Clingmans Dome Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is back in business. The popular road, which normally opens April but was being repaved this year, reopened Monday at noon.
Construction is not finished and some sections of the 7-mile-long road are only one lane. Even though the drive is slow-going, hundreds of visitors drove the road as soon as it opened.
Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail reaches its high point at Clingmans Dome. The mountain was named for Thomas Lanier Clingman (1812-1897), an Asheville, North Carolina, attorney and politician who promoted the region as a tourist destination before the Civil War.
Most visitors walk the half-mile paved trail (330-foot ascent) to the 54-foot-tall observation tower. It's a steep trail, but parents push strollers or carry babies in a backpack. On clear days, the effort is rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Smokies and beyond, with glimpses of between five and seven states, depending upon whom you ask and how good your eyes are. Plaques in the four compass directions explain the landmarks below. Unfortunately air pollution sometimes reduces the magnificent views by as much as 80 percent.
Because of its height and exposure, the weather and environment on Clingmans Dome is similar to spruce-fir forests of eastern Canadian. Fraser firs, planted and sold as Christmas trees, grow wild on the mountain. Unfortunately, from the top of Clingmans Dome, visitors also see an ocean of dead Fraser firs that look like matchsticks. The trees were killed by balsam wooly adelgid, an aphid-like insect accidentally imported from European nursery stock.
A little way up the paved trail, a Civilian Conservation Corp structure once housed the comfort stations. While Clingmans Dome Road was closed, the building was remodeled into an information center that now holds a bookstore and park literature. Great Smoky Mountains Association, the cooperating partner in the Smokies that manages the bookstores in the park, funded the remodeling. The bathrooms were moved below to the parking area.
Earlier this spring a call was sent out for volunteers to help staff the information center. More than 50 people responded and are now being screened and trained to work alongside Association employees. It will be a busy summer on "top of old Smoky."