Thursday morning, September 20, 2012. I never seem to have trouble waking up early for a Clingman’s Dome sunrise. Never mind that they rarely turn out to be clear, with a magnificent array of colors just before the orange glow of the sun peaks about the mountain tops. No, I have found that a zero chance of rain at the lower elevations means nothing at the higher elevations, especially in the mornings. I have also found a soothing, richness in the beauty of a new start at the dome, even when fog is blowing through so hard it looks like it’s going to wrap around everything in its path and pull it into a new, strange world. Nothing there is what I consider normal. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
I usually manage to get some good images regardless. A spot among the fog that looks like a fist clenched in rage, topped with a glimpse of pinks and blues and all those wonderful hues of morning color. Or travel a few hundred yards and the sky may be clear again. If only I could be in more than one place at a time during those beautiful moments of pre-dawn color, and then the orange tint that bathes everything in its path.
On the morning of the 20th I headed out early for the sunrise, which was around 7:20 am. This meant leaving the place I stayed at before 6. Skies were clear for most of the trip, but as often happens fog began intermittently rolling through at the higher elevations, and as I reached my favorite sunrise spot on the road, I could see trees in the foreground and not too much else. Still, I captured a few good frames, with morning colors bleeding through at the top.
Driving on up the Clingman’s Dome road I passed a coyote walking alongside the road, not paying much attention to me. I saw three coyotes on my brief but enjoyable three day trip. Further up I spotted a view to the west with a much clearer spot, with some of the eastern beauty trying to spill over. You just never know what to expect up there.
I drove on up to the parking area at the top and tried to let the morning fog pass through, but it remained thick and embedded. With the temp 47 degrees, I finally started on the trail at 8:30, heading out to Siler’s Bald, a 4.7 mile trek in each direction. 9.4 mile round trip. This one is rated strenuous, and with the elevation changes I can see why.
I did not walk to the Clingman’s Dome top. I took the trail that goes toward the Andrews Bald trail (another hike I have done this year,) and at the intersection I walked 0.6 miles to the AT. This short piece is very rocky, and in places the stream seems to use the trail as a creek bed. It’s quite pretty to see actually and fun to walk through. One spot requires a bit of rock climbing, but overall, with the short distance, it is passable.
Turn left at the AT. If you go right at this point you will reach Clingman’s Dome in 0.3 miles. Take a left and start toward the Double Spring Gap Shelter. One thing you’ll notice at this point is you start walking downhill pretty quickly, and in some parts it’s quite steep. This should be ominous, considering you are not far into the trail. You will be climbing this prolonged incline on the way back, after walking 8+ miles. It’s tiring.
A hiker passed me on this section, on his way to a twenty mile day. His destination for the day was Spence Field. He talked about walking the entire AT one time, and how he was an accountant through April and then had time to do hikes. He was full throttle. He mentioned two older gentlemen he had passed and asked if I was with them. A while later they caught up with me and I did indeed stay with them, at least as long as I could keep up. They were neighbors and hiked often. I found one of them is eighty years old, and I could not keep pace after a while. I can blame it on my right knee that began tightening up on downhill portions of a host of other excuses, but they were better prepared. Can’t beat exercise and preparation. I want to be in that kind of physical condition at eighty, but time will reveal how badly I want it.
The shelter on the right is a good stopping point. On the day we stopped no one was there on the way in except the twenty miler. We saw him for the last time at this point. He told us a story of two hikers killed there years ago when chicken wire was installed in front of the sleeping bunks, and a lightning strike electrocuted the two. The shelter was redesigned afterwards. Water is available here from a natural spring. I saw a few butterflies floating around, not staying in one place long enough to take pics, but they still added to the beauty of the trail.
The shelter is more than half way to Silers Bald, so the remainder of the hike to the bald wasn’t too painful. The scenery began to take on a new life as the fog lifter. From a point after the shelter until I returned to the Clingman’s Dome parking area the lighting was beautiful. The haze that is so typical during the midday hours wasn’t as bad s normal. The colors popped, including the blue sky. I figure the heavy rains two days earlier may have helped clean the air.
The last portion of trail to Siler’s is very steep, so be prepared, but you’re almost there.
Siler’s Bald is marked by a small monument, which I have pictured. The two hikers and I walked a short ways further down the AT, thinking we had not reached the bald itself, but we determined the stories about the bald being grown up were true. Unlike neighboring Andrews Bald, which had much open space and beautiful vista, the one open area at Silers didn’t offer much of a photo op. I did venture down a narrow, more overgrown trail that led to an endpoint that may have been the bald. The scenery was beautiful after reaching a large rock, which is pictured. Initials are carved in the stone, and the date looks to be the 1930’s. I wonder if the date is genuine. Someone took some time to chisel it in.
On my return trip the initial downhill portion put pressure on my right knee, and I started limping and favoring the knee. My pace slowed considerably. I had no pain on the straights or uphill sections, but downhill caused me problems. After reaching the Double Spring Gap shelter later than my buddies and talking to two hikers down from New Jersey, I stayed with my two hiking partners for a half mile or so and finally I told them to go on. My knee had me walking very carefully, and I saw no reason to slow them down. I didn’t see them again.
Lots of hyper yellow butterflies on the ridgelines, with a few monarchs and other species fluttering along, making my walk more enjoyable. They seemed to be on stage, putting on a show for all that ventured their way. One almost landed on my camera lens. A hawk flew directly overhead, screaming his arrival. In the distance I saw a large bird that appeared light colors, flying into a covering of trees against a steep backdrop of a mountain.
One thing to remember about hiking from Clingman’s Dome; with it being the highest point, all the trails have to go down. That means, as you approach the end of your hike coming back and you’re already tired you have a steep uphill section. This is true when returning from Siler’s Bald or Andrews Bald, both of which are accessed from here. The last section between the shelter and the trail to the dome’s tower is brutal, in my opinion. Breathtaking scenery and well worth it, but very tiring if you aren’t accustomed to the terrain and the elevation.
I was resting on a section of rock during my hike up this section, nearing the end of my day, and I stopped and pulled out my small notebook and pen. I wrote (and rested) for about twenty minutes, and the thought came to me that I had an incredible panoramic view to my right of the rolling peaks, a much closer hill in front of me that stood out clear against the early afternoon sun, and more vistas over my shoulder, to my left. The trail was beautiful at this point with a few colors peeking through, and everything blending together into the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Blue skies with wisps of white, billowy clouds, scenery on both sides, and rolling hills that seemed to go on forever. However, when I first sat down all I could think about was sitting in my car, getting ready to head back. I was so tired in body. A byproduct of my lack of preparation? A chocolate covered, crème filled donut from Krispy Kreme sounded good for some reason. I recovered before long, and I enjoyed the beauty before resuming my hike.
The closely situated, formidable mountain still loomed in front of me, and I was glad I didn’t have to scale this one. Now there’s a thought, sometimes the overwhelming mountain can be sidestepped. Not every time; some things must be tackled head on. We need some trials to help us reach the point where we can take on challenges and reach our potential. And enjoy a fulfilling life.
Approaching the final stage of the hike I saw and photographed the Clingman’s Dome parking area. A different perspective, as the parking lot is as far in that direction that most people venture.
As I reached the junction and turned right to exit the AT and take the 0.7 mile walk toward the parking area a young couple, from Florida, walked up and we talked a while. They had crossed paths with the two gentlemen that I tried to keep up with, and when they met one of the gentlemen was out in front. They asked if he was alone, and he told them no I have a 15 year old lagging behind. Turned out to be his 80 year old friend, the one I couldn’t keep up with. Now that’s something to think about.
As I was getting in my car the parking lot was packed with visitors. I noticed a few had arms crossed, trying to stay warm in the 60 degree air. Perspective I suppose. They hadn’t been where I had been.
A beautiful trail, one full of mental imagery that you won’t get by looking off the roadside from pulloffs. You feel the scenery when you get out on these trails. The sights and smells are invigorating. And it will go home with you. Nature has a healing salve, it renews.