This ten-mile hike follows the Appalachian Trail along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Most of the hike is above a mile high, so in open spots you get some very impressive views of the Smokies. The bald itself is rather disappointing, as it’s been mostly reclaimed by the forest, but we did enjoy the vistas and visiting two Appalachian Trail shelters.
This is a hike we planned on doing on our Spring 2012 Smokies trip, but we had so much stormy weather that we didn’t want to risk a long, mostly unprotected hike along mile-high ridgeline. So, we settled for the shorter trip to Andrews Bald. In the end, it actually turned out that Andrews Bald was a larger, more scenic bald than Silers. But, we still found many reasons beyond the slightly disappointing bald to enjoy this hike.
We started pretty early on Tuesday morning, after a lavish breakfast at The Pancake Pantry (Swedish Crepes with lingonberries!!). It was sunny in Gatlinburg, but as we made the drive toward the summit of Clingmans Dome, clouds began to envelop the mountain. At the very top, we were completely socked in. We knew it would burn off over the course of the morning, so we started the climb up the paved road to the observation tower.
From there, we picked up the Appalachian Trail. We followed it, descending downhill, sometimes steeply and sometimes gently. There were some sections of descent that caused Adam and I to look at each other and say ‘This is not going to be a fun climb back up!’
Since we were completely in the fog, we had no idea what views or scenery the trail would have to offer on the return hike. It was almost like doing one hike in the morning, and a completely different hike in the afternoon. I kind of like that! Also, the fog made the woods extremely beautiful and mysterious. There’s just something about mist and evergreens!
We saw lots of wildflowers, including some spectacular red trillium that Adam spotted. We listened to birds singing in the fog and watched the sky become increasingly brighter.
When we came to the first vista that wasn’t covered by fog, I got out my wide angle lens. Unfortunately, it had been sitting too close to my icy cold CamelBak water bag, so as soon as I got it out, it fogged up so badly I couldn’t take a single photo until it acclimated and dried out.
By the time we got to Double Springs Shelter, larger patches of blue were already opening in the sky. We took some time to read the shelter journal – lots of fun entries.
From Double Springs, the trail seemed to ascend and descend repeatedly. We watched the mileage on our GPS and thought that it was about time that we should be approaching the bald. Honestly, we could have passed it without notice. It wasn’t really much of a bald. It had been described in our guide as ‘a large, mostly grassy bald with a few heathers and berry bushes’. What we found was a small clearing with no grass, covered completely by tall bushes.
We thought ‘This can’t possibly be it!?’ But, it was – as confirmed by GPS data and our imminent arrival at the second shelter – Silers Bald Shelter. We ate lunch at the shelter – Subway and these awesome locally-made trail bars by Granola Naturals (Toffee and Chocolate Granola Crunch Bar – YUM!) that we picked up at the NOC.
Right after lunch, we headed back the way we came. The hike back was tough, hiking ten miles after climbing LeConte the day before was probably not the best plan. But when we’re in the Smokies – we hike ‘til we drop.
Most of the way was hard, but not unbearably tough. However, the last push to Clingmans Dome was about a mile of very steep climbing. My legs were screaming and all I could think was ‘put one foot in front of the other, repeat, repeat, repeat’. The only thing that softened the pain of the climb were the spectacular views! These views made me oooh and ahhh repeatedly. Despite my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘This is so darn gorgeous – worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat!’
There is nothing like hiking a mile-high ridge that offers views of the Smokies rolling out beneath you.
Back at the Clingmans Dome observation tower, we were met by massive crowds. Lots of people had questions and made comments about our trekking poles. An older guy called us ‘show-offs’ – not really sure why, but it was done jokingly. Adam and I really enjoyed seeing our first clear view from the tower. The two previous visits had both been low visibility/cloudy, so this visit was a real treat!
After the hike, we headed back into town for a massive feast on Mellow Mushroom pizza followed by Kilwins Ice Cream and free samples of just about every wine, whiskey and moonshine offered in Gatlinburg. I think the town offers so many free alcohol samples to loosen tourists’ purse-strings. After 14 moonshine samples, who knows – you may just wake up owning a new airbrushed t-shirt that says ‘Sexy and I Know It’ (not that I did that).
Christine and I had tried to get into good hiking shape for our trip to the Smokies. We had grand ideas of all we wanted to accomplish – Christine had picked about 120 miles of hiking trails she wanted to do. Christine did a much better job than I of getting in to shape. Accomplishing this 10 mile hike after finishing about 11.5 miles of hiking through steep terrain up Mount LeConte the previous day, took a toll on me. Since this hike is almost all downhill until you reach the bald and the shelter, I was dreading the return trip.
We enjoyed our trip last year to Andrews Bald where we were able to relax at a scenic spot from the bald area. Silers Bald is not very “bald” at all. In fact, I would say it doesn’t even show much of a receding hairline. But, there were some nice views along the trail elsewhere.
As Christine mentioned, we started off the hike in the thick fog. Visibility was minimal. We were hoping that the hike would be similar to our first hike up Mount Rogers, where it felt like a different hike on the return trip. Luckily, the fog lifted to give us this same experience. It also made us feel that we were continuing to hike to get the best views; otherwise, this hike would have been more of a disappointment if we had the best views early.
We started off by hiking from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot up the steep hill for .5 miles. The walk on the paved road is short, but very steep. There is a reason there are benches on the side of the paved trail. – it can be a challenge for those out of shape. Most of the people that are visiting Clingman’s Dome will just walk up the paved trail and return without venturing further. Expect to see a ton of people on this part of the trail, but you’ll have a lot of seclusion for the rest of the trail. After you near the winding tower of Clingman’s Dome, take the trail to the left that begins your hike on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll stay on the Appalachian Trail throughout your hike. At .75 miles, the trail opens up into an area filled with views along the trail. Continue to go downhill (you’ll descend about 1100 feet over a little over the next two miles). At 2.75 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the Goshen Prong Trail. Continue to go downhill and at 3.25 miles, you’ll reach the Double Spring Gap Shelter. The trail goes up and down slightly over this next section and at 3.75 miles, you’ll reach a smaller bald area known as Jenkins Knob.
We found Jenkins Knob to be a little more impressive than Silers Bald in terms of views and openness. The trail continues to mostly go downhill until it finally bottoms out around 4.5 miles. At this point, the trail begins an uphill climb to Silers Bald. At 4.7 miles, you pass the junction with the Welch Ridge Trail. The trail becomes quite steep at this point until you reach the top of Silers Bald. We found a USGS benchmark on the ground to signify the top of Silers Bald. The trail begins to descend from the benchmark and opens up to the area that is Silers Bald. The trail goes through the small bald area and reaches the Silers Bald overnight shelter at 5.1 miles. Retrace your steps, largely uphill, to make your way back.
We were dreading the climb back up, especially after hiking up Mount LeConte the day before, but we were rewarded with great views as the fog and clouds lifted. As we reached the paved trail to Clingman’s Dome, we climbed up to the top of the tower and we really felt like we earned the 360-degree views. The elevation is 6643 feet (the tower adds another 45 feet) and you can stand at the top of the tower knowing you are at the highest part of the Great Smoky Mountains. This spot is actually the third highest peak east of the Mississippi, to only be beaten by Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig. We enjoyed spotting Mount LeConte from the tower, since it is the sixth highest peak east of the Mississippi. We were ecstatic to see views from Clingman’s Dome, since the last two times we had visited we had clouds hanging on the mountain. The clouds were still taking up a lot of the skies, but it didn’t prevent us from seeing miles of mountain ranges around us.
Christine mentioned that we enjoyed going back to Gatlinburg, TN and eating some pizza and drinking some free moonshine and whiskey samples. While we didn’t feel the need to buy cheesy T-shirts, I definitely felt the need to visit the Hollywood Star Cars Museum. While Christine waited for me, I toured around quickly but the highlight for me was to sit in the Batmobile from the 1966 TV show with Adam West. I grew up watching re-runs of that show and it was my older brother’s favorite show as a child, so it was great to have something to make him jealous. You can pay a little extra on the tour to have your photo taken within some of the cars. I also got to see Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, a DeLorean from Back to the Future, KITT from Knight Rider, and the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard. It’s a neat place to check out if you’re into Hollywood cars.
- Distance –10 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 2200 ft. – it looks like closer to 1500 ft on GPS, but with all the rolling climbs it adds up to quite a bit more!
- Difficulty – 4. The climbing and descending never seem to end on this hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. This was mostly nice, well-worn Appalachian Trail walking. The climb to the observation tower in paved.
- Views – 3.5. Very nice, but not quite panoramic.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None on the hike.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a lot of fresh bear scat on the hike, but no bears. Clearly, they frequent the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well-marked with white blazes and signed at each junction.
- Solitude – 3. Expect thick crowds at the observation tower, thinning toward Double Spring Shelter. After Double Spring, we only saw a couple people.
Directions to trailhead: From US-441, head south a short distance from Newfound Gap. Take a right on to Clingmans Dome Road. Go 6.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot area. The paved trail up to Clingmans Dome starts at the end of the parking lot, passing a visitors center/gift shop.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.