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.
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.
Demise of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Wonderland Hotel
For decades the Wonderland Hotel stood in the Elkmont section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Much has been written about the history of the hotel that was constructed in 1911 and its role prior to and after the establishment of the national park.
This article is about the history of the Wonderland Hotel after it was closed in 1992. The National Park Service was confronted with the dilemma of what to do with an eighty year old structure that was badly in need of repair. Continue reading →
How to Find Black Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
When visitors are asked why they come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there are many common answers.
They come for the incomparable mountain views, the over eight hundred miles of hiking trails, the historic structures, the crystal clear streams, rivers and waterfalls and of course the wildlife…
Especially black bears!
Unfortunately many would-be bear spotters have unrealistic expectations when it come to seeing bears in the Smoky Mountains. Although current populations are at historically high numbers, black bears are reclusive and tend to avoid contact with humans. So the odds of actually seeing a bear during a casual visit are not very good. Continue reading →
Cataloochee is one of those places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that takes a little extra effort to get there, but once you do for the first time it is a place that you will return to again and again.
Like Cades Cove in Tennessee, Cataloochee in North Carolina offers wildlife viewing opportunities combine with the relics of recent anthropology of human settlers in the area. Although many structures were razed at the time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, some were preserved as a testament to the people that once called this valley home. Continue reading →
As an avid photographer of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I shoot thousands of frames of everything that the park has to offer. As a matter of fact, I often shoot so many photos in a single session that it is not uncommon for me to not scrutinize the photos for a long period of time.
That was the case with this photograph of Laurel Falls that I took back in 2011. A quick glance at the thumbnail reveal a rather lackluster composition without any specific appeal.
However today I was examining this series of photos more carefully in a viewer to see if I might have missed a rare gem. As I was looking at this picture of Laurel Falls I noticed an anomaly in the top right quadrant. It appeared to be a glowing orb of some kind. Now rest assured that this occurred in the original raw image and not as the result of post-production digital wizardry!
As a photographer I know that light can play tricks on you. There are many possible physical explanations for the ghostly green illumination.
When I expanded the photo out to maximum resolution I thought that I noticed a face or at least a representation of a face in the orb. Whether or not it is a supernatural phenomenon is up to the reader to decide, but I have been unable to determine a definitive natural explanation for the iridescent emerald anomaly.
But I like to think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as place of magic and mystery. It is easy to attain the sense that there is much more here than meets the eye. A walk along a trail can be an exhilarating spiritual experience that replenishes the soul with appreciation for the natural creation that is the heart of soul of the park.
So even though the scientist in me says “it ain’t so” the poet in me is a true believer. After all, even if you can’t see the magic with your eyes, you can certainly feel it within your being!
Photographing Streets of Gold in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Back in 1985 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not on my radar as a place to photograph for posterity. Before the days of digital photography and the Internet most of us were more likely to see a photograph of the park on a postcard or from a personal photo in a shoebox.
Taking Photographs was relatively expensive back then, and the technology to transform a printed picture into a digital file was just in its infancy. And unless you were a profession on a commissioned shoot the was little likelihood that anyone outside of your immediate presence would ever see the photos. (Remember the vacation “slide shows” that went on and on!) Continue reading →
Gatlinburg Tennessee has a very important relationship with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While many nature purists may view this community that abuts the park as a traffic nuisance or a tourist trap, the city provides food and lodging for many park visitors every year.
As a result, Gatlinburg has grown along with the popularity of the park. Those who return to the town after an extended absence may be taken aback by the extent of the sprawling growth. And while some of the improvements may reflect the demands of a more upscale millennial consumer much of the downtown area still retains a lot of the simple charms of the days when a bed and a plate of pancakes satisfied the average tourist. Continue reading →
The Cherokee called the Great Smoky Mountains “Shaconage” which roughly translates to the Place of Blue Smoke. And if one visits there the translation immediately becomes crystal clear,even if the extended view from the overlook is not! Continue reading →
Photography in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I have had the extreme pleasure of taking photographs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for over forty years.
Over that period of time there have been a lot of changes. Not only has the art of photography dramatically but the park itself has matured and been affected by weather and other environment influences. Continue reading →
Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cataloochee is located on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although it takes a little extra effort to get there, the rewards of visitation far outweigh the inconvenience of driving across the Cataloochee Divide on a narrow unpaved twisting access road.
As you work your way into the valley, the road suddenly transforms into a two-lane paved thoroughfare. The first should be the Cataloochee Overlook. From here you can see a vast area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take a moment to reflect on the first pioneers that looked upon this rugged land and were determined to make this place their home, Continue reading →