I am the first one up this morning. I retrieve our gear from the food storage cables and get myself ready for a 10.8 mile trek to Newfound Gap. Hopefully, my car will be there to take us to our cabin in Gatlinburg for hot showers, real food, and soft mattresses. I am chomping at the bit to hit the trail. In my excitement to get an early start, I’m as rambunctiously noisy as the late hikers were last night. Clarence shushes me for disturbing those still sleeping through the bright morning.
Critters are active at Double Spring. Since dawn, bats have been flying in and out of the shelter. Two get into quite a tussle, plunge to the ground, and take off again. I don’t know if they are fighting or mating! One sleepy hiker on the lower platform complains that mice ran across his head all night. Mary finds a mouse turd in her drinking cup. A few hours from now we’ll be in an air-conditioned house with nary a critter in sight.
I check on those Beech leaf flies this morning and get a few more pictures. Some of them are gone, particularly the healthy-looking brown ones, which lends credence to the assumption that they are resting or sleeping overnight. My photo plainly shows their legs clamped tightly around the leaf as though hanging on for dear life.
We are on the trail before 8:00 a.m. The first part of the hike is a three-mile, 1,100 foot climb to Clingman’s Dome. It is not very steep, and the trail, though a bit rocky, is not too rough. A persistent layer of clouds hangs over the ridge and streams through the trees. Periodically we get a brief glimpse into North Carolina and see sun shining on the valleys below. Tennessee is completely obliterated behind a dense white curtain. Strong breezes tear at the clouds and push them rapidly over the ridge, but the clouds won’t give up until we pass Clingman’s Dome and begin our descent.
Spaced along the narrow ridge are open, grassy areas full of Blackberries and Witch Hobble interspersed with Spruce/Fir forests. At one clearing, four dead snags of Fraser Fir, killed by the Balsam Woolly Adelgid, have toppled into one another and a live tree. The trail takes us right through this misty teepee in the clouds.
We see Bluebead Lily in flower, rising stalks of Turk’s Cap Lily with their spaced whorls of leaves, and odiferous Skunk Goldenrod. Unobtrusive bunches of lanceolate, green leaves give off an unmistakeable whiff of eau de smelly-black-and-white-mammal. Try as you may to detect the source, you will not find it. By some black magic it just off-gasses this stink without actually stinking itself. Vibrant clumps of American False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), fresh and unmarred by insects or other ravages, display distinctive broad, pleated leaves spiraling up the stems and invite creative photography.
Slanting slabs of Thunderhead Sandstone form a sheer rock face at the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail junction. The bypass splits off to the right toward the Clingman’s Dome Road, Forney Creek Trail, and Andrews Bald. The AT slides along this dinosaur of a hog back and intersects two more paths leading to the observation tower.
Clingman’s Dome is named for a North Carolina politician, Confederate brigadier general, and doggedly stubborn man who insisted this peak was the highest point in the East. Thomas Lanier Clingman lost this “highest” battle to Elisha Mitchell (Mt. Mitchell) but conquered Samuel Buckley. Buckley was one of the first naturalists to write about the Smokies flora, and he made height calculations for several peaks including Smoky Dome, as it was then known. He renamed it Mt. Buckley. However, his measurements were quite often wrong, so when Clingman arranged for Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot to precisely measure 6,643 feet, Guyot renamed the mountain Clingman’s Dome.
Guyot attached the name Mt. Buckley to a small peak a half mile west. Buckley also has a plant species named for him, Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush or Sapsuck, a hemiparasitic shrub found primarily with Hemlocks. It is not in the park’s flora but is a threatened species in northeastern Tennessee counties. It is related to Buffalo Nut, which is common in the park.
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee, the highest point in the park, and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee had a name for this mountain too — Kuwahi, the mulberry place — home of their mystical White Bear. I prefer this name.
At the second tower path junction, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail begins. Part of the North Carolina Trail System, this 1,000 mile path begins at Clingman’s Dome and traverses the entire state, heading first southeast then turning northwest through Asheville along the Blue Ridge Mountains nearly to Virginia before shooting east past Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh to the Outer Banks. Clarence says it passes quite near his house.
The descent from Clingman’s Dome isn’t that steep, but the condition of the trail is by far the roughest we’ve encountered. Deeply rutted and eroded, there are steps nearly knee deep over major tree roots and large rocks. It requires strategic concentration to continually navigate a suitable route through these impediments. Hiking poles are essential. We are very thankful it is not raining, as this section would be a nightmare.
As bad as this part is, the remainder of the trail to Newfound Gap proves a working demonstration of effective trail maintenance. Sections have been built up, channels dug to route rain water, steps installed for erosion prevention, and flat logs laid over mucky areas. The work is ongoing. We see green tagging tape tied to trailside trees with instructions for trail crews. One says “#18 Replace Waterbar.” If they could just find a way to repair and improve that one rough part…though that might not be possible. The Smokies trail guide account, which may be 18 years old, notes the “rocky climb…with some big steps.”
Most of the nearly eight miles after Clingman’s Dome are headed down with the exception of a steep three-quarter mile climb up Mt. Collins. The AT hits trail junctions with Sugarland Mountain (Mt. Collins Shelter is about a half mile down this trail), Fork Ridge, and Road Prong. At the latter junction, the AT emerges into the grassy clearing of Indian Gap and a small parking area on the Clingman’s Dome Road.
Just beyond Indian Gap is a wild hog exclosure fence. Hikers’ feet easily step across the metal grate stile in the trail, but hog feet can’t. This exclosure protects the Beech Gap forest, a plant community unique to the Southern Appalachians, from the rototilling action of these devilish, nonnative beasts. A posted sign explains that this is one of 20 “special sites” the park service has identified for protection in “an effort to retain the natural character of the site.” Someone scribbled on the sign, “What about exotic humans.”
Since the trail often comes close to Clingman’s Dome Road, sometimes right below it, we can hear the sound of vehicular traffic — particularly the earsplitting roar of modified motorcycles. It brings us back to the reality of civilization in a most unpleasant way. The noise pollution grows louder as we near Newfound Gap and Highway 441. At 2:15, we step out of the woods, cross this busy roadway, and stand in the brightly sunny, crowded parking lot at Rockefeller Memorial. My car is there!
After a bathroom stop, I head for the car to unlock the trunk and let the interior air out. Clarence is a few steps behind me. A lady dashes across the parking lot (in front of a car) and waylays him, “Excuse me, sir, may I ask you a question? Are you one of those AT people?” She has a friend who is fascinated with the AT and wants Clarence to come talk to her. Her friend is so excited, eyes wide with wonder, asking Clarence questions. “Do you camp every night?” “Are there really bears out there?” She wants to know where he started, questioning in an awestruck tone, “In Georgia?” He didn’t have the heart to say just from Fontana Dam and let her down, so he tells a little white lie. “Yes.” She grins from ear to ear. The first lady takes a picture of her friend with Clarence. I take a picture of this endearing scene. Once again, Clarence serves as the unofficial Smokies mascot for tourists.
We drive into Gatlinburg, shop for “Packman,” and meet Susan and Allen at the cabin. Susan has cooked pot roast, veggies, salad, bread, and a sinfully rich chocolate cake that serves as a birthday cake for Clarence (#51). We shower (I wash my hair three times), do laundry, air our gear, and restock our food bags. I have just lain down in a cool, soft king-size bed when I feel something on my arm. It’s a wood roach! I scream and smack it silly. It falls to the floor, legs up, twitching. So much for a critterless night!