Inviting as the Appalachian Trail is on its 70-mile route through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I tend to favor park trails away from the AT in order to achieve a greater sense of solitude. But somewhat surprisingly, the AT leg from the busy Clingman's Dome area south to Silers Bald often isn’t overrun with hikers – except in early spring when “thru hikers” are making their way north toward Maine. With the trail never dipping below 5,400 feet elevation over the entire distance to the bald, it offers a fine out-and-back day hike during the toasty month of July.
Speaking of elevation, the hike involves a net loss outbound of about 700 feet, even though the summit of Silers Bald exceeds a lofty 5,600 feet. You’ll face a fair amount of climbing on the return trip, especially if you continue on the AT to 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and its observation tower.
The hike begins at the upper end of the Clingmans Dome parking area, where you veer left onto Forney Ridge Trail. After descending for about 200 yards, take the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail on your right for roughly ½ mile to its end at the Appalachian Trail. Here you turn left, or south on the AT though you’ll be hiking almost due west as far as Silers Bald.
Soon after joining the AT you ascend Mount Buckley, at 6,580 feet elevation the little-known but fourth highest peak in the Smokies. Because the summit is forested, its views are limited. But on a relatively clear day you’ll enjoy some impressive long-range views as you descend the mountain’s western flank toward Silers Bald.
Fewer than two miles later, there’s a junction with Goshen Prong Trail on your right. Then, in about ½ mile, you arrive at Double Spring Gap shelter. This location is notable as the southernmost reach of the spruce-fir forest in the Great Smokies, if not the southern Appalachians as one trail guide incorrectly states. Here the AT abruptly enters a northern hardwood forest similar to woods much farther north but unlike the boreal spruce-fir forest.
The trail soon crosses the summit of Jenkins Knob before traversing a rocky spine known as the Narrows. Next is a descent to a junction with Welch Ridge Trail, leading to the Hazel Creek area, before a final stiff climb to Silers Bald. The bald offers some nice views despite now being mostly overgrown.
If the skies are reasonably clear on your return to the parking area, you’ll want to continue north along the AT to the Clingmans Dome tower and its sweeping views of the Smokies and southern Appalachians. After descending the observation tower, take the ½-mile paved path back to your vehicle.
Trails: Forney Ridge, Clingman's Dome Bypass, Appalachian, Clingmans Dome (paved).
Trailhead: Clingman's Dome parking area.
Length: 9.8 miles.
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous.
Ben Anderson is author of Smokies Chronicle: A Year of Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (blairpub.com).