalachian Trail, that famous 2,200-mile trek that goes from Georgia to Maine. It’s here at Clingmans Dome that the trail reaches its highest elevation. So even if you don’t hike any of the trail itself, you can say you stood on its high point ;).
Just past the Appalachian Trail, the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel – the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower rising above the treetops. Built-in 1959, the concrete ramp and spire look like something from the Space Age. Before its construction, there was a rickety fire tower that people would climb for the views, so the observation tower is a vast improvement.
Climb up the ramp to the top of the tower to finally get what you came for – a stunning 360-degree vista of the Smoky Mountains. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Mitchell, which is almost 70 miles to the east in North Carolina!
But even if it’s not clear, the views are still awesome. After all, these are the “Smoky” mountains – clouds suit them just fine!
Don’t wear flip flops, bring a jacket for the changeable weather, and be prepared for something a little more than just a walk to an overlook, and you’ll have a lovely trip to the Smokies’ highest mountain!
Have you done the short Clingmans Dome hike? Have any questions? Let me know in the comments!
Like it? Pin it!
This looks like a hike that even the kids could do! Adding this to our itinerary for our next trip south!
We went last week with the kids we were in regular sandles does not look challenging but it is if your not an active person. Wear proper shoes, Take water and snacks but the only place to go to the restroom is in the parking lot area. There are no restrooms on the trails. It took a while to get to the top because we took alot of breaks there are benches along the way
Such handy tips here. So good that you can get such amazing views even after such a short walk! And I’ll definitely leave my high heels at home for this one… haha!
I’ve never heard of this hike before, but the views are stunning! I love the smokey mountains so this would be right up my alley. I imagine sunrise would be incredible.
Haha, so true that clouds suit the Smoky Mountains just fine! I would have thought the same thing you did. Half mile? Psshh…no problem, done! But straight up is a different story. I’ll just say this-extra motivation to eat what I wanted to afterwards! Despite living 5 hours from the Smokies I’ve never done this “hike”!
I did this at the end of may.. right after my hear attack in March.. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into .. I did it and I did it in flip ? flops !!!!!!
They need to add more restrooms . We drove thru and people where lined up in the rain waiting in line. So we ended up not stopping. All of people there
This sounds like the perfect hike to take as a test run before you try a tough mountain hike- with the right shoes, of course.
haha, well written and so interesting to see “hikers” with flip-flops. But you are absolutely right, I wouldn’t expect much of a hike either from a 0.5-mile trail, especially when leading from a parking lot to a well-maintained observation point. But it’s goo to know that you shall come at least a little bit prepared to Clingmans Dome to avoid bad surprises.
So I wonder how many things are going to be named Eric Gamble’s XYZ after an argument where I thought I was right but was inevitably was wrong! (If it is every time, then be prepared to see my name everywhere!)
I love the Smoky Mountains and anything along the Appalachian Trail! Clingman’s Dome looks like the perfect place to take in all those amazing views on a beautiful afternoon. I bet it is amazing during the fall months too!
I’m planning on hoooopefully getting over the the Smokies sometime–will definitely be adding this hike to my list! Looks like it can easily be tacked on to a longer/more challenging hike without getting tired out! :]
If we visit the Great Smokey Mountains we would want to try the Clingman’s Dome Hike. It sounds like a hike for our level of skill. I will make sure to prepare to hike straight up. And take real shoes. That view from the tower is definitely worth the hike.
What an amazing hike! The view is outstanding and I would love to see it when I’ll travel in the Smokey Mountains
Perfect tips to plan a very comfortable hike for the entire family and some great pics too.
This looks like a great trail to venture to.
This is a really great guide about the hike with lots of helpful details. Thanks for sharing!
We love to hike so would definitely enjoy this. A 330 foot elevation gain over just .5 mile is definitely not something to scoff at, coming from hiking in the Rockies, we know! Nice that it is paved to make it that much more accessible to those wishing to go.
Clingmans Dome Hike is my kind of thing to do because I prefer mild hikes. Interesting how the peak got its name. The concrete ramp and spire indeed looks quirky, interesting pictures of them. Thanks for those useful tips on what to wear and carry.
I like hiking but I also like paved trails sometimes, so I guess Clingmans Dome Hike would be perfect for me. Moreover, we haven’t been to this part of the USA, so if and when we get to travel to the US again, I’d certainly like to go to the Great Smokey Mountain.
I agree, it’s more to a nature walk on a paved path. I heard about Clingmans Dome when we went there last summer, but we didn’t stop because it’s not pet friendly. It’s good to learn about it from you though.
I would have never thought to bring a jacket! The hike does sound right up my alley though … short with paved pathway! The views from summit of Clingman’s Dome are just gorgeous. We really need to visit the US and explore a few of the national parks.
This looks amazing! I am in Florida and I would love to climb some mountains right now.
I did this hike about 40 years ago! It was rough but beautiful! Love reading this! ?
Made the hike in May 2021! At 250 lbs U 4hought I was going to die!!…but there are resting places & even ricks you can lean against!!
Take a bottle of water if you are even slightly out of shape! If you aren’t used to higher altitudes you will feel breathless near the top, take an inhaler if you get short of breath on exertion!
People are very encouraging if you are slow or wondering about making it to the top!! Be prepared for hot sun & snow on the hike!
I wish I had read this blog couple of weeks back. Because that was when I planned a trip to the clingmans dome for our group that had a 2 year old baby and adults who for the lack of better word were inexperienced hikers. It was windy and the parking lot was cold but that does not prepare you for the wind and cold we faced atop the observation tower. Only 3 of us made to the top out of 7 but were blessed with stunning views of the sunset. And yes the thrill of hiking 10m of the Appalachian trail was great but thanks for letting me know that I also hiked the highest point of the trail. Now thats something special.