Sunrises! Its what we at Up N' Adam Adventures live for. Its what gets us up time and time again at the wee hours of the morning. That giant Nuclear reactor in the sky that fuels life as we know it. It waits for no one, is always right on time, and is always NEVER the same. The anticipation of its arrival and the joy when it finally breaks the horizon can not be matched. There is no better place on the earth to witness this daily event than in the Smokies. On this edition of the SMOKIES 6 we take you on a journey to the Top 6 location that offer the most breathtaking sunrise experience. Set your alarm clock early, skip the Pancake lines, and be prepared for extreme awesome!
Number 6: Foothills Parkway (Cosby side)
We start our list with an easy drive down the foothills parkway It is a multi-segment scenic drive that provides outstanding views. While technically part of the National park it is just outside the boundary of the main section of the park and looks back into it. For the best views of sunrise make your way to the east side in the Cosby area of the parkway.
On interstate 40 just passed the Wilton Springs exit as you head towards North Carolina, the foothills Parkway crosses a Smoky’s “foothill”and connects to State Route 321 which can be taken all the way to Gatlinburg along the western border of the great Smoky Mountains national Park.
As you drive the foothills Parkway, there are two pull offs on the northwest side looking back at Newport and two pull offs on the southeast side looking directly at Mt Cammerer. At the upper pull off of the northeast facing slope, when the conditions are right with some Upper level clouds, sunrise is a beautifully magical experience looking at the distinct nose of Mount Cammerer.
Fall is especially impressive as the colors along the parkway seem to explode! Pack your patience because this section is no secret so traffic can be heavy. Don’t try in the winter As the road is closed seasonally.
Number 5: Oconaluftee Overlook
In at number 5, Oconaluftee Overlook (or "Luftee" as its listed in google maps) is one of the most easily accessible sunrise viewing locations in the Smokies, and a fantastic one at that! Located on US-441 just south of Clingmans Dome, its the first pull-off on the right after passing Newfound Gap, headed south from Tennessee to North Carolina. Oconaluftee overlook is known for it symmetrical mountain layers and a very popular spot for photographers searching for that "killer" sunrise, especially those who may not be able, or simply don't want to hike to get to their desired spot.
Oconaluftee is also the temporary location for "base" or loading zone for the yearly Leconte lodge helicopter drop. Usually mid to late March each year, the Lodge contracts a company for their helicopter services, restocking the Lodge of its yearly supplies ranging from 150 gallon? propane tanks, bed linens, food, merchandise and other essentials. The Oconaluftee parking area is closed off during the few days it usually takes to complete the drop.
Take the 35-minute drive from Gatlinburg or the 90(ish) minute drive from downtown Knoxville to experience this mountainous layer sunrise. You won’t regret it.
Number 4: The Jump off
Are you looking for that spot you can have all to yourself? Then the Jump Off is the spot for you.
It is one of 3 on this list that you must hike to but is the easiest at only 3.3 miles. However, be warned that night hiking is required to get there in time. The Jump Off is a magnificent sunrise viewing location in our great park. It overlooks the Appalachian trail, Tennessee Valley, and if you look close enough you can see Charlies Bunion down below.
Start by heading North bound on the Appalachian trail from Newfound gap at about 2.7 miles you will come to the Boulevard trail junction where you will take a left. Just .2miles after getting on The Boulevard trail, "The Jump Off" sign will be on your left and the spur trail on your right. The spur trail is not marked from here, although worn from heavy traffic over the years, there are a few tricky spots and one could find himself lost quick, be very alert and aware of the trail at all times.
The Jump Off sits on the edge of Mount Kephart and is properly named. Once you reach the end of the spur trail you will come to a cliff type overlook, with hundreds of feet, straight down drop offs. Thankfully, there is a little vegetation along the edges of the cliff, or this would be quite scary for those afraid of heights.
Number 3: Mt Cammerer
For number 3 on our list the views begin to get more outstanding but the work to get there becomes harder.
Mt. Cammerer (don’t ask us how to pronounce it) sits along the Appalachian trail in the Eastern part of the park. But the summit of Mt Cammerer is not what you’re after. A little off the side stands a western style lookout tower which offers one of the most spectacular sunrise opportunities in the south east. It straddles the state line between Tennessee’s Cocke county and North Carolina’s Haywood County.
Mount Cammerer received its name in honor of Arno B Cammerer, Director of the Park service in the late 1930s. Before that It was known to locals as “white rocks” or “Sharptop”. Built by the civilian conservation Corps and maned for several years as a fire tower Until the 1960s. After not being used, it fell into disrepair but was restored in 1996. It’s Most easily accessible via low gap trail starting from the Cosby campground Lowgap Intersects the Appalachian Trail and leads to the .6 miles spur trail to the tower itself.
Make sure you eat your Wheaties when tackling this hike, it’s considered one of the most difficult day hikes in the park with an elevation gain of 3500 feet over the course of the 6- mile one-way hike. Most of this elevation gain comes along low gap trail before intersecting the Appalachian Trail but expect a little more work before you reach the crest of the mountain leading to the tower. Although the tower is open, camping inside is not allowed so plan your trip accordingly. Most people usually start this hike at 2 or 3 am to arrive on time.
We suggest you arrive 30 minutes before sunrise to take advantage of the predawn colors in the sky.
Number 2: Myrtle Point on Mt. Leconte
Myrtle Point is the king of sunrise spots if you find yourself in top of Mt. LeConte one morning.
Located East of the Leconte Lodge and just south of the Boulevard trail, Myrtle point is at the end of what is considered a spur trail off the Boulevard trail, as you approach the top. Viewing a sunrise from Myrtle point takes great determination as it requires a 6ish mile hike in the dark without staying at the Lodge or in the shelter.
During the "Off-season" for the lodge, there's a great chance you'll have the sunrise entirely to yourself, and usually no more than 2-4 people, if that. But while the Lodge is hosting guest (March-November), you can expect anywhere from 5- 15 people on a somewhat average sunrise but can have 30-35 from time to time. If you don't like night hiking and your wallet is not fat enough for the lodge there is a primitive 3-sided shelter near by and can reserve to stay the night before.
Nonetheless, it's it one of the most special sunrise locations because it takes work and effort to get to. Part of the spur trail is ridgeline hiking and without the vegetation that is currently in place, this hike would be downright scary. But the bushes and trees disguise the drop offs and is an easy spur Trail to manage.
While heading to Myrtle Point on your left you will have views of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville and on your right, occasional views of Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap and "The Chimneys".
Number 1: CLINGMANS DOME
We have reached the number one spot. The Smokies sunrise mecca Clingmans Dome!
The Dome, as we like to refer to it, offers one of the most panoramic views in the eastern United States. It stands 6643 feet above sea level making it the tallest point in Tennessee, and the tallest peak in the Smokies. Also, it’s the third highest peak east of the Mississippi river. When taking State Route 441 between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, the Clingmans dome access road is close to Newfound Gap. In addition, the Appalachian trail crosses Clingmans Dome making at the highest point of the over 2000-mile trail between Main and Georgia.
Sunsets and sunrises can both be observed and are spectacular when the top of the mountain is not shrouded in clouds. This is a big IF however, because the dome is fogged in 1/3 of the time. From newfound gap, drive the 7-mile road to a generous parking area. Don’t expect to do this between December 1 and April 1 as Clingmans Dome Road is closed for the season. However, you can still hike this strenuous hike during the winter months.
From the parking lot, there is a steep half mile walk on a paved trail to the observation tower standing another 54 feet above the surrounding forest. Sweeping vista views of western North Carolina are visible from the parking lot all the way up to the tower itself. If you prefer, just across from the visitor center take Forney Creek trail to the Clingmans Dome bypass Road which is also a half mile but not paved and not nearly as populated. For good reason, Clingmans Dome is a very popular tourist spot.
If you don’t want to walk the 1⁄2 mile, then that’s OK because the parking lot itself provides an amazing view of sunrise. Furthermore, located at the entrance to the parking lot is the most photographed tree in the park. “THE DOME COMB TREE”. Whether you watch sunrise from the tower, or the parking lot be sure snag a pic of this famous tree.
We hope you enjoyed this edition of Smokies 6 and hope you have been inspired to get out there and feed your mind and soul with the greatest show in the Smokies.