Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome
The 4.8 mile Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome hike leads to a grassy bald and offers 360-degree views from an observation tower on the tallest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One of the things that we wanted to accomplish on our trip to the Smokies was a hike to one of the many balds in the park. After a long day of hiking the day before to Charlies Bunion and The Jumpoff, we decided on a shorter hike to a bald, but we also wanted to include a visit to the famous viewpoint, Clingmans Dome.
We started off early in the morning and it looked like decent weather. On our way down Clingmans Dome Road, we saw that clouds were beginning to roll in. When we arrived in the parking lot, there wasn’t a lot of nearby views as clouds were beginning to roll in. During the early part of this week, I kept thinking of the Mark Twain quote about New England – “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.” I felt the same about the Smoky Mountains. The clouds rolled away during our trip to Charlies Bunion, so I was hoping the same would hold true at Clingmans Dome.
We made a quick trip to the top of Clingmans Dome first and the views were completely covered in clouds. There were a couple of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers that were actually camped overnight at the top of the dome. We were surprised to see hikers that had just started a few weeks ago, compared to March or April when most will get started. I wondered if they would make it to the northern terminus of Mount Katahdin in Maine before it closed off due to winter snow. The weather looked like it may change, so we headed down to decide if we should attempt the hike to Andrews Bald.
We talked to a few park rangers about what they thought the weather would do based on their experience up here and if we should expect rain. They said that it was expected to clear up later in the morning, but we would probably have some storms in the afternoon. We gathered our gear and decided to hit the trails.
The trail to Andrews Bald starts from the large Clingmans Dome parking lot. As you’re walking past the bathrooms and towards the paved trail to Clingmans Dome, you will see a sign to the left marking a few trails. You head down a few stairs and start the hike to Andrews Bald. The trail starts off as a steep downhill. At .2 miles, you reach the junction with the Forney Ridge Trail. Bear left continue your descent on the Forney Ridge Trail. The trail is quite rocky in the beginning and can be slick if there has been recent rain, but the trail is well-constructed through this area. At 1.1 miles, the trail reaches another junction with the Forney Creek Trail, branching off to the right. Just stay on the Forney Ridge Trail and follow the sign towards Andrews Bald. The trail begins to be through dense forest and there are a series of strategically-placed, wooden planks that help provide footing on a sometimes-muddy trail. At 1.8 miles, the forest opens up and you reach the Andrews Bald area. Enjoy the views and then head back the way you came.
When you reach the first junction at 3.4 miles with the trail back to the parking lot, just stay straight on the Forney Ridge Trail. You will immediately begin to see the difference in how the trail is maintained as this is a steady uphill through some loose rocky areas. The trail continues to climb for another half mile; at 3.9 miles, you reach the junction with the Appalachian Trail. Take a right on the white-blazed AT heading North. You will be walking along the ridge which will open up views on both sides almost instantly. At 4.2 miles, you will come out to the paved trail for Clingmans Dome. Head to the left and climb up the winding path of the observation tower at Clingmans Dome. Once reaching the top, wind back down but take the paved path down which leads past a gift shop and then to the parking lot which should bring your trip total to 4.8 miles.
When we reached the top of the tower the second time, the clouds were covering most of the area again. We were able to get a few views, but I can only imagine how beautiful this could be on a clear day. This is the highest point in the Smokies (and also the entire state of Tennessee), reaching 6643 feet. Since this area is home to the Cherokee, this mountain is known to this Native American tribe as Kuwahii, meaning “Mulberry Place” and is considered sacred. Cherokee legend believes this mountaintop to be a place where the bears danced before hibernation. The clouds that often lie in the valleys between the mountains were seen as lakes where sick bears would go to heal themselves.
The trip to Clingmans Dome is a must when you visit the park. You can do this as a short but steep .5 mile walk up the paved path to Clingmans Dome, but I’m glad we did a hike that made you feel like you earned the views. While this hike did meet our goal to visit one of the balds, I’ve heard that Andrews Bald pales in comparison to Gregory Bald or Silers Bald. On our next trip, we definitely plan to visit one of those.
We got up on Monday morning, still undecided about what hike we wanted to do that day. We knew we wanted to see one of the Smokies’ famous balds, we just weren’t sure which one would fit best into our plans for the week. We also knew we wanted to visit the observatory atop Clingmans Dome, so we narrowed it down to two balds – Silers or Andrews.
Andrews was a significantly shorter hike – 3.6 miles (4.8 with the Clingmans Dome add-on) compared to 10. But, Silers was larger and had a more interesting ridge hike with most of the hike staying about 6,000 ft. In the end, the weather made the decision for us. When we arrived at Clingmans Dome – the starting point for both hikes – the clouds were thick and dark. In the end, we decided to go for the shorter hike to Andrews Bald. Balds and high ridges are not where you want to be stuck when a thunderstorm rolls through!
The hike to the bald was mostly downhill. It followed an elaborately constructed trail of stone slabs, timber-blocked steps, water bars, and plank board walks. It passed through dense, mossy forests – thick with rhododendrons, ferns and fir trees. Again, it was so breathtakingly beautiful and different from hiking in Virginia. As we walked, the sun made an effort to burn through the clouds and fog.
The trail passed a couple junctions to other trails, but to reach Andrews Bald, we just stayed on the Forney Ridge trail. Eventually, the trail passed through a thick tunnel of rhododendron and opened out onto the bald.
Andrews Bald is not very large. It consists of a small grassy/shrubby field, peppered with rhododendron, azalea and other low-lying plants. When we visited, the rhododendrons were just about to open. There were lots of bright pink buds on the branches, but no open flowers. I bet the scene will be even prettier in early to mid June when everything is flowering.
The view from the bald was lovely and expansive – though the sky was quite hazy. We sat for a few minutes and had a quick snack. While we relaxed, we noticed darker clouds were rolling in again, so we decided to make our way back.
The return trip retraced our steps most of the way. However, about .1 miles from the Clingman’s Dome parking area, we decided to skip the spur trail to the car and continue uphill along Forney Ridge to its junction with the Appalachian Trail. This half mile segment was steep and rocky and passed through a stand of huge dead fir trees.
Once we gained the ridge, we took a right and headed north for .3 miles along the Appalachian Trail. There were a couple nice views along the way and even a glimpse of the parking area through the trees.
The trail came out close to the base of the observatory. We made a second climb up the tower to see if the view was any clearer. It wasn’t – in fact; within a few moments a giant bank of fog rolled in and covered the view completely. We ate some lunch on the bench in the tower and did a little people watching. Eavesdropping on conversation, I was amazed to hear so many people had never heard of the Appalachian Trail. They were stunned, upon reading the plaque at the summit, that there was an actual walking trail from Georgia to Maine.
After we finished eating, we walked the half-mile paved trail back down to the parking area. Several people stopped us to ask if we were thru-hikers or if we were ‘headed to Maine.’ I guess trekking poles and wicking shirts make us look very serious about the outdoors. We politely replied that we were mere dayhikers, but it would have been funny to tell people that we expect to be in Maine by mid-August. Technically… that is true – only we’ll be arriving by car for a week-long vacation in Acadia.
After wrapping up our hike, we drove into Cherokee and visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. Both places were beautiful, fascinating and informative. And, by the time we came out of the museum, it was thundering, lightning and pouring down rain. We definitely made the right choice, but next time we’ll visit Silers Bald!
- Distance – 4.8 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1200 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The trail from Andrews Bald to the AT is mostly uphill with a few steep sections.
- Trail Conditions –3.5. The upper part of the Forney Ridge Trail has loose rock, but the trail is generally well-maintained. The hike down from Clingmans Dome is paved, but steep.
- Views– 5. Expansive views from Andrews Bald and 360-degree views from Clingmans Dome. On a very clear day, you could see for 100 miles in all directions.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 1.5 Other than birds and maybe an occasional squirrel, I wouldn’t expect a lot of wildlife here due to the popularity of the trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Signs at junctions are well-labeled and stand out, but make sure you stay on the correct trail.
- Solitude –1. The hike to Andrews Bald is one of the most-traveled trails in the park, and expect crowds at Clingmans Dome most days.
Directions to trailhead: From December 1st through March 31st (and some other days based on weather), the road to Clingmans Dome is closed. From Newfound Gap Road/441 take the Clingmans Dome road (south of the Newfound Gap parking area). The road continues for seven miles until it reaches the large parking area. Past the bathrooms and to the left of the paved path up to the gift shop and Clingmans Dome, take the marked trail down the steps that leads to Andrews Bald.