Great Smoky Mountains National Park
As you travel across Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a short side-trip will take you to the top of the highest mountain in Tennessee, astride the Appalachian trail: Clingman's Dome.
US Highway 441 cuts a northwest/southeast path across Great Smoky Mountains National Park. About halfway across the park, you cross the NC/TN state line at Newfound Gap. The turnoff to Clingman's Dome is just southeast of the Gap. The parking lot is 7 miles from the main road.
In order to reach the top of Clingman's Dome, you'll need to hike up a half mile paved trail. It's steep, and unless you're in excellent shape, you'll need to stop a few times to rest on the way up. Once you crest the hill, more climbing awaits:
A spiral ramp takes you up to the top of the Clingman's Dome observation tower, so you can see the view from above the trees.
Clingman's Dome tops out at 6,643 feet, and the observation tower lifts you 50 feet higher.
Interpretive signs encircle the round observation platform. They'll help you identify the mountains you see in the distance. Unfortunately, air pollution often blankets the Smoky Mountains, making it hard to see long distances (on a clear day, you can see 100 miles from here).
Air quality is a major focus of scientists at GSMNP. The park website operates webcams that let you check out the visibility from home, and explains the threat pollution poses to plants, animals, and park views.
In this part of the park, it seems there are more dead trees than live ones. A tiny insect deserves the blame: the hemlock woolly adelgid. It's a tiny aphid-like bug that feeds on the sap of hemlock trees.
The hemlock woolly adelgid doesn't occur naturally in the U.S. It was introduced on the west coast in the 1920's, and in the Washington, D.C. area in the 1950's. Since it has no natural enemies in North America, it has quickly spread to 11 states, from North Carolina into New England.
The effects of the hemlock woolly adelgid are painfully obvious at Clingman's Dome, leaving the mountaintop to look somewhat like the devastated land around Mount St. Helens. The park has taken some steps to bring the infestation under control, including the use of insecticides, and the release of predator beetles, that feed on the hemlock woolly adelgid.
If you want to take a quick walk down the Appalachian Trail, here's a good place. The AT crosses Clingman's Dome, as it follows the Tennessee - North Carolina state line through the park.
Keep an eye out for wildlife. This bunny and his friends weren't quite as tourist-friendly as the deer I found in Cades Cove, but he did sit still long enough for a few photos.
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