I had already been to the top of Clingman’s Dome twice in the past and seen nothing, but I already knew this time would be different. Low level clouds clung to the mountains below. The clouds higher in the sky were beginning to break and the horizon was clear. The sun was starting to beam through the clouds. I was finally about to see one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever witnessed, and from the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Two hours earlier I pulled into the large parking lot just a half mile from Clingman’s Dome. This is as close as vehicles can get; from here the journey continues on two-legged power. The view from the parking area is pretty amazing as well, and sometimes on cloudy days the view is better here than at the top because the top of Clingman’s Dome will be shrouded in the clouds.
But not today. I changed into some good hiking shoes, grabbed my camera bag, and headed up the mountain. The concrete path to the top is wide and smooth, but make not mistake about it: it’s steep and strenuous. The half mile trail is marked by a bench every tenth of a mile to give weary hikers a place to sit and catch their breath. Although the concrete path is smooth and a ramp leads to the top of the observation tower I would not recommend trying to get a wheelchair up there because of the steep angle.
I popped into the gift shop for a moment. It’s a nice gift you really wouldn’t expect near the top of a mountain. The shop had the usual t-shirts, books, and knick knacks along with the stamp for the national park passport. But for me the most useful part of the gift shop was the friendly staff. They have become accustomed to people asking about the weather conditions at the top so they were able to help encourage me to take the journey because conditions today were promising.
It took me about half an hour to reach the top, mostly because my thirty pounds in photography and video equipment slowed me down. There are plenty of places to sit at the base of the tower before heading up the final jaunt. The long, looping ramp provides a better view with every step toward the top, with the final step onto the large covered platform certain to take your breath away.
Of course I had been here twice already in the past. The first time in August 2013 the sky was almost entirely overcast and a cloud was shrouding the mountain top. The second time in September 2014 the mountain top was so foggy I literally could not see my hand three feet from my face. But in August 2016 I decided to spend an entire week at the national park for my birthday and had the opportunity to plan my return to Clingman’s Dome.
This time I was treated to a breathtaking sunset view from 6,644′ that I will never forget. I captured some of my favorite sunset photos ever, and some of those have gone on to become best sellers at my photography gallery. I had a wonderful conversation with the people there with me that evening; they were all intrigued about my two GoPro cameras and two Nikon DSLR’s capturing photos and timelapse videos at the same time. I shared tips on how to take better photos with a cellphone and demonstrated the Snap Seed app for quickly editing photos.
Most of the people had left by the time the sun hit the horizon. I couldn’t blame them; even though it was late August it was still chilly up there, and it was only getting colder now that the sun was gone. But I managed to talk a few people into lingering around for the amazing light show a setting sun puts on sometimes. But as the colors began to fade I began to pack my gear. Of course the journey down didn’t take nearly as long as the journey up and I was back in my car in just fifteen minutes.
I sat there for awhile with a big, goofy grin on my face. That was one of the most dramatic sunsets I had ever witnessed. I captured photos of the entire event. And a timelapse video. But most of all I was there. I was right there at the highest point in the national park watching this for myself. So now I ask: what is keeping you from witnessing your own dramatic sunset from Clingman’s Dome?