Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Trail Review: Andrews Bald from Clingman's Dome, GSMNP

Andrews Bald, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Trail: Andrews Bald from Clingmans Dome
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN & NC
Trail Length: 3.6 Miles (4.6 miles to also hike for view at observation deck atop Clingmans Dome)
Difficulty: Moderate
Solitude: Moderate (start early for lesser crowds)

If you find yourself passing by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with only a few hours to spare, this might just be the best quick hike in the park. This trail begins at the Clingmans Dome parking lot and heads down the mountain to a beautiful clearing on the side of the mountain referred to as a "bald." Clingmans Dome is the highest point of elevation in the park and one of the highest points in the eastern U.S. The park has a steep, paved  half-mile "trail" to a spiral observation tower atop the mountain with stunning 360 degree views, especially on clear days. (Taking this walk would add a mile round trip.) Getting to this trailhead involves a winding but beautiful drive through the park with many other spectacular views. Once you reach the top of the mountain and the parking lot, be prepared for temperatures much colder than the low lands where you started. Despite pleasant, mild May weather in the flatlands when I visited, the sharp, whipping winds on the observation tower led to numb fingers as my gloveless hands floundered with camera and tripod controls. The strong gusts also led to less than sharp photographs, as both my tripod and the trees I was photographing never stopped swaying long enough for perfectly still motion. The light, however, was beautiful atop the mountain and was a great way to start my day before descending down the mountain a couple of miles to Andrews Bald.

Sunrise at Clingmans Dome GSMNP
A beautiful sunrise despite cold, gusting winds on the observation tower. The dead trees are Fraser firs which, unfortunately, have fallen victim to a small insect introduced from Europe, the balsam wooly adelgid, which as killed over 70 percent of the trees in the park.

The downward trek offers nice though limited views of the higher elevations of the park in the earliest parts of this trail. The first quarter mile or so is fairly steep but very well-maintained with stair-like structures of logs and stone. Once through the steep section, the dark, lush woods of an old growth forest swallow one's field of vision with enormous spruce and fir trees all around. A trail juncture to the Appalachian Trail occurs shortly after entering the dense forest. Continue left (as indicated by clearly marked signs) to proceed to the bald. At this point, the trail is fairly flat and easy to traverse. After a few twists and turns and very modest elevation rises, one suddenly sees daylight ahead and, in only a few steps, a mountainside "meadow" suddenly appears. You are now on Andrews Bald with several acres of lush green grasses and expansive views of the mountains ranges below. No better a picnic spot could be had in all of the Smokies. Today, the park maintains the balds with weed trimmers and lawn mowers to mimic the original formations. No definitive conclusion has been reached for the existence of the balds. Some suspect grazing animals and others guess fires. Regardless, these lush spaces, and Andrews Bald in particular, offer some of the most distinct features of the park and provide a big payoff for relatively little effort. 

Deep, lush woods of an old growth forest make up the center of a trail bookended by spectacular views
Andrews Bald, a meadow in the sky
Andrews Bald - "a meadow in the sky."
GSMNP, view from Clingman's Dome, mid morning
The trek back up from Andrews Bald offers a second view from Clingmans Dome at a different time of day. I took this one at mid morning from the parking lot, and the light was still great. I didn't have to worry about the heavy winds from early morning on the observation tower, either.

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