Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on November 22, 2023.
The 54-foot tall Clingmans Dome Observation Tower hugs the North Carolina-Tennessee border and is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This bucket list-worthy site offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and rightfully attracts hordes of visitors every year.
People who love the Blue Ridge Mountains (including us) flock here for the views, and boy do they live up to the hype. Thanks to high elevation and temperature changes, you might not enjoy a clear look from the top but it’s a nice, short (and steep) walk to get there.
And after the long drive through the Smokies that it takes to arrive, you’ll want to get out and stretch your legs for a bit.
So follow along with us as we take you through Clingmans Dome’s backstory, how you can reach it, and everything else you need to know in order to enjoy this awesome spot.
- Where is Clingmans Dome Observation Tower?
- Clingmans Dome History
- Tips for Visiting
- How to Reach Clingmans Dome Observation Tower (Hike Info)
- Nearby Attractions
You can skip ahead to any section or continue reading about the history of Clingmans Dome Observation Tower.
Where is Clingmans Dome Observation Tower?
- 26 miles from Cherokee (50 minutes)
- 36 miles from Bryson City (1 hour)
- 41 miles from Maggie Valley (1 hour 10 minutes)
- 67 miles from Fontana Dam (1 hour 30 minutes)
- 75 miles from Asheville (1 hour 50 minutes)
- 23 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee (1 hour)
Read More: Day Trips from Asheville
You can reach the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower via Newfound Gap Road (US 441), also known as the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway. That’s because it cuts through the center of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hikers can reach the observation tower throughout the year, via the Appalachian Trail, Forney Ridge Trail, and the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). The MST’s western terminus is, in fact, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower.
You can visually travel to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower via our Western North Carolina Map.
Clingmans Dome History
The Cherokee know Clingmans Dome as “Kuwahi” (Mulberry Place) and view it as sacred ground. It’s the highest point in the Smokies and along the Appalachian Trail. At 6,643 feet, the mountain stands tall as the third-highest point in Eastern North America.
The “Clingmans” is attributed to the Civil War general who claimed it was actually the highest, even though a UNC professor named Elisha Mitchell disagreed. The US Geological Survey and visitors to Mount Mitchell State Park (6,684 feet) concur with the professor.
Read More: The NC Bucket List
History of the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
The 54-foot circular observation tower was built in 1959 as part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66. A 375-foot spiral ramp leads up to it at a 12 percent grade, which is in line with the path that starts from the parking lot.
Tips for Visiting
Here are a few more tips to help you visit Clingmans Dome Observation Tower with as few problems as possible!
When is the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Open?
Intermittent weather conditions can also force the road to close, and Smokies Road Info on Twitter will provide updates as soon as they come.
Read More: Things to Do in Bryson City
Leave No Trace Reminder
Before continuing, we want to remind you that it’s important to leave all Blue Ridge Parkway stops as you found them. Pack out what you pack in and leave no trace.
In fact, if you see some trash, give our amazing scenic road and its surroundings a hug by taking it with you.
Since it sits between busy spots like Gatlinburg and Cherokee, arriving early will help you avoid crowds. The observation tower is 28 feet in diameter and can accommodate quite a few people, but quickly fills up, as we found.
We’ve visited as early as 9:00 am and struggled to find a parking spot. On busy fall days, you’ll see cars parked for miles on the side of Clingmans Dome Road.
Hopefully, this convinces you to get up and get moving as early as possible!
One other thing to prepare for is the changing temperature, even during summer. You should at least bring a light coat or layer up for the walk and during your time inside the observation tower. Temps can drop 10-20 degrees there.
Epic views at Clingmans Dome Observation Tower are not always guaranteed, due to air pollution and quickly moving clouds. You can see anywhere from 20 miles to 100 miles away, depending on conditions.
You’ll at least be able to see the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that surrounds the mountain. It only occurs in the Southeast at these heights (above 4,500 feet) and is similar to forests found further north.
During one early morning visit, we reached the top and enjoyed a 360-degree look at far-off mountains on both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides.
During another visit, a massive group of clouds began to form not long after and nearly swept us all away. Okay, that last part was an exaggeration but the clouds did severely limit visibility.
Just keep in mind that you may not find clear views at the top.
How to Reach Clingmans Dome Observation Tower (Hike Info)
From the parking lot, it’s a steadily steep half-mile walk to the top. That’s why the trail is not accessible for wheelchair users. The trail is paved the whole way until you reach the tower’s ramp.
Read More: 100+ Hiking Trails in North Carolina
Ready to Visit Clingmans Dome Observation Tower?
There’s something about Western North Carolina that keeps us coming back to check off spots on our bucket list. If Clingmans Dome isn’t on yours yet, please add it and take some time to head out there.
Hopefully, you can make it there on a nice day, reach the top, and soak in some amazing looks at faraway scenery.
Have you visited the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower before? Were the views as awesome as you hoped?
More Things to Do Nearby
We’ve mentioned its proximity to places nearby in Western North Carolina and here are a few we’ve enjoyed.
Read More: The Best NC Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes
More Clingmans Dome Hikes
The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower isn’t the only hike on this wonderful mountain and here are a few more that you should know about.
- Andrews Bald (1.8 miles one way): The Andrews Bald Trail also begins at the Clingmans Dome parking lot. From the trailhead, you’ll descend sharply before leveling out on a wide ridge. You’ll ascend again and reach the grassy Andrews Bald. It is named after Andres Thompson, a cattle herder who brought livestock here in the 1840s.
- Forney Ridge Trail (5.6 miles one way): Continue past Andrews Bald and hike another 3.8 miles on the Forney Ridge Trail. It will eventually intersect with the Springhouse Branch Trail.
- Spruce Fir Nature Trail (0.4-mile loop): The Spruce Fir Nature Trail is accessible from Clingmans Dome Road (open March through November). You’ll access the trail via a small pull-off on the road, and the trail itself is quick and easy. You’ll see tons of spruce firs either living or struggling to survive the deadly balsam woolly adelgid that ravages firs.
Nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park Attractions
Clingmans Dome sits in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surrounded by more than a few amazing attractions. Here are some on the NC side that you should visit, too.
- Mingus Mill (Mingus Creek Trail, Cherokee, NC): Mingus Mill was the largest grist mill in the Smokies and remains a well-maintained attraction inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can tour the inside of this former mill and learn from the on-site miller as they demonstrate grinding corn into cornmeal.
- Newfound Gap Road Overlooks: While driving toward Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, you’ll notice quite a few pull-offs. On busy days, you’ll see a lot of people taking selfies and family photos. That’s because these are some of the most beautiful scenic overlooks in the Smokies. Do yourself a favor and stop at one (or more) of these and make some photographic memories. You can also just visit, enjoy the scenery, and not take a photo. It’s your call!
- Elk Viewing: While driving to Clingmans Dome from Cherokee or Asheville, you’ll pass the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. If you visit one to two hours after sunrise (before the sun gets too high) and one to two hours before sunset, you’ll see a herd of elk passing through. Note: Keep your distance from the elk if you do see them, as these animals can be dangerous if they feel threatened.
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center (1194 Newfound Gap Rd, Cherokee, NC): If there are no elk present, don’t worry because the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is a wonderful place to visit. Inside, there’s a gift shop, exhibits, and plenty of information to help you navigate Great Smoky Mountains National Park like an expert. Don’t forget about the Mountain Farm Museum and the Oconaluftee River Trail (1.5 miles one way) outside, either!
The rangers are also happy to help you, as they’ve patiently assisted me on a few occasions.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The southern terminus (Milepost 469) of the Blue Ridge Parkway is near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Some sections close during winter but when they open up in spring, we always find excuses to drive on this awesome road.
It stretches 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way up to Western Virginia.
26 miles away (50 minutes by car)
Mingo Falls is also in Cherokee and is perfect for any waterfall lover. Basically, you park at a very nondescript lot and walk up a lengthy set of stairs, and bam, there you are! We found these falls worth every step and shared more about it here.
Read More: The Most Beautiful Waterfalls near Asheville
More Things to Do Nearby (NC Travel Guides)
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in the area beyond Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. We’ve covered them in more detail in these North Carolina travel guides.