THE HIKE: The first part of this hike mirrors the hike to the Chimney Tops. All total we will be doing 6.6 miles on this round trip strenuous hike. Many of most of you are already familiar with the Chimney Tops Trail, so I will not rehash all of that here. But suffice it to say, this trail goes up, up, and up. The rehab on this trail will be apparent from the beginning. The crossings are better, the trail is better and more stable…it’s just all better. But guess what? It is still hard.
This trail was used heavily in the days before there were roads going up and over Newfound Gap and was still used pretty heavily after the first roads were put in. Since that time, you won’t see a lot of people on this trail. It is busiest during winter when Clingmans Dome Road is closed, but it is busy only by comparison. It is, however, one of the best ways to reach Clingmans Dome Road when that road is closed for winter, especially if you are a cross country skier.
As I have said before, the trail is steep, and that has not changed despite the rehab. Wear good hiking boots, preferably waterproof, for this hike. More on that later. There are still rocks and roots; mostly rocks; all over the place. The inclines will bend your ankles and your back, but it is exhilarating nonetheless. As you and what seems like everybody else in the national park hike this together, when you get .9 mile in the trail splits. The Chimney trail goes off to the right. The Road Prong keeps moving straight ahead…and up. Keep going straight. It is likely nobody will follow you along this trail. In fact, people will probably look at you weird wondering where the heck you are going. the last time I hiked this trail, I had someone stop me after the trail junction and said, “You know the Chimney’s are this way, right?” I politely told the man I was hiking to Clingmans Dome and continued.
The next 2.4 miles of solitude will be nice. It will also hide the heavy breathing you will be doing from the continued steep inclines and the constant doubling over to catch your breath. But regardless, it is still pretty cool. You will be gaining a lot of elevation. If you have driven between Chimney Tops and Clingman’s Dome Road, you know it is a long way up over many miles. This covers the same elevation in just 3.3 miles. Obviously also, as you go up, the views are going to continue to get better and better. There is a lot of tree cover, but it opens up here and there for some amazing views.
This area has some places that have a very narrow trail path like you often see along the AT, but what is different is that the path is very often covered with rocks. In fact, it almost seems like the rocks are the trail in several places. They are doable, but will no doubt slow you down. Again, wear good boots.
You will also be right along side Road Prong Creek for most of the trail. You will also have several crossings over it without the aid of footbridges. This isn’t much of a big deal because with all the rocks, you can rock hop it pretty easily without getting wet, but waterproof boots are still a good idea. The only time it might be hard to rock hop is after a big snow starts melting and winding the water back downhill. Other than that, you should be good.
There are several small waterfalls along this trail that are unofficial, meaning that they won’t be on any trail maps or signage along an official park trail. Side trails to get to them are pretty easy and short. They are occasionally a little overgrown, but it will still be obvious where to go. Waterfalls are small like I said and range anywhere from 10-15 feet, but they are still really nice to see and great places to take a break, which believe me, you will want to. As you finish the trail off, you will come to the junction with the Appalachian Trail and just a little further you will run right onto Clingmans Dome Road.
It is cool to be on this part of the AT because almost nobody hikes it except thru hikers or section hikers, so you can have some really good conversations with people. It is also neat and weird to be on Clingmans Dome Road with no cars on it during winter. You can stand in the middle of the road with no worries. For some reason, I always end up looking over my shoulders for oncoming cars.
Obviously the views from here are excellent. You have climbed over 2000 feet in less than 3.5 miles and are standing at over 6000 feet in altitude. Definitely bring the camera. From here you have a choice to make. If you want to do this as a shuttle hike, have a car meet you at Newfound Gap. You will take a left onto the Appalachian Trail for 1.7 miles to the parking area. You could also hike south to Clingmans Dome, but that does add an extra 12 miles roundtrip, so I probably wouldn’t recommend that to you unless you are in really good shape or staying overnight. The problem is that there is really nowhere along this stretch to camp. The only thing there is Mount Collins Shelter which is halfway up to the Dome.
Your last option is to simply stop once you reach Clingman’s Dome Road and turn around and retrace your steps. Keep in mind that this will take you more time than the typical descent just due to the steepness and the huge amount of rocks. In fact, if you can take all the rocks from this trail and line them up, they would go around the world twice. Okay, I have absolutely no proof of that. But I bet you’ll agree with me when you get done.
Overall this is a hike that offers easy access at a great location. You have to work for it, but is great. If you really want a challenge, hike to the Chimney Tops on your way down. It only adds 2.2 miles roundtrip. Enjoy!