Today I hiked to the highest point on the AT: Clingmans Dome.
It was also our last day of good weather in the Smokies. All day I kept passing either ridge runners or section/day hikers telling me the same thing: the weather tomorrow and Tuesday is going to be brutal and it’s going to be cold. Awesome…
While I’m not looking forward to the cold weather, I’m also not too nervous about it. I still have all of my cold weather gear and my sleeping bag has never failed me, not even on the negative degree night I spent in the bathroom. I’m prepared to brave the storm(s)!
I started hiking this morning with Townie and it actually was rather cold and windy for the first couple of hours of hiking. We stopped at the Silers Bald Shelter to filter some water and have a snack, and as I nibbled on an energy bar I started shivering and had to put on a bunch of layers. We quickly started moving again and were graced with a nice little mountain to climb and that warmed me right up. After I got to the top of Silers Bald, the sun came out and the temperature greatly improved.
I continued hiking to Double Spring Gap Shelter where I planned to fill up on more water and stopped in my tracks when the flora completely changed around me. One second I was walking through a meadow full of wildflowers and sunshine, and the next I was in a Spruce-Fir forest with pine cones and needles littering the trail and the sun barely peeking through the branches. I went from being in North Carolina (or Tennessee? It’s hard to say in the Smokies because the trail borders the state lines) to all of a sudden being in the Pemi Wilderness back home in New Hampshire – at least, that’s how it felt to me. I literally stopped and looked around and then walked back and forth between the two landscapes. It was like leaving the kitchen and entering the living room, the change was that abrupt and drastic. I loved it. I took a couple of deep breaths before continuing because it smelled like a Yankee Candle (but way, WAY better) and continued on to the shelter where Townie was filling up on water when I got there.
I took a break for a couple of minutes at the shelter, ate a snack, got some water, and then pushed on. Clingmans Dome was waiting!
So, Clingmans Dome is the highest elevation point on the AT at 6655 feet (Mt. Washington in New Hampshire is the second highest point). It’s also a huge tourist attraction because .5 miles before the Dome is a parking area where people can leave their cars and then walk up a paved road to Clingmans Dome. As I approached Clingmans Dome (which seemed to take forever, by the way. It was only a 3.1-mile walk from the shelter, but with the hot sun and 1000-foot elevation gain, the miles [and my feet] seemed to drag), it became apparent to me that I, too, was a tourist attraction. With only .1 miles to go to Clingmans Dome, an older couple stopped me and Townie to ask about the AT, where and when we started hiking, how far we planned on going, and then insisted they take our picture…not with our cameras, mind you, but with their own, to show their grandkids or something (“We didn’t see any bears in the Smokies, but we DID see these creatures who call themselves thru-hikers. They’re covered in layers of dirt and sweat, their hair is oily and their eyes wild, and you can smell them from a mile away…”). The couple kept asking questions, but finally we had to cut them off because we only had .1 to go and we were anxious to get there!
When we finally got to the Dome, I’ll admit, I was unimpressed. But then again, Mt. Washington doesn’t really impress me either. I much rather prefer the uncrowded summits to the ones flocked to by tourists in jeans and high heels. Townie and I climbed the ramp up to the Dome and a path seemed to clear in front of us as people pushed to the sides of the walkway and gawked at us and our heavy packs and potentially dangerous hiking poles. When we got to the top and dropped our packs and poles, some people seemed to find the courage to come talk to us dirty, wild animals. A woman talked with me for maybe five minutes about my hike and seemed interested in hearing about where I started, where I was going, and where I got my food along the way. A couple of other people stopped to wish me and Townie good luck. It was so bizarre, having people stop to talk to us about the hike. Just a year ago, I was that person, stopping people in New Hampshire to ask them about their hike and now it’s happening to me. It’s bound to keep happening, I’m sure, but today was my first encounter with it, and I rather liked it. It’s nice hearing people cheer me on. I have no intentions of quitting, but every now and then the hiking does get tough out here and it’s nice to be reminded by people that what I’m doing is something to be proud of.
Townie and I decided to walk the half-mile down to the parking area where we were told was a store with snacks and drinks. Please take note: this walk was an absolute waste of time and energy. The shop only had water and no snacks and the walk down to it was an incredibly steep descent, and the walk back up to the AT was just as steep, but uphill (duh). So, if you’re hiking in this area, don’t make the mistake we made and add an additional non-AT mile to your day of hiking, unless you’re really, really desperate for some water. However, the walk wasn’t a complete waste of time. I did see a baby bear hanging out on the side of the road in the bushes. I tried to get closer to it to take a good picture (as in, I took a couple of steps off the paved road and my feet came in contact with some dirt instead), but a bunch of tourists started shouting at me that if I got any closer it would kill me. They really needed to calm down. I wasn’t interested in causing anyone to go into cardiac arrest, though, so I stopped where I was and took some pictures and then Townie and I got away from that crowd and continued on to the store. Eventually a ranger came and sounded off a blow horn to scare the bear back into the woods.
After leaving the Dome, Townie and I ran into Toasted Toad and we set off to the next shelter, which is where we’re calling home tonight. Though Clingmans Dome wasn’t as impressive as I wanted it to be, I’m happy I got to hike it on a clear-weather day. I really have been lucky so far when it comes to the weather. We’ll see what happens tomorrow and Tuesday!