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We had a 500 mile afternoon drive back to the Shennendoah Valley from here. The car gets a photo op.
We climbed Clingmans Dome on Monday, October 27, 1997. It was a day of total surprises.
Clingmans Dome, literally on the Tennesee-North Carolina border, is also at the almost geographic center of Smoky Mountains National Park (the mountain range is actually the Black Mountains which stretches from Mt. Mitchell, NC, to here). Literature claims that it is "the most visited state highpoint." I thought this was a dubious claim -- given other premier drive ups such as Mauna Laua in Hawaii; Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and even Mt. Mitchell less than 100 miles away in North Carolina just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, on this dreary Monday where everything was socked in with rain and fog and fall color was nearly done, traffic was bumper to bumper through the park!
This claim (there are more than 10 million visitors a year to the park -- most of whom are purported to visit Clingmans) has been substantiated by anectodal reports of friends -- who reported pleasant childhood memories of family trips to the summit. The most amusing of these tales was one about a grandmother fearful of heights who would jump out of the car at every stop and lean against the car to keep it from rolling down the mountain.
We drove out two hours from Asheville, NC, taking U.S. 441 through Cherokee, NC, and the associated Cherokee Indian Reservation. I thought this approach was tacky enough with observation towers seemingly at every curve advertising "the most photographed site in the Smokies." Roadside stands hawked everything from boiled peanuts, garden mirror balls (which I succumbed to) to velvet Indian paintings to Santa Lands to fireworks (which are legal year round in Tennesse and North Carolina). Even good motels advertised $29 a night rates complete with in room jacuzzis and multi-person hot tubs! And this was the restrained side compared to what lay ahead in Gatlinburg, TN!!!
One of the curisoities of this route was that we kept seeing woodchucks chomping away on vegetation at 4-lane intersections.
The National Park Office and gift shop was overrun with retired people. I wrestled away some postcards showing Clingmans Dome. We disappeared in and out of fog banks as we drove to the summit. A sign noted it was closed Dec. 1 to March 31. The route to the summit parking lot was almost 8 miles.
For a trip in which all the peaks were fog encrusted, we experienced just the opposite as we neared Clingmans Summit. The mountain with its spaceship observation tower popped out above the clouds. A cloud rolled over the summit. But the spaceship remained visible.
It's a half mile from the parking lot to the summit with a gain of 330 feet. The greatest joy of this mountain to me was that I had to breath hard to make the climb! I truly felt I arrived at a mountain! My sea level lungs weren't acclimated to this 6,700 foot 0eak! I was not alone. Every single person we encountered was breathing heavy -- regardless of age or shape. A boy about 5 asked his father to carry him. The father obliged with the note, "I'll carry you a little ways, but you'll have to carry me the rest." Benches were arranged perhaps every 50 feet in expectation of this carnage!
With us above the clouds, the mountain with its crisp air that made you cough because it was seemed so clean, had a definite alpine feel. The dead firs gave a windswept look to the summit but rather this was the work of the evil beetles which have killed almost every fir in the Black Mountains. The National Park Service can't aggressively kill the beetles according to the policy so they are basically waiting for every fir to die (and with them the beetles) and then to replace them with the seeds of firs.
Further signs noted that the fresh air was not as fresh as it used to be. Visibility has been cut 40 miles thanks to coal burning plants as far away as Missouri.
Clingmans has the most unusual summit building of any state highpoint. Built circa 1960, it looks like a flying saucer. A curving concrete sidewalk supported by concrete pillars leads to it
Given the high volume of traffic, it was disappointing that the summit was heavily vandalized. All signs indicating that you were on the summit were obviously taken. All that remained were the signs on the observation tower which were suspended away from the tower and thus difficult to vandalize. We saw nothing in the surrounding vistas except when a mountain poked through the clouds briefly. Signs showed the state border line which seemed to cut right through the tower.
The trip back down was effortless. A restroom with running water at the parking lot worked fine.
We continued on up 441 passing endless retired couples walking through the woods gathering leaves.
Gatlinburg, TN, turned out to be a huge tourist trap. It has an instatiable appetite for miniature golf played on Jurassic Park courses. Everywhere were cheap motels, T-shirt stores, go-Kart rides and helicopter rides ($5/person -- I was curious ...and horrified... if that would take you over the mountain). Everything is much more prosperous on this side (my theory of the universe tells me that all along the NC-TN border, the two states compete mightily but that Tennessee tends to outspend subtantially on this battles).
I planned to stop for lunch but couldn't find convenient parking as the town incredibly for a Monday afternoon in late October was overrun. We eventually stopped in Pigeon Forge, TN, only to find that Dolly Parton owns that town (even if they don't have postcards of Dollywood at regular stores). Christmas decorations were everywhere. We got sick on the $2.99 all you can get buffet. It was like a scene of "Las Vegas Vacation."