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Welcoming fall at the top of the Smokies

Clingmans Dome ramp

Editor’s note: In 2022, the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians unanimously supported a resolution to restore the name Kuwohi to the mountain presently known as Clingmans Dome. In light of a forthcoming application to the US Board of Geographic Names, which maintains the authority to officially change the name of the mountain, this article uses the name Kuwohi (ᎫᏬᎯ), which translates from Tsalagi, the Cherokee language, to “mulberry place” in English. Visit to learn more.

Observation tower at Kuwohi
The major attraction at Kuwohi is the observation tower atop the peak. Somewhat controversial when it was built in 1960 because of its modern design, the tower offers some of the best long-range views in the park. Photo by Wayne Hsieh, CC by NC.

The first Friday of autumn delivered an overflow crowd to Kuwohi, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a perennial magnet for visitors. Although this peak is the tallest mountain in the state of Tennessee and the highest point along the 2,190+ mile Appalachian Trail, it can be reached relatively easily via a seven-mile road that begins near Newfound Gap along US 441, which bisects the national park.

It was a mostly clear day, and all along the rocky perimeter of the parking area, folks were posing for photos with the long sweep of mountain ridges in the background. Some came looking for the first hints of the autumn color change that soon will move through the rest of the park, and, indeed, there were spots of red and orange to be found. Many simply want to stand on the park’s high ground. Others come for the deep green of the spruce-fir forest that thrives at this elevation. And the views—on clear days—can stretch across 100 miles.

“A spectacular view,” said Thomas Stauffer, up from Savannah, Georgia, for a week-long visit to the park. “Row after row of mountains off into the distance, green as far as you can see. And the cool breeze. We left 95 degrees behind at home.”

The major attraction at Kuwohi is the observation tower atop the peak. Somewhat controversial when it was built in 1960 because of its modern design, the tower offers some of the best long-range views in the park. Reaching the top requires some work, however, as the half-mile paved path approaching the tower is steep. It’s quite a challenge for many visitors, some of whom start the incline with good intentions but never stand on the tower. “Maybe another day,” as one said, breathing hard.

Clingmans Dome ramp
On clear days, the view from Kuwohi can stretch across 100 miles. Photo by Harry Cooke.

Another choice for visitors is the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. Starting at a point on the paved path, the Bypass Trail is only about a half-mile long but gives hikers up-close looks at sandstone rocks that are many millions of years old.

For those willing to do the climb to the tower, the relatively short distance from the parking lot to the top can result in a significantly different view. On days when visitors can see for miles from the parking area, the observation tower might be cloaked in fog, offering an entirely different look at the Smokies—if one can see through the haze. Susan Dorman, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, made the climb to the top and reported a web of fog encircling the mountain’s highest point.

“It was so much different from down here,” she said, standing near her car. “It’s amazing how much cooler and foggier it is not that far away. But looking down on the treetops through the fog was a great view.”

Just then, a brisk wind blew in from the north, and more than a few visitors, after approaching the path to the top of the mountain, returned to their cars for jackets and sweaters. As the wind and the hints of autumnal color reassured us, summer ends sooner on the roof of the Smokies.


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Great Smokies

Welcome Center

Hours of Operation

(subject to change)

Open year round (closed December 25)

January - February

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

March - November

Open Daily 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

Physical Address

7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882


865.436.7318 Ext 320