Overview and Route Information
The exciting summit
Since spotting it on the map back in 1994, I have always wanted to hike to the summit of my sort-of namesake peak. Fortunately, I do not (yet) share the peak's featured characteristic, but I am still on the young side of 40 and nevertheless have added many a grey hair since those days when I first began discovering the world of the mountains.
Silers Bald is a high (for the Southeast) summit along the Appalachian Trail on the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains. It is about 4 miles west of Clingmans Dome, highpoint of the range and of Tennessee, and both North Carolina and Tennessee share "ownership" of the peak.
What is a bald
? The Southern Appalachians have many of them, including several in the Smokies. The balds are semi-open patches characterized by shrubs, grasses and a few small trees, and they often welcome breaks in the seemingly endless woodland hiking one finds even along the crest of the Smokies. Scientists do not really know how the balds came to be, but one theory is that they were once heavily grazed by large wildlife species to the point that the underlying soils were slow to recover. Silers bald has two such spots, one at the summit and the other just 0.1 miles or so west of it.
Some notes before hiking here:
One does not hike the trails of the Smokies for the outstanding mountain views. Although there are a few rocky summits and occasional cliffs and openings along trails, unobstructed views are not that numerous in the Smokies and its region. The mountains are among the highest in the East, but the climate results in tall trees (also among the highest and largest in the East) and dense undergrowth. Hiking to Silers Bald and many other Great Smokies mountaintops is more about the foliage, the wildflowers, the moss, the woodland fauna, and the peace that pervades these ancient mountains. You'll get some nice views along the hike to Silers Bald, but the views aren't what makes the hike worth doing; it's all the little parts that do.
Also, be prepared for weather that is anything from disappointing to awful. Calendars are full of gorgeous Smoky Mountain autumn scenes with crisp blue skies, but such days are not the norm in the Smokies. With the obvious exception of drought periods, rain is frequent. Haze from natural conditions and from air pollution makes for bad visibility and unhealthy ozone levels quite often, especially in summer, though air quality has been slowly improving in recent years. That fog filling the valleys at dawn and making for lovely pictures often rises and wraps everything in sight for much or all of the day. But if you luck out and have one of those calendar-quality days, you are likely to remember that day for a long time, especially if it's during the spring rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms, the peak fall colors, or after a coating of ice or snow in the winter. I've been to the Smokies in all seasons and have had days good and bad in all of them, too. In my opinion, fall through early spring are the best times to visit if you want the best shot at nice weather; mid-summer is definitely the worst.
There are several ways to reach Silers Bald, and I will cover just the one I did, which also happens to be the easiest way. Maybe someone else will want to add some of the other routes.
You also get three for one on this route, as you must go over Mt. Buckley and Jenkins Knob to reach Silers Bald.
From the parking area at Clingmans Dome, the Class 1 hike is about 10 miles RT and involves a total of approximately 2350' of elevation gain through ups and downs along the ridge.
The hardest part of the hike is the last mile back to Clingmans Dome, where you encounter the steepest grade and are likely to be somewhat tired.
Hike the paved trail until you reach a junction where right goes to the lookout tower on Clingman's Dome and left follows the Appalachian Trail. Go left and descend a bit before climbing over the summit of Mt. Buckley. Another option that is a bit shorter and avoids the Clingmans Dome hiking scene (quite a sight, let me tell you) is to take the signed trail from the parking lot toward Andrews Bald and then head onto the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. This option, however, requires losing and regaining elevation both ways, and it's not all that much shorter. Start early and avoid the crowds then, and look to be amused rather than disgusted as you wade through the circus for the last few minutes back to the parking lot; that attitude makes things much better!
Where the bypass trail meets the AT (about a mile from the parking lot), the trail then heads 2 miles, going over Mt. Buckley, to the next trail junction, where the Goshen Prong Trail comes up from the north to meet the AT. Less than half a mile after that is the shelter at Double Spring Gap, and from there it is about 1.5 miles to where the Welch Ridge Trail meets the AT from the south; along the way, you go over the summit of Jenkins Knob. Near this junction, the AT goes through a spot called the Narrows, which resembles the Narrows of Zion National Park's Virgin River in name only. The ridge does narrow to just a few yards wide, however, and it falls steeply on either side, though all the trees and brush make it a little difficult to see that at first. After the trail junction, the summit of Silers Bald is a few uphill minutes away, and the shelter is another few minutes away, though that hike is all downhill and passes through a second, larger bald on the mountain.
Just south of Newfound Gap along U.S. 441 through the park, turn onto Clingmans Dome Road and follow it for 7 miles to the end, at a large parking area at about 6300'. Get here early on weekends if you want a decent parking spot or one at all.
Be aware that the road to Clingmans Dome is closed from December through March. Check with the Park Service (see Links) for specific dates.
No entrance or backcountry camping fees (permits required for the latter).
Backcountry camping along the AT here (only possible at the two shelters) requires a reservation (see Links section).
The principal concern is proper food storage to keep you and the bears safe. For a full listing of backcountry regulations, see the link for shelters information.
The closest campground is Smokemont, on the NC side and about half an hour away. Next closest is Elkmont, on the TN side off the Little River Road, a drive that will probably require around an hour. Both campgrounds have reservation systems. See the Links section for more information.
Backcountry camping is available at the three-sided shelters at Silers Bald and Double Spring Gap. The Park Service has provided bear-proof food-storage systems at the shelters. Space at the shelters must be reserved, and reservations are only possible by telephone or in person. Please see the Links section for more information.
Info Pertaining to Reserving Space at Shelters