Now here's the trick: don't hike up to the Clingman's Dome's UFO-looking observation tower, at least don't just do that. It's crowded, and, especially in the summer, it feels like you're at EPCOT more than in the Park. Instead, take the trail branching off at the beginning of the Clingman's Dome path, Forney Ridge Trail. From here you can enjoy an easy 3.5 mile round-trip hike to the highest bald in the Smokies through an aromatic spruce forest that must be the inspiration for Christmas stores everywhere. Sure you won't be at the top of the mountain, but usually the views on Clingman's are hazy anyway, and you're still above 6,000 feet almost the entire hike. Here's the reward:
This beautiful mountain meadow features wildflowers and blueberries (in late summer) and epic vistas (year round). It's much better than the observation platform, and it's bristling with wildlife too. We got there early in the morning, and we saw a hog run off through the bushes, and there were all kinds of songbirds.
Can anyone do this hike? Well, the cardio-vascular effort isn't very demanding; the elevation only changes around 900 feet over the entire hike, but the trail is rugged for the first half. Bad ankles and knees won't do well, and if it's wet it could be pretty slick. Other than that, the hike is more of a stroll than an expedition. Here are some trail shots:
A couple of important notes: 1) there are two trail interesections, so make sure you remember you're going to "Andrews Bald" via the Forney Ridge Trail, not the Forney Creek Trail (see the photo of the signs below) 2) Go in the early morning or late afternoon. The light's better (see photo above), and the crowds are smaller. I try to time a hike in a busy place like this with dinner or breakfast to keep crowd interaction minimal.
This is a good example to live by in the Smokies. With just a small bit of effort and know-how you can beat the crowds and have a wonderful experience. By the way, I saw a black bear on the drive out yesterday. A nice cherry on top!