Clingmans Dome is currently protected as part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A paved road, closed in winter (November through March), connects it to U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) near Newfound Gap. A concrete observation tower was built on the site in 1959, offering a panoramic view of the mountains in each direction and helping to promote the site as a major tourist destination. The area is developed with picnic tables and running-water restrooms. The Environmental Protection Agency operates an air quality monitoring station on the summit, the second highest in eastern North America. The summit of Clingmans Dome is coated by a Spruce-fir (or "boreal") forest, a forest type common in northern latitudes, but found only in the highest elevations in the southeastern United States. Like most peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains, Clingmans Dome climbs prominently above the surrounding terrain, rising nearly 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) from base to summit.
Reputedly known as "Kuwahi" (the mulberry place) by the Cherokee Indians, the mountain was originally dubbed "Smoky Dome" by the region's early Euro-American settlers. In 1859, the mountain was henceforth renamed by Arnold Guyot for compatriot Thomas Lanier Clingman (1812-1897), a American Civil War general who extensively explored the area in the 1850s and spent many years thereafter promoting it. Guyot named the mountain for Clingman because of an argument between Clingman and a professor at the University of North Carolina, Elisha Mitchell, over which mountain was actually the highest in the region. Mitchell contended that a peak by the name of Black Dome (now known as Mount Mitchell) was the highest, while Clingman asserted that Smoky Dome was instead the true highest peak. Guyot determined that Smoky Dome was 39 feet (12 m) shorter than Black Dome.
Clingmans Dome has two subpeaks— Mount Buckley to the west and Mount Love to the east. The headwaters of several substantial streams are located on the slopes of Clingmans Dome, namely Little River on the north slope, and Forney Creek and Noland Creek (both tributaries of the Tuckasegee River) on the south slope. The mountain is located entirely within the Tennessee River watershed.
Clingmans Dome is the most accessible mountain top in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Open from April 1 through November 30 , the Clingmans Dome Road begins just past Newfound Gap and leads up the mountain to the Forney Ridge Parking Area, below the summit. A paved trail leads from the parking lot to the observation tower at the top of the mountain. The short, steep trail provides public restrooms, garbage cans, and numerous benches to the side of the path. The trail offers a glimpse of the often hostile environment of highland Appalachia, passing through the spruce-fir forest and its accompanying blowdowns and dead Fraser Firs. The observation tower allows spectators a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding mountains, on the infrequent occasion of a clear, sunny day. Cantilevered signs, hanging from the rails of the tower, point out the various peaks, ridges, cities, and other features visible in the distance. Depending on the haze, visibility ranges from on hazy days to on very clear days.
The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, passing immediately north of the observation tower. A leg of the trail connects the mountain with Newfound Gap, and provides the only non-overnight access to the mountain in winter months. The nearest A.T. backcountry shelters are the Double Spring Gap Shelter, which is to the west near the Goshen Prong junction, and the Mount Collins shelter, which is to the east near the A.T.'s Sugarland Mountain Trail junction. Clingmans Dome is the base for several additional hiking trails, including the Forney Ridge Trail (to Andrews Bald) and the Forney Creek Trail (to the Benton MacKaye Trail on the shores of Fontana Lake). The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which connects the Smokies to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, intersects the Appalachian Trail east of Clingmans Dome.