I’m back at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center after missing two weeks. The big news was that Clingmans Dome road was opening at noon. That was the most asked question at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
The road was repaved this year with stimulus money – it usually opens on April 1. Construction is not finished and some sections of the road are only one lane. Even though the drive is slow-going, hundreds of visitors drove the road as soon as it opened – and I added to the traffic.
I was checked out on the park radio, just in case I met an emergency I couldn’t handle myself and went up to Clingmans Dome to rove. I believe I was the first person in uniform to rove the trail up to the tower. Not much in the “first” category but I was quite pleased about that.
Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, at 6,643 ft., is the highest point in the park, in Tennessee and on the Appalachian Trail. Most visitors walk the half-mile paved trail (330 ft. ascent) to the observation tower. It’s a steep trail but parents push strollers or carry babies in a backpack, determined to get to the top.
On clear days, the effort is rewarded with a 360 degree view of the Smokies and beyond, including five states. Plaques in the four compass directions explain the landmarks below. Sometimes, air pollution reduces the magnificent views by as much as 80%.
Because of its height and exposure, the weather and environment on Clingmans Dome is similar to spruce-fir forests of eastern Canadian. Fraser firs, planted and sold as Christmas trees, grow wild on the mountain. Unfortunately, from the top of Clingmans Dome, visitors also see an ocean of dead Fraser firs that look like matchsticks. The trees were killed by balsam wooly adelgid, an aphid-like insect accidentally imported from European nursery stock. This process started in the 1950s – acid rain didn’t help either.
A little way up the paved trail, a Civilian Conservation Corp structure housed the comfort stations. While Clingmans Dome Road was closed, the building was remodeled into an information center which holds a bookstore and park literature. The bookstore opens today – it was controlled chaos when I popped in the building and I left quickly in case they asked me to shift some boxes.
Now you’ll be able to buy books (including Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage), maps and bottled water on the way to the tower. Great Smoky Mountains Association, the cooperating partner in the Smokies which manages the bookstores in the Park, funded the remodeling. The bathrooms were moved below to the parking area.
The most common question I was asked was “How many times do you do this a day?”
“Well,” I answered. “It depends on how many nice visitors like you I talk to.” The point is not to exercise on Smokies time but to interact with visitors. Yesterday, I went up and down twice.
“What’s with the trees?” See above.
“Am I in North Carolina or Tennessee?” “Where’s the A.T.?” And my favorite, “How do I get to volunteer?”
I talked to 70 people on the trail and the parking area. It will be a busy summer on “top of old Smoky”.