In November 2016 fire ravaged the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding communities. The catastrophic blazes were the result of an unfortunate perfect storm of unusual factors, suspected arson and atypical meteorological conditions.
Although the Great Smoky Mountains National Park receive an average of 200 inches of annual rainfall, 2016 proved to be an exception with extreme drought and high temperatures persisting throughout the Summer and Fall. The drought was so extreme that the National Park Service banned open fires within the park boundaries. With little relief in sight the potential for serious wildfires grew with each passing day.
What makes this disaster especially disheartening is that arson appears to be cause of the original fire that ignited along the Chimney Tops Trail. One has to wonder what would possess an individual to deliberately destroy one of nature’s most majestic creations. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been a model for conservation, a sanctuary for wildlife, and a refuge for humanity since its inception in the early twentieth century.
As firefighters fought to control the ensuing wildfire, the unthinkable happened. A storm front moved in with horizontal winds that reached 80 MPH. This had the doubly disastrous effect of both intensifying and rapidly spreading the fire first across the mountains and then everything else in its path. A tidal wave of flame and heat moved faster than any possible escape evacuation.
Finally the rains came and slowed the progress of the conflagration. But not before the tragic loss of over a dozen lives and thousands of homes and businesses burned to the ground. The scope of the tragedy is nearly incomprehensible.
Homes can be rebuilt. Businesses can construct anew. But lives cannot be replaced. And the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will recover, but it will never be the same as erosion will take a toll until new vegetation takes root and restores soil integrity.
Our Parks belong to all of us. It is up to us to take action to preserve and defend them. The challenges are many but resources are scant. Its time to step up and tell the decision makers that our National Parks are a priority and MUST be protected for future generations.
Parson Branch Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a narrow one way gravel road that takes you through of the most remote areas of the park. There are many fords along the way as Parson Branch meanders back and forth across the lane. While these fords offer little problems for drivers in drier weather, one should exercise discretion before attempting this road in rainy weather,
Snow covered trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Beautiful snow-covered trees near Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This film photo was taken in March of 2004. Snow often accumulates in the high elevations of the Park even if the surrounding lowlands have temperatures well above freezing!
Due to its high elevation and windward exposure, Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is no stranger to snow and ice. This photo depicts a significant accumulation of snow at this popular location.
Photo of Gatlinburg Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Park Service maintains the Bypass and it offers wonderful views of both Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park throughout the year to enjoy all of the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities that the park has to offer. Each season presents its own unique perspective on the park experience and one should endeavor to visit the national treasure at least once during each transformation.
Winter is one of my favorite times to visit the park for a lot of reasons. One of them is the remarkable clarity of vision and the open views that are only available when the leaves have fallen. At that time there is neither the transpiration of the forest that lends its hazy byproduct to the name “Great Smoky Mountains” nor the obstruction of sight by the dense canopy of millions of deciduous leaves that blanket the mountains in the warmer months.
But predicting the best time to see snow in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be more akin to reading tea leaves than to science. Due to the fact that the park resides in North Carolina and Tennessee in the Southeastern United States, the region experiences higher average temperatures than parks at greater latitudes. So it is rare for the mountains to be blanketed with snow for a long duration of time.
However, due to the abundance of moisture and elevations that are over one mile above sea level the basic components are always present and when the right combination of temperature enters into the aforementioned formula the mountains can experience anything from a pleasing coating of fresh white powder to blizzard conditions.
During the most extreme weather circumstances roads in the park are closed and during the worst periods the park is completely closed because the resources and personnel are not available to provide adequate safety for visitors. So even if you happen to be in the area during heavy snowfall you may not get into the park anyway.
In my own personal experience I have seen snow in the Great Smoky Mountains in all months from October through April. With that being said my guess is that there is snow on the ground in the high elevations only about 10 percent of the time during that period and less than five percent of the time in the rest of the park. So unless you are specifically heading to the mountains when you are certain that snow is predicted trying to make long-term plans for seeing snow is going to be a hit or miss proposition.
So my usual strategy for winter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to enjoy the benefits that are available at the time of my visit. If there is no snow I head to the trails that will offer outstanding winter views. If there is snow in the high elevations and the roads are open I head for the mountain peaks. Keep in mind that there are seasonal road closures such as Clingmans Dome Road which is gated from November through March. If there is snow park-wide I head to a Visitor’s Center to get the latest information on access and road closures.
The most important advice that I can offer is to use caution and play it safe at all times. Weather can kill you. Be alert for ice on roads and bridges and know the effects of hypothermia if you are on the trails or in the back-country. Never venture beyond your survival skill set. When in doubt ask a ranger or park volunteer about current conditions. Their advice can be invaluable for having a safe and enjoyable trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Winter.