Clingman’s Dome is the tallest mountain in Tennessee (it straddles the NC border) and the third tallest mountain in the Eastern United States. Needless to say, it is an epic climb and cannot be done without some planning. The best time to climb the dome is between December and March, when the 7-mile road to the summit is closed. From what I understand, it can be congested during the season and not comfortable for riders. The problem with the winter season is that it is difficult to find a time when weather will cooperate. The elements can be chaotic and unpredictable, especially at 6,600 feet.
March 10th turned out to be the day. The weather was nearly perfect.
I met my friend Neil at 10am in Cherokee, NC, where we prepared for the long climb. At the start we were at just over 2,000 feet elevation and would end up at 6,600 feet. The plan was to ride all the way up to the summit, a 22-23 mile climb (!), descend into Gatlinburg, climb back up and descend back to Cherokee.
The sun was shining brightly and it hardly felt like 40 degrees when we started. We wore layers, knowing how cold it would be at the top, and especially coming back down the mountain.
The climb begins easily enough along Highway 441. In the beginning we barely could tell that we were climbing. I would glance at my Garmin occasionally and would see that we were on a 1-2% grades. In no time and with very little work, we had accomplished 500 feet. It was a surprisingly easy start. From there the road pitched up into the 6-8% range and stayed that way most of the way. There were a couple of flats and even some brief descents, but most of the latter 15 miles were spent pushing lower gears.
It was a long climb and aside from the Oconaluftee River that climbed along with us, it was not too scenic at the bottom. Our view was mostly obscured by the dense foliage over and around us. After a dozen or so miles, the road banked around where we were able to view the area we had just climbed. By that time we were more than 4,000 feet in the air with a splendorous view. It would get better.
We stopped for our food break just after turning onto Clingman’s Dome road and walking around the closed gate. It was a breathtaking view. We saw much of the road that we had climbed below, and then understood why the road had done a big loop before the gap. If it had come up straight, the road would have been far too steep!
It was a pleasure riding a road without any road traffic. We saw a number of walkers and some runners, but no cars. The only obstacles on the smoothly paved road were gravel and tree debris. That was to be expected given that the road had been closed for a few months and we hardly complained.
The grade was a lot easier here. It was in the 4-6% range with a few steeper sections. It was a nice, casual ride, where we owned the road. Right when we were about to cross 6,000 feet, we found ourselves descending a few hundred feet. Groan. We would have to make all of that up again.
The last part was by far the toughest. The road ended at the parking lot for Clingman’s Dome park. We took the paved trail to the summit. It was only half a mile, but steeeep! It was mostly within the 14-18% grade range, similar to Howard Gap or Becky Mountain. It felt a lot worse having already climbed 20-something miles for the last couple hours.
We weren’t quite done yet. At the very top there is a man-made observation tower, built in the 1950s. We rode up the short, circular ramp, which was also steep, but not nearly as bad as the paved road we just conquered.
At the tower we met two guys who were hiking the Appalachian trail, which intersects at the summit. We asked where they were going. ‘Maine,’ they answered. Gulp. And we thought we were hardcore!
The view was gorgeous. It was a clear day and we were able to identify notable Blue Ridge mountains. Mount Pisgah was not far away. We were barely able to make out the shadow of Mount Mitchell way out in the distance. A lot more of the ‘Southern Sixers’ were at eye level. It was a magnificent sight.
We decided against Gatlinburg. One thing we didn’t like about 441 was the amount of traffic. Now that it was later in the afternoon, traffic would pick up, and we didn’t want to fight it for a 15-mile climb. Another time.
We put on a couple more layers and descended the dome. It was cold, real cold. We passed through a shaded area of maybe 100 feet with a wall of ice. It felt like we had walked into a freezer. We dodged the debris and quickly were out of the park. We stopped by the parking area at Newfound Gap and found it mobbed with people. That will be Clingman’s Dome next month. No thanks.
Descending 441 was a blast. Without a lot of turns and a smoothly paved road, we were able to pick up speed without hardly trying. We still had to deal with traffic, but that turned out to not be an issue. As we descended the upper, steeper section, to our surprise we caught a group of cars. The speed limit was 35 or 45 and we were right there. Neil was a little ahead of me and caught some draft on the way down. I tucked down and went at my own pace, topping out at around 50 mph.
This was a beautiful day and an epic climb. Another one is now scratched off the bucket list.