#16  Clingman's Dome, Tennessee (6,643 ft.)

Clingman's Dome, the most visited of all the state highpoints, is also the highest elevation reached on the Appalachian Trail. But the experience of Clingman's summit, one might argue, is compromised by the hoards of tourists wheezing up the short but steep paved path to the tower erected on it, affectionately known as the Flying Saucer, seen here in its foggy finery.

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I suggest visiting Clingman's Dome once, just to do it and check it off your list. Be prepared, however. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an awesome place, but it attracts a wide cross section of tourists, some of whom look like they have not set foot out of doors (or off the sofa) in many a year. Why such people should invariably and suddenly get the bug to schlepp up the Clingman's Dome summit walkway is beyond me, but they do, and you can see their heaving bodies beached along the numerous benches that line that path. Let's not even mention the Korean tourist I saw wonder off the pavement to get a closer video shot of the sow black bear and her cubs. Or the teeming parking lot, a feature strangely celebrated in early postcards. Or the singularly uninspired architecture of the Flying Saucer, whose only redeeming benefit, other than its nickname, might be as a bad example of an early and, I'd be willing to bet, wholly unintentional example of ADA-compliant design.



Dolley Double Feature: Flying Saucer in the Fog 1 and 2

But let's face it: unless you're like me and feel the need to get better visual documentation every few years (or every few iterations of the iPhone, more accurately), then you have no good reason to return there unless you're making a study of the weird things we humans do to "celebrate" the tops of tall mountains. Thus, for your second trip there, I suggest taking the harder but much more interesting trip up nearby Mount LeConte, amble on over to the Cliff Tops overlook, and sneak a peak of Clingman's Dome, to the west, through binoculars, which have the effect of making the Flying Saucer look like a backyard waterslide. Some of these photos, in fact, are from my hike to LeConte Lodge, a superb mountaintop retreat and the only facility of its kind in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Check out the excellent blog High on LeConte.) By all means stay overnight; to reach it I took the Alum Cave Trail, which passes through a narrow rock bridge and underneath a fabulous overhang (watch out for falling ice if you do it in cold weather). My chief regret about LeConte, but happily a great excuse to return some day, is that my ascent did not overlap with the fabled llamas that resupply the lodge throughout the season. This (Dolley) Llama will be back to visit his harder-working brethren.

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