Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Clingmans Dome to Fork Ridge) Hike Route Map

MST - Clingmans Dome to Fork Ridge

For eastbound through-hikers of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, their journey begins here.  Atop the highest summit in the Great Smoky Mountains, the MST begins its 1,175-mile journey to the sea at Jockey's Ridge State Park.  This first four mile section is a relatively easy introduction to the trail.  Though rugged in places, which is typical of the high Smokies, the route never wanders far from the road and involves relatively little vertical gain.  It also tops two Southern 6'ers (summits above 6,000-feet), the first of many the trail will cross before it exits the mountain region.  The hike begins from the busy Clingmans Dome Parking Area, from which a 6/10-mile paved path leads up to the summit tower and the western terminus of the MST.  Four miles later, after crossing the summit of Mount Collins, the trail emerges onto pavement again where it crosses the Clingmans Dome Access Road atop Fork Ridge.  Beyond this point the trail disappears into the wilderness, embarking on a remote 22+ mile journey through the southern reaches of the National Park.  Needless to say, if the crowds atop Clingmans Dome bother you, you'll have plenty of solitude just ahead as a through-hiker.  This first section, though, is a great break-in stretch for the rigors to come.          

Two major summits are crossed along this section and, if there are two neighboring peaks less alike in the Southern Appalachians, I haven't visited them yet. Located along the Appalachian Trail south of Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains, Clingmans Dome and Mt. Collins represent (to me) the best and worst of what the southern mountains can offer. Both peaks top out well over 6,000 feet...Clingmans Dome at 6,643' and Mt. Collins at a respectable 6,188'. Mt. Collins, while astride the Appalachian Trail and no doubt visited by hundreds if not thousands of hikers per year, is relatively unknown. I'd wager that most people don't even know they've knocked off a 6K-er when they pass. Clingmans Dome, on the other hand, is a destination that hundreds of thousands of people visit each year from all over the country...and therein lies the difference. One all but unknown, and one overrun. On top of that there is the difference in the summits. Mt. Collins is tree covered and mostly viewless. Clingmans Dome has nice views but at a price. Back in the 60's improvements were being made in all the National Parks in response to greater demand. The demand was for more modern facilities. On Clingmans Dome this meant the replacement of the original wooden lookout with a gaudy, concrete spaceship-looking tower. It in no way compliments its surroundings...it's simply hideous to look at. It's a shame that, due to overuse and poor park planning, that such a magnificent peak can be so disappointing. It serves as an inauspicious beginning for such a magnificent trail.

To reach the beginning of the MST you'll have to park at the parking area for Clingmans Dome and follow the paved, 6/10-mile to the summit tower.  The trail technically starts at the tower but it first enters the woods a short distance below it, where a weathered wooden sign is emblazoned with the names "Appalachian Trail" and "Mountains-to-Sea Trail."  After a couple hundred feet the Appalachian Trail comes in from the south and you'll make a right as the trails now coincide.  The scenery here is typical of the high elevations of the Smokies.  Pure stands of thick spruce-fir forest dominate while mosses cover anything that has fallen to the ground over the years.  The trail descends gradually, passing the summit of Mount Love after 3/4-mile at which point the trail begins a steep, rocky descent to Collins Gap at 2 miles.  Collins Gap marks the rough half-way point of this section and also marks the lowest elevation of the day.  Continuing east from the gap the trail now climbs at a moderately-steep rate, seeking out the summit of Mount Collins.  The top is reached in another mile, where the trail pops out into a grassy opening surrounded by spruce.  There are no views for your effort.  Passing Mount Collins the trail descends to the north for 4/10-mile, hanging a right at the intersection with the Sugarland Mountain Trail.  One-third mile past that the Fork Ridge Trail is reached, which the MST now begins to follow.  A couple hundred feet later the trail emerges from the woods to cross Clingmans Dome Access Road and this particular segments end.      

Overall this is a short, sweet introduction to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  It's not a long hike and, though rugged in spots, nothing overwhelming or dangerous.  This segment presents  striking contrasts between wonderful wilderness solitude and irritating, obnoxious crowds.  It won't be for everyone but, if you're an MST completionist, it's a piece you have to do.  At least it's short!  So without further ado I present a hike along the westernmost four miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from Clingmans Dome to the Fork Ridge Trail...as always, I hope you ENJOY!!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.556782, -83.496089 (Clingmans Dome Parking Area)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.590345, -83.469632 (Clingmans Dome Access Road/Fork Ridge Trail)


Section Length:  4.0 miles                

Difficulty:  CHALLENGING  (Petzoldt Rating:  5.40 )

Min. Elevation:  5,650'  (Collins Gap)                 

Max. Elevation:  6,643'  (Clingmans Dome)

Total Vertical Gain:  700'  (eastbound)           

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  175'  (eastbound)


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