Great Smoky Mountain Views from Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome
On a recent stop through Gatlinburg, TN, my son and I spent a morning at the beautiful scenic overlooks of Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was well worth the journey!
Gatlinburg sits at the foot of the park entrance, making it an easy jaunt from our hotel. Unlike most national parks, this park does not have an entrance fee. Just inside the park, we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to obtain maps and information from the friendly staff. The Center also has a small museum, a short film, an excellent book store, and is the starting point for several hiking trails. Since we had only a couple hours to spend at the park, our objective was to find the best scenic views we could reach by car. Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome were just the right fit.
From the Visitor Center, we headed up the 13-mile road to Newfound Gap. The views from the car were sometimes shrouded in white mist and at other times opened up to beautiful, blue skies over lush evergreen trees. Though I wanted to stare in awe at the scenery, I had to focus on the sharply winding road that at one point, made a complete 360 degree loop. I had the GPS mounted on my dashboard, making it a little easier to see the degree of curvature ahead and adjusted my speed accordingly. There are numerous scenic overlooks and pullout parking lots along the way, should you wish to stop.
At last we reached Newfound Gap and stepped out to the scenic overlook, which straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina border. There's ample parking, restrooms, and an intersection with the Appalachian Trail.
Newfound Gap rises 5,046 feet above sea level and provides fabulous views of the mountains and wildflowers. If you are unable to hike through the Smokies on foot, this is an excellent place to view the scenery by car.
From Newfound Gap, we drove another 7 winding miles up Clingmans Dome Road to climb the Clingmans Dome trail and up to the panoramic overlook. The Dome is the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains rising 6,643 feet above sea level.
When we arrived at around noon, the parking lot was nearly full. It's advised to arrive earlier in the morning when crowds are lighter. Fortunately, there are people coming and going all day so you can wait for a spot to open up if there are none when you arrive. At the base of the trail is a Visitor Center with restrooms, trail maps, books, souvenirs, and bottles of water, which you will need for the hike. You can also get your National Parks Passport stamp here for the park.
The Clingmans Dome Trail is a steep, half-mile footpath that leads up to the observation deck. The air is thin, making the journey seem even more arduous than it would be at lower altitudes. However, the high elevation also brings a pleasant chill as a break from the sweltering, summer heat on the ground below. There are many benches along the trail that are used by young and elderly alike.
That day, a dense fog had settled onto the trail, making it feel as if we were walking in a cloud. The eerie whiteness contrasted with the colorful sprays of yellow, red and orange wildflowers nestled under the lush, green spruce and fir trees.
Bee balm, goldenrod, coneflower and yarrow were still in bloom, even in late summer, because of the cooler mountain temperatures delay the blooming season compared to that at lower elevations.
Our frequent stops to photograph the flowers allowed us to catch our breath, and watch butterflies and bees dance from bud to bud. We also saw the point where the Appalachian Trail intersects the Clingmans Dome trail.
When we finally reached the top, we hiked up the ramp to the concrete, circular observation tower, which provides a 360 degree view of the mountains over the tops of the tall fir and spruce trees, that would otherwise block the view at ground level.
The deck was crowded with happy faces, expressing their pleasure of both successfully reaching the top and seeing the spectacular views below. We patiently waited to circle the perimeter of the observation deck, as families took selfies and portraits with beautiful landscape behind them from north, south, east and west. Though I could have stayed for hours absorbing the scenery, it was time to head back down the steep hill and go home.
A few tips. Although the trail is paved, it rises 330 feet in just half a mile rendering it inaccessible to those not suited for steep climbs. If you're traveling with little ones, be prepared to carry them if they can't make the walk. And if they're in a stroller, be sure you have the strength to push them uphill before you attempt the hike. Going down the steep hill, either carry your child, or strap the stroller to your wrist should you lose your grip on the handles. Be sure to check the website for trail and road closure before you head to the park. The Clingmans Dome road is closed from December 1 through March 31, but the observation deck is open year-round.
If you're in the area, particularly if you are visiting Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, be sure to add Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome to your list. The park offers numerous trails and overlooks and that can be explored on foot or by automobile.
Here's more on Clingmans Dome.