We decided to start at the Sugarlands Visitor Information Center just outside Gatlinburg on US Highway 441 just inside the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The ride would be about 65 kilometers round trip with about 1600 meters climbing. This would make the average grade about 5%, which is reasonably mild.
Bill had ridden the 500 kilometers from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to our grandmothers house in Nebo, North Carolina, over 15 years ago. This included the climb up US 441 to Newfound Gap, well over half the way up to Clingmans Dome. I had read that there are two tunnels along the way and wondered if they had shoulders or lights. Bill couldn't remember much about the tunnels, but he thought that 441 was narrow with no shoulders. He was concerned that it would be the height of the season and that traffic might be bad. We decided to start at dawn on a Friday morning to beat traffic.
We drove to the motel in Sevierville on Thursday night, a day before the rest of the family. It rained quite a bit that night and the forecast was iffy for the next day. I put my bike together before going to sleep so that it would be ready to go in the morning.
The free breakfast at the motel didn't start until 6, but the night clerk told us we could get there a little early. So, at a quarter to six, we loaded up on doughnuts and juice, mounted the bikes on the rack, and hit the road. We got to the visitors center a little before 7, about an hour later than our goal.
I found that I had failed to put the bite valve on my Camelback before leaving home (3000 km away). It turned out that the 20 inch wheels allowed me to hang the Camelback from the handlebars without any rubbing on the tire. The handling felt a little strange, but it was better than having no water or having water dribbling all over me.
The road was a little damp, the sky was clear, the temperature was already above 60F, and it was humid. The possibilities for later ranged from sweltering heat and humidity to rainy and cold. We hoped that if it did get hot that we could climb faster than the rise in temperature.
We got started around 7. There were only a few other cars in the parking lot and there didn't seem to be any traffic. As luck would have it, a car came up behind us soon after we got on the road, on a hundred meter stretch where the road is one narrow lane in each direction, separated by a grassy median. Slowing to 25kph for less than 30 seconds was apparently a barely bearable ordeal since the motorist floored it as soon as the median started to taper, instead of waiting another 5 seconds for it to disappear. This seemed like a bad omen, but there was no trouble with traffic the rest of the day. The feared hordes of weaving RVs never materialized despite our late start and the peak season.
We had agreed that since he hadn't been riding much, Bill would ride at a comfortable pace and I would match it. Soon after we were past the visitors center, Bill took off like a shot and my heart rate skyrocketed as I tried to keep up. I shouted that I couldn't maintain that pace. He gave me a look that seemed to question why I was bothering to do the ride, then he slowed a bit. Soon the road went from nearly level to about a 5% grade. Bill slowed a bit more. After a few miles he slowed a lot and complained of burning legs, so we stopped to rest.
We settled into a pattern of riding a bit, then resting. Reasonable places to pull over were easy to find. The riding intervals got shorter and the rests longer, so we agreed to a longer stop at Newfound Gap. Then I would ride to the Clingmans Dome parking lot at my own pace and Bill would rest as long as he wanted then start for Clingmans Dome. I would investigate climbing the last 100 meters from the parking lot to the actual peak, then see whether Bill had made it to the parking lot.
The temperature and humidity stayed reasonably mild and the skies sunny all the way to Newfound Gap. Although the tunnels are curved, they are so short that it is easy to see end to end. There is no shoulder, but there should be no trouble with traffic. We sprinted though them uphill, just in case. Downhill, most bicyclists are almost as fast as automobiles through the tunnels. In both directions, there were no cars around when we went through them.
At Newfound Gap and the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the route leaves US 441 for Clingmans Dome Road. We pulled into parking lot to rest and to enjoy the view. We had ridden 21 kilometers and climbed about 1100 meters so far, or 64% of the distance and 73% of the climbing.
I set out on Clingmans Dome Road for the parking lot near the top. Along the way, I was suprised to find that there is an extended slight downhill section, so I covered the 12 kilometers or so quite a bit more quickly than I thought I would. It was surprisingly cool for late June, even allowing for the 1800 meter altitude. Even though traffic on US 441 and Clingmans Dome Road had been very light, there were a lot of cars in the parking lot. At the end of the parking lot, a visitor is greeted with a sign (500x564, 79k or 756x1140, 143k) with the information that the actual summit is 800 meters away and 100 meters higher.
There was another sign by a kiosk that said no mountain bikes on trails. I wasn't on a mountain bike and the path to the top is straight, wide, and paved and didn't fit my idea of a trail, so I figured I was safe on two counts. The climb to the top was uneventful. There weren't many people on the path, and quite a few of those that were were sitting on then benches along the way. When it reaches the tower at the top of the mountain, the path becomes a concrete spiral to the top of the tower, with the same width and slope that it has as an asphalt path on the ground.
I dismounted and walked my bike to the top of the tower and looked around. There wasn't much to see because of the nearly omnipresent haze and clouds. I walked down from the tower to the parking lot and found that Bill had just finished bicycling from Newfound Gap. He wasn't interested in going to the tower by bike or foot, so we looked around for a bit, then started back. Bill was dreading the slight climb on the way back to US 441, but he didn't have any trouble.
The traffic was very light on Clingmans Dome Road. It was heavier on US 441, but still reasonably light and mellow. The slope wasn't steep enough for me to keep up with cars by pedalling or coasting, but the speed differential was very small. We got in a pattern of coasting for about a kilometer, pulling into a turnout to let 1 to 3 cars by, then repeating. As in the climb, the tunnels were no problem.
I first got inspired to climb to Clingmans Dome by the King of the Mountain web site, which has a lot of information and links about paved road climbing all over the world. I was a bit intimidated that this climb is rated as a Category 1 climb or even Hors Category, while climbing the local Mount Hamilton is only Category 2. Well, Mount Hamilton is not a hard climb, but I think that Clingmans Dome is even easier. The last 800 meters has double the slope of anything on Mount Hamilton, but it is so short as to not be a factor unless you have silly gearing. However, it is probably not possible to pick a time when there is very little possibility of bad weather and/or bad traffic on Clingmans Dome. I'm glad that I didn't run into either. For a feel of how bad it can be, consider that Smokey Mountain National Park gets 10 million visitors per year, most of them are claimed to visit Clingmans Dome, it gets 85 inches of precipitation per year, and Clingmans Dome Road is closed to cars (but not bikes) December through March.
For more information about Clingmans Dome, see http://www.americasroof.com/tn.html. If you just want a peek at the path from the parking lot to the top, see http://www.americasroof.com/tn2.jpg.