NOTE: We are not advocating mass travel during this time, but we do want to continue to support the incredible businesses and destinations that make North Carolina so amazing. In the meantime, we encourage you to virtually travel through our articles and plan your visits for when it is safe to do get out there. Finally, while we do work hard to keep our posts updated, some activities and places may not be accessible at this time.

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower: A Long Drive and Short Walk to Epic Views

Last Updated on September 15, 2020

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Clingmans Dome is a mountain that hugs the North Carolina-Tennessee border and part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its observation tower—the focus of this post—sits on the North Carolina side, offers bucket list-worthy views, 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…if you’re lucky. Thanks to high elevation and temperature changes, you might not enjoy a clear look from the top but it’s a nice, short 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.

Clingmans Dome isn’t too far of a drive from these amazing and unique places to stay near Asheville!

This post is part of our series on all the awesome places to visit in Western North Carolina and obviously a part of our NC Bucket List Book.

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower: Things to Know

Background

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.

When Is Clingmans Dome Open?

The observation tower is open year-round but Clingmans Dome Road that leads to it is open from April to November, closing from December 1 to March 31.

Intermittent weather conditions can also force the road to close, and Smokies Road Info on Twitter will provide updates as soon as they come.

Directions

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower North Carolina Image

By Car

The seven-mile-long Clingmans Dome Road is 75 miles from Asheville, 25 miles from Cherokee, and 23 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It’s reachable 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.

Since it’s not too far, we included it in our guide to day trips from Asheville.

By Hiking

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.

Arrive Early

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.

Temperature Changes

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.

Reaching the Top

Clingmans Dome Hike Image

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.

The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Ramp North Carolina Image
The Ramp.

The 45-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.

Epic Views if You’re Lucky

Blue Ridge Mountains view from Clingmans Dome Image

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 our 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 one 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.

Honestly, we’re grateful to have visited on a fairly clear day and hope you’ll have the same fortune when you make it out there.

Things to Do Nearby

We’ve mentioned its proximity to places nearby in Western North Carolina and here are a few we’ve enjoyed.

Cherokee

Even if you’re not staying in Cherokee, spend some time there and learn about Native American heritage at the Oconaluftee Indian Village or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls Cherokee NC Smoky Mountains Image

Mingo Falls is also in Cherokee and 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.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center (Elk Crossing)

Elk in North Carolina Smoky Mountains Oconaluftee Visitor Center Image

While driving to Clingmans Dome, we had no idea that we’d run into elk crossing US-441 near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. And if you want to do the same, the best time to see them is one to two hours after sunrise (before the sun gets too high) and one to two hours before sunset.

Note: Keep your distance from the elk if you do see them, as these animals can be dangerous if they feel threatened.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

And right near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway. 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.

While we’re sad to end drives on the Parkway, the elk near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center makes this one of our favorite places to stop!

Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!

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? If you’ve never been before, let us know what’s holding you back. There’s no shame and we’re happy to help convince you that this place is absolutely worth a trip.

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