The Real Rocky Top
I pulled myself up on a rock the size of a mini Cooper in the middle of a frothing Forney Creek. As I started to walk across it, I lost my balance on the wet and slick surface. All four limbs went in different directions. I threw my right hiking pole ahead of me and dropped the left one behind me. The right pole landed on the fly in the water. The left pole clanged off the rock and rolled in.
Without them, my plan to climb Clingmans Dome, the tallest peak in Tennessee, would be, at best, extremely difficult. By luck, rocks in the creek hemmed the poles in and they didn’t flow away and disappear into the depths of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Related: hiking poles float.)
I sprawled out on my stomach, stretched hard and grabbed the right pole. I twirled around and used that pole to retrieve the left. I rested for a minute, as I was still on a rock in the middle of a churning creek with another 20 feet and six rocks to traverse.
I listened to the water, as I had been doing for the last few hours of the hike. I had come to think of that low rumble as applause. It got louder the closer my buddy Andy and I got to it. The cheering reached a crescendo as we hit the middle in the five previous crossings, faded as we departed, and resumed again as we approached each subsequent crossing.
Now the river cheered me on. Getting to the other side without getting wet would go a long way in determining how the rest of this hike went. We still had two days, 20 miles and several thousand feet of elevation change, to say nothing of two nights of sleeping in the backwoods. I needed to be dry for all of that.
I took a deep breath, stood up, tried to step to the next rock and instead landed knee deep into quickly moving water, with first my right foot and then my left.
The water’s applause turned into a gasp. Or maybe that was me. The water was COLD.
My feet, legs and mshewifwdazrs—woops, apparently, my notebook—were soaked. I muttered a few choice words and looked to the far bank, where Andy tried not to laugh, with me or at me, though we’ve been friends long enough that I would have been fine with either.
I finally made it across and assessed the situation. I had sneakers strapped to my backpack to use in case I had to walk straight through a crossing. I chastised myself for not putting them on before I attempted this crossing.
I peeled off my wet boots and socks, detached the bottom of my sopping hiking pants, dried off my legs and feet, put on dry socks and the sneakers and started walking. Here’s the strange thing: Instead of ruining my day, getting soaked made it better. I was pissed, and the adrenaline from that gave me renewed energy to complete the final few miles. If I’ve learned this once, I’ve learned it a dozen times: The best and worst parts of hikes are often the same. By the time we got to our site—we covered 12 miles and descended more than 4,500 feet in just six hours—I could laugh at my misadventure and marvel at the stunning beauty I had seen that day.
A hike on Clingmans Dome should be on the bucket list of any hiker in the eastern third of the country. In addition to being the highest peak in Tennessee, it is also the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail and the third highest east of the Mississippi River. But it’s the details inside those superlatives that make Clingmans a must-hike.
If you’re going to tackle Clingmans and the trails around it, you must be prepared for anything—from feet soaked by a creek to a back soaked with sweat to eyes filled with wonder at spectacular vistas. We started on a Tuesday morning in late October at the summit of Clingmans Dome wearing gloves, winter hats and winter coats to protect us from bone-chilling wind. After descending for an hour, we were comfortable in t-shirts.
We muscled through lung-scorching climbs and hip-busting descents. We walked gingerly over rock beds and picked up the pace over soft dirt. We walked through rhododendron tunnels, under yellow birch canopies and across the tree line where only evergreens grow.
The history of Clingmans Dome is as colorful as the mountain itself. In the 1800s, a Congressman named Thomas Clingman promoted the mountain, then known as Smoky Dome, as the tallest in the East. Meanwhile, a University of North Carolina professor named Elisha Mitchell said a peak then known as Black Dome, now known as Mount Mitchell, was the tallest.
Clingman had been a student and friend of Mitchell, but their relationship was destroyed as they waged a public feud in newspapers about which peak was which and whose mountain was taller. Their lives were ruined, too: Mitchell again climbed the mountain that would eventually bear his name to try to prove he was right, but he fell off a ledge and died, while history derided Clingman as “a selfish opportunist who provoked a tragic and unnecessary controversy,” as his biographer put it.
Worse than their petty fight over which mountain was tallest is the difference they were fighting about: 41 feet — Mount Mitchell, the tallest in the East, is 6,684 feet, Clingmans Dome is 6,643 feet. As if to continue the fight, the viewing tower atop Clingmans Dome is 45 feet tall—which puts you four feet higher than the top of Mount Mitchell.
The trails Andy and I followed—Forney Creek, Springbrook Branch, Noland Creek and Noland Divide—were (at times) extremely difficult. There was barely a step that wasn’t up or down—we started at 6,688 (atop the observation tower), descended to 2,180 and went back up to 6,688, with many ups and downs in between.
Some sections of the trail followed rock beds, there were I don’t know how many water crossings in which we played Frogger on the rocks, and we traversed a dozen or more footbridges only one plank wide.
As grueling as it was, the trails were surprisingly smooth. Mount Katahdin (Maine) and the Linville Gorge (North Carolina) to name just two, are so rocky that (at the risk of blasphemy) hiking in those places isn’t fun. Or, to put it another way, it is more fun to have hiked there than it is to be hiking there. But on Clingmans Dome, almost every step was fun (with the exception of two in Forney Creek!) Much of the trail followed rock-free ground, which meant we could take our eyes off our feet and point them to the mountains around us.
Those views pushed us back and forth in time. At the summit, the barren trees showed it was late fall, even early winter. As we walked down, screaming yellow, vibrant orange and glowing red leaves told us it was peak autumn. Still farther down, green leaves suggested summer wasn’t over yet. It was like hiking in Maine and Georgia—the two ends of the Appalachian Trail—on the same day.
My only complaint: The trails are not blazed. On Wednesday afternoon, we accidentally took a spur off the main trail. We climbed a steep path for five minutes, and only discovered our mistake when the trail ended in a cemetery. Some headstones had markings indicating they were more than 100 years old and looked it. Others had dates going back that far but were obviously much newer. The reporter in me wanted to scribble down the names and dates, to find out who those people were and why they were buried there. But that little cemetery was quiet and mysterious and beautiful, and I didn’t want to disrupt that with misplaced curiosity. So after a few minutes of marveling at this unexpected find, we headed back to the main trail and left the dead in peace.
When we arrived an hour later at our campsite, my feet were soaked again. At the most recent creek crossing, I watched as Andy hopscotched from one rock to the next. I foresaw not just wet feet but wet everything for myself if I tried that, so I just walked straight through the water instead. Strange: Getting wet feet on accident felt like a badge of honor. Getting wet feet on purpose felt like wisdom.
I woke up the next morning, and I can’t swear to this, but I think the leaves had changed just in the time we spent at the site. As we started our 3,328-foot climb, I wished I had an altimeter, in part out of curiosity and in part so I could know when the suffering would end. Then I realized creation acted as an altimeter for me.
We reached the Noland Divide Trail, and a pleasant breeze danced across my ears, the cool wind showing we were getting higher. And I knew we had neared 6,000 feet when the deciduous trees disappeared and only spruce trees stretched their arms toward heaven. Our up-and-down hike took us into and out of that threshold a couple times. Each time, Andy smiled. He was born and raised in Russia, and the smell of spruce reminds him of home.
As we walked along a ridge, I swiveled my head left and right, soaking in the panoramic view. I found myself wishing I could thank Clingman for loving this mountain so much he made a fool of himself over it. His mountain may have ruined his life, but it enriched mine.
The Noland Divide Trail ends at the road that leads to the top of Clingmans Dome. We still had 708 more feet to climb. We followed the road to the welcome center parking lot. I dropped my pack off at my car, then continued another half mile to the summit. Hundreds of tourists joined me on this asphalt-covered greenway from hell—332 feet of elevation gain in just half a mile, for a grade of 13 percent. Signs warned tourists about the difficulty of the walk to the summit. There were no such signs on the trails.
They were all fresh from their cars. I was fresh from three days in the wilderness. I overheard an older woman joking about being jealous of my hiking poles, so I let her borrow them. My knees, hips and back ached for me to stop, but I was resolved to summit the observation tower for an epic photo.
I got to the top, pulled out my phone, looked for the best view, smiled pretty … and my phone died. It was the technological equivalent of stepping with both feet into the knee-deep Forney Creek. The memory of 360-degrees of swirling winds, undulating mountains of green, yellow, orange and red and blanket of clouds below remains clear in my mind, if not my phone.
On the way down, a giggling school girl sprinted far past me as her dad gave chase. Her joy stood in contrast to the strain Andy and I had endured for the last three days—more proof of how the best and worst parts of hikes are marbled together. When I finally got to my car, I bent over and heaved deep, gasping breaths as I tried to get my heart rate back to normal. Somehow, I smiled that whole time.