A Tale of Three Mountains – Climbing Mt.Sassafras, Mt. Mitchell & Clingman’s Dome

Mt. Sassafras, SC
3,560 feet
Clingman’s Dome, TN
6,643 feet
Mt. Mitchell, NC
6,684 feet
April 19-20, 2011
A Blog of Three Mountains
Wes Chapman
Mt. Sassafras
Mt. Sassafras lies at the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains, and somehow feels like the land that time forgot. This is real backwoods country, and makes no pretense about being for the benefit of incoming tourist dollars. The road to the top of Sassafras was built in the ‘30’s, and is used today to services a bunch of radio transmission towers on the top. It was being repaved while we were there, and the crew was clearly enjoying the opportunity to stretch out a job, so far from eyes of pesky bosses.
Bob’s Tourist services at the entrance to Mt. Sassafras
Enjoying good weather, we passed through the hamlet of Rocky Bottom to get to Sassafras, and actually passed Sugar Likker (sic) Road on the way to the entrance road. Near the top we passed by a bunch of incomprehensively located chickens (about 5 miles up an unpopulated mountain road), probably feeding on corn from a still nearby, hidden in the woods. The summit offered limited views, there was not another soul around, and we left at high speed when Martha thought that she heard banjos.
Antenna on Sassafras
 Martha near the Summit
 Spring hits SC Mountains
Clingman’s Dome
Clingman’s Dome is the Highpoint in TN, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and the most frequently visited highpoint in the US. It is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and just outside the Cherokee Indian Reservation. In Cherokee it is called “Kuwahi” – Mulberry place. The earlier settlers called it Smokey Dome, and it was subsequently named after one Thomas Lanier Clingman, a prominent Civil War General and inveterate speculator and promoter, who ceaselessly promoted it as the highest point east of the Mississippi.
The rock at Clingman’s Dome is primarily meta-sediments, with some of the coolest met-conglomerate that I’ve ever seen. The rock is over 500 million years old, completely re-crystallized (due to temperature and pressure), but was subjected to so little mechanical deformation that the original outlines of the gravel that made up the primary rock are still visible. Like Mt. Cube (and all the mountains in Vermont over 4,000 feet), it owes its height to a very tough and erosion resistant quartzite.
Cross section of a meta-conglomerate
Nowhere else in the Appalachian chain are the ravaging effects of insects and acid rain on the forest so evident.  The insects are related to aphids, which have destroyed Frasier Firs and Hemlocks up the East Coast, and proximity to coal fired power plants produces acid levels 5-10x the levels in the Northeast. Ouch!
Frasier Firs destroyed on Clingman’s Dome by acid rain and insects
The walk to the summit is about half a mile, and just about killed about half of the climbers. The summit structure is suitably over-the-top, and includes a long circular ramp and viewing platform. It was nice to see some Through Hikers on the Appalachian Trail where it crosses near the summit. We’ll see them again on Moosilauke in July/August.
The Space Age Summit structure on Clingman’s Dome
A ramp of reinforced concrete on Clingman’s to support a growing America
Mt. Mitchell – a Wonderful Hike – 12 miles
Mt. Mitchell
Mt. Mitchell is the BIG DOG of all mountains east of the Mississippi. It is just under 400 feet taller than Mt. Washington, but has slightly less vertical and is slightly less prominent (by 59 feet). Mt. Mitchell is named for the very Revered Elisha Mitchell, a minister and scientist who came to NC in 1819 from Connecticut to teach at UNC Chapel Hill, and first measured the height of what was then called Black Mountain in 1835. Mitchell was drawn to Black Mountain by the journals of the Frenchman, Andre Michaux who was sent to the area in the 18th Century by the King of France to find species with which to rebuild the forests of the Alps.
The Reverend Mitchell off the hill
Mitchell and Clingman got into a very heated and public debate about which was higher, Black Mountain (now Mt. Mitchell) or Smokey Dome (now Clingman’s Dome), culminating in Mitchell leading an expedition to “prove it once and for all” at the age of 64 in 1857. He died in a solo climb in that expedition, and Black Mountain was renamed in his honor. Not to be outdone by his opponents death, Clingman managed to have Smokey Dome named after him, and the battle continues long after the passage of the combatants. Mitchell may have the last laugh, however, as his really was bigger, and he was buried at the summit, guarding his prize.
The Summit, and final resting place of the Reverend Mitchell
Out of the Car and Start Climbing
I had spent several days driving around, looking at some really big mountains, and I needed to get out of the car and go for a hike. I needed a hard core, New England Calvinist kind of a hike. Martha decided that she might find a day at Biltmore House (George Washington Vanderbilt’s 275 room summer home) a pleasing alternative to slogging through the mud with me, and bade me farewell in Ashville. Ashville is 35 miles from Mt. Mitchell, and offers some of the finest lodging in America, including the Grove Park Inn, where we stayed two nights. I headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway (a WPA marvel) to the Mitchell Trail in Black Mountain Campground. The weather was awful, blowing sheets of horizontal rain, and I had to try two different roads into the trail head before I found one that was not blocked by fallen trees – and me without an ax.
I started up the trail about 11:00, chastened by the guide books that the trail was very steep, difficult, and would take at least four hours to make the 6 mile hike to the top. This sounded like exactly what I wanted, and I went at it pretty hard. Apparently the scale of difficulty is quite different down here, as the hike presented the same stress as Mt. Hale, perhaps the tamest of the 4,000 footers in NH.
This area has never seen glaciation, and there is good soil right to the top of the hill. There are horse trails all over the mountain and the terminal moraines and glacial detritus that we find in the Northeast, simply don’t exist down here. There were no glacial cirques to leaving cliffs and chutes. It is all really pretty nice hiking – but not strenuous. About 30 minutes into the hike the rain stopped, and the air cleared, but it remained very windy all the way to the top; about 2 hours and 45 minutes bottom to top. I met no one on the way up, four people at the top who drove up, and one person on the way down; a fellow traveler from NJ. I was down in two hours and twenty minutes, and headed back into town. This was much too nice a hike not to see a single local soul on a vacation week. And John Calvin remained unrequited.
Spruce/Fir forest near the top of Mt. Mitchell
Altitude = Latitude from a Vegetation Perspective
Mountain vegetation is related to flora closer to the Poles due to the cooler and harsher climate associated with higher altitudes. The “rule of thumb” that works best from my observation is that each 1,000 feet of altitude equals 100-150 miles closer to the Pole. The vegetation on Mt. Mitchell at the top(6,600 feet)  is very much like the vegetation at 3,500 feet in New England. There is a belt of wild rhododendrons at 2,500 to 3,000 feet that dominates all other vegetation – very cool, but without a vegetative analogy at our latitudes. Mt. Mitchell gets over 75 inches in annual precipitation, and the snow is typically gone by the first of March. There are old hay fields at 5.500 feet on the side of the mountain. There are no “above tree line” zones this far south, which start at 4,000 in New England, and 1,500 in Quebec on the Gaspe Peninsula.
The rhododendron zone on the Mitchell trail
The trip back was an easy and straight shot down the Blue Ridge Parkway, and was followed by a fine dinner at the Grove Park to prepare for the hike the next day on Mt. Rogers in VA. This is a long way from Katahdin – in so many ways.
Our base camp at the Grove Park Inn (note the Bentley in front)
Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    December 11, 2018

    love it I used to do the Whites a lot my oldest son just moved to north of Atlanta he is a avid climber my youngest son is also I want to forward this to my oldest


  2. Avatar
    January 15, 2021

    Next time you’re in the area, try the Black Mountain Crest Trail from Bowlens Creek to Mt. Mitchell. You will cross or draw near to Celo Knob, Mt. Gibbs, Winter Star Mtn, Potato Hill, Cattail Peak, Balsam Cone, Big Tom, and Mt. Craig – all over 6,000′. In addition, the Southern Spruce Fir forest between Potato Hill and Cattail Peak is marvelous. This is a 12 mile total distance hike and very strenuous with over 5200′ of total elevation to negotiate. There are great camping spots at Deep Gap to break this into a 2 day trip. Also of note, a plane crash from 1966 between Big Tom and Mt. Craig still rests on the western edge of the crest. Not visible from the trail, the wreckage is a sober reminder of just how remote and inaccessible this crest really is. Enjoyed the article. Hike on…