Page Contributor(s): Dan Razum, Campbell, CA, U.S.A Ron Hawks, Las Vegas, NV, U.S.A
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Cycling Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains and Appalachian Trail.
Ride 20.2 miles gaining 4,932’ at 4.4% average grade.
Clingman’s Dome, located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountain subrange of the Appalachian Mountain Range.
Before heading to the Great Smoky Mountains on your cycling adventure, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
This is a great bike climb through beautiful scenery that only gets better the higher you go. The start of the climb is conveniently located at the Sugarland Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where there is no entrance fee.
Why no entrance fee to enter a National Park? According to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website, the land that now makes up this gorgeous National Park was once privately owned. Tennessee, North Carolina, and local communities from both states paid to construct route 441/Newfound Gap Road, and this road was a major route crossing the southern Appalachian Mountains at the time. It was important to authorities to maintain free and easy interstate transportation for local citizens, so, when Tennessee transferred ownership of the road to the federal government for the National Park, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed” on those traveling this road. Hence, no entrance fee to this national park! (Great Smoky Mountains NP).
The climb starts at a nice 3% grade for the first few miles before hitting 7% and staying between 4% and 8% for the next 15 miles.
Scenery along the first half of the climb.
There are two tunnels -- one is about 30 meters long and we do recommend a tail light for this brief tunnel.
Tunnels during the Fall colors
Center bottom photo -- beware the weather at the beginning and end of the season.
Great Signage throughout the park. It’s not easy to get lost!
“Perhaps the most difficult SE climb, the west side of Clingmans Dome is also a scenic ascent that does carry a lot of traffic. At mile 13 you enter NC and soon after turn right to finish at the parking area for Clingmans Dome.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in the Southeast, pg. 106.)
VIEWPOINTS AND HISTORICAL STOPS ALONG THE CLIMB
CHIMNEY TOP OVERLOOK
Mile 5.4 / 2,970’.
Mile 12.2 / 4,840’.
Mile 13 / 5,046’.
This is also the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
INDIAN GAP ROAD
Mile 14.4 / 5,265’.
About two miles from the top.
FINISH AND THE OBSERVATION TOWER
End of the cycling road.
At 6,643’, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National park, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi (National Park Website).
Note that riding your bike on the footpath to the observation tower is prohibited.
Footpath leading to Clingmans Dome observation tower
Photo: Roots Rated
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, constructed in 1959, is a 45-foot tower connected to a 375-foot sweeping ramp which visitors ascend to reach the tower’s observation deck. Atop the deck, visitors are rewarded with 360-degree panoramic views from the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. The tower itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a major example of the National Park Service Modern architecture period. The tower also represents the NPS’ Mission 66 program (1955-1966), which resulted in “a significant change in National Park Service planning, management, and architecture” and oversaw the construction of hundreds of buildings and structures, including nine towers. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower served as a model for two later Mission 66 towers: Look Rock Tower (also in Great Smoky Mountains NP), and Shark Valley Tower (Everglades NP, Florida) (Clingmans Dome Observation Tower).
I walked my bike up and down the path without any objection . . .
more curiosity than anything from viewpoint hikers.
We are permitted to ride to the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, but not the 0.5 miles from the Clingman’s Dome observation tower. There is a bike stand to lock the bike at if you bring a cable and lock with you. Otherwise, you will probably be ok walking your bike round trip from the parking lot to the observation tower.
Clingmans Dome has spectacular fall colors.
Word of warning/advice - it is ridiculously busy during the leaf peeping (fall colors) season. Of course, this is also a wonderful time to ride your bike to Clingmans Dome as you can stop wherever you like which gives you a significant advantage over vehicles. We began our ride in early October on a weekday at 8 a.m. and it was already crowded, but it go much more crowded a couple hours later.
One alternative to beating the traffic is to begin you climb to Clingmans Dome from the Cherokee, North Carolina side. Although there is also significant traffic on that side, it is about a third to one-half less than on the Gatlinburg side.
The National Park Climgman’s Dome page advises:
Pets and bicycles are not permitted on the paved trail to the observation tower, or on any other trails in the area. A bike rack is located near the beginning of the paved trail to park bikes while walking to the top. You will need to bring a lock with you to secure your bike (More).
Ride summary by Dan Razum of Campbell, California:
The route is straightforward with the first 13 miles are on route 441. This section is on beautiful pavement but carries a lot of traffic with no shoulder. For perspective, I did this climb in early May on a weekday and was passed by a car every couple of minutes. If you do this in the summer on a weekend, the traffic will make it almost impossible to enjoy this ride safely. After 13 miles on 441, turn right for Clingmans Dome for the next seven miles which will take you all the way to the top. These seven miles, which are also on great pavement, give you beautiful views of the park and carry about half as much traffic as route 441. Around mile 17.5, you will get a mile stretch that is flat-to-down, giving you a nice reprieve before tackling the final stretch of this climb.
The top of Clingmans Dome has a large parking lot where visitors take a half-mile trail to the circular dome that offers 360 degree views of all the surrounding mountain ranges. Please note this last half-mile is a 10 foot wide walking path that has lots of people coming and going. Although I didn't see a sign that specifically said no bikes, the ranger said it isn't allowed as it would be impossible and downright unsafe to do this with all the foot traffic. If you want to do this last stretch, which is very steep (around 14%), you would need to do it very early in the morning or right before sunset.
Steepest quarter mile begins at mile 20.2 (13.5%) and mile at 19.8 (8.1%).
View from Clingman’s Dome at sunset.
Sunrise from Clingman’s Dome.
That’s a wrap!