"They don't call 'em the Smoky Mountains because they're smoky, Brian," my dad insisted. He was talking about the weather down in the Smoky Mountains and wanted to emphasize (as only a parent could) the need to bring proper rain gear.
He was right, it can rain down there. As much as 85 inches in a year. In honor of dear ol' dad, then, let's delay any talk of recreation, accommodation and all that exciting stuff, and instead take a look at one of the most practical topics of this article immediately: weather.
As I wrote above, it can rain, but it can also certainly snow. The chance of snow is strongest always in the upper elevations of the Smoky Mountains (like Clingman's Dome and Newfound Gap), as opposed to the lower elevations of towns like Gatlinburg, which will experience only minor, non-crippling snowfalls occasionally throughout the winter. In the higher Smoky Mountain country, you can experience a great deal of the white stuff anytime between November and March.
Lowland temperatures range from the upper-80s in July to the low-50s in winter, and in the highlands from mid-60s to the low-30s, respectively. As you can surmise, temperature varies significantly over the Smoky Mountain terrain at any time of year, so you must plan accordingly when packing. It's not uncommon to see a carload of petulant pre-teens file out into the chilling air of Newfound Gap, surprised that it would be so much colder than in Gatlinburg at Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not (Ripley's owns seemingly everything in that town, including an aquarium - more on that later). Bring your raincoat! Listen to that echoing parental voice in your head. Don't hear it? Maybe I'm the only one... It's telling me that you should also bring mosquito repellent.
For more weather information, visit this Smoky Mountain Weather Guide.
Where to stay?
- There are popular tourist towns right up to the gates of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, each of them filled with hotels and motels, as well as more secluded Smoky Mountain cabins and chalets stretching into the outskirts. Among these towns, Gatlinburg is the one through which the most park visitors pass. Near Sevierville and Pigeon Forge (the former being the birthplace of Dolly Parton, and the latter home to her Dollywood amusement park), Gatlinburg will strike you as one-of-a-kind - outrageously indulgent, truly memorable and downright hilarious fun. I kid you not - you will find countless pancake houses, a ski lift that transports you to an ice rink and captive bears, and an Aquarium of the Smokies, which boasts the highest attendance of any aquarium in the country. I love it all! In what other town can you buy a Jesus money clip from the gift shop of a religious wax museum, take in a haunted house or two, re-energize your body at an oxygen bar, and wrap up the day by entering a glass tunnel surrounded by sawtooth sharks and rays? Go there and have some fun - wallow in the joys of the American tourist town. Try some of the barbecue, sip some microbrew. I recommend the Tuckaleechee Porter.
- Gatlinburg sports an abundance of shops, which tend to be a little more straight-laced or high-end than those in Pigeon Forge - if that's what you're into. Personally, I look for the truly bizarre, borderline-offensive gift shops and for that, Pigeon Forge is the answer! Do you want to find a bear-held toilet paper dispenser? Who doesn't?! Pigeon Forge's strip of go-cart joints, Hillbilly-themed trinket stores and dinner theaters is as incredible as the sheer number of Ripley's operations and fudge shoppes in Gatlinburg. Look for the backyard moonshine museum.
Pigeon Forge, as mentioned earlier, is also home to Dollywood! Have you ever seen someone prepare pork rinds? Have you ever gone down a waterslide in a fishtailing foam raft? Have you ridden on an authentic steam-powered train? Come enjoy the rides and the entertainment at this Appalachian gem! For more information on Dollywood, visit How To Plan a Dollywood Theme Park Vacation.
Be sure to invest in some Dolly Dollars when you enter the park. The exchange rate is 1 Dolly Dollar to 1 U.S. Dollar, and probably always will be. 1 Dolly Dollar equals 0.7777 Euros.
- Cherokee is North Carolina's answer to Gatlinburg, but you'll find it much quieter than its fudge-filled neighbor to the north. Owned by the Cherokee tribe, it's not the built-up extravaganza that you encounter elsewhere around the Smoky Mountains; the change of pace can be quite refreshing. Children will enjoy getting their picture taken with Cherokee 'chiefs' in front of teepees, and you'll enjoy the casino.
- If you're interested in getting away from it all (people, sharks, t-shirts featuring giant confederate-flag-adorned stags), you could consider camping in the Smoky Mountains park itself and visiting town only when you need a night with a bed and shower! I say that because you won't find showers at the campsites.
There are about ten campgrounds scattered through the park, evenly divided between Tennessee and North Carolina. The three most popular campgrounds in the park are Smokemont, Elkmont and Cades Cove (not surprisingly). They're open from mid-May to the end of October and you can reserve space months in advance. If you're visiting in the summer or fall, you might want to reserve your space instead of leaving it to chance. Backcountry camping is also an option, although you won't be able to remain sedentary as long in the backcountry as you would at the other campsites. You can call 865-436-1200 for more information on camping in the Smoky Mountains, or visit ImagesBuilder.com, a great site loaded with camping information.
- With more than 800 miles of trails, hiking is one of the primary outdoor activities in the park and you'll find hikes to accommodate every level of endurance and physical ability. Check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park's website for a list of popular hikes. You can also visit the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitor Centers for more hiking information and trail ideas when you arrive. Check out the stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome - the highest you'll get on the Appalachian Trail and the highest trail in the Smoky Mountains.
There are many hikes that will remove you further from crowds. A guide book or a trail map will be a valuable investment when choosing hikes from the multitude in the park. But no matter what hike you choose, you'll get away from most of the crowds when you move away from the road and onto a trail - particularly an unpaved one.
- Fishing in the Smoky Mountains consists mainly of trout. You can fish year-round here, and can purchase a license in any of the towns at the gates of the park. If you catch a brook trout, remember that you must release it.
- By talking to the Park Service, horse owners can get permission to camp with their horses in the park. For the rest of us, there are horse rentals at Smokemont, Cades Cove and the park headquarters.
Soaking up the history. Care to learn more about what life used to be like for settlers and farmers in the pre-park Smoky Mountains? Consider visiting some of these sites.
- Cades Cove. The most visited destination in the park, Cades Cove offers a working mill and some of the churches and buildings that remain from the farming community that once resided there. You'll also find a visitor center and lots of informative stops along the way. The small road can get quite congested in the heavy season. If you can walk or bike the road, you'll have a much smoother visit before 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Wednesdays between May and September; at those times, the road is only open to walkers and bikers!
- Cataloochee Valley. Like Cades Cove, this destination rewards you with glimpses into a bygone time in the Smoky Mountains. But unlike Cades Cove, it isn't crowded. There are two good indications that Cataloochee is worth a trip. First of all, you have to hike just to get into the place. And second, this is where trapped bears are taken to be released. It's that isolated.
You'll surely have a memorable Smoky Mountain time here viewing the old remaining buildings, a small forgotten slice of history just basking in quiet.
- Mingus Mill. Unlike other operating mills in the area, this one sports a horizontal wheel.
- Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum. Watch and learn as old-time farming techniques are shown to you.
Now, do you wonder what really causes the Smoky Mountains to be so characteristically smoky? Is it rain? Fire? Noxious tourist fumes? The hot air of parental advice?
Wonder will likely give way to a primal appreciation and awe when you see it for yourself - ridge upon blue ridge of mountain cresting over the mist and retreating into the distance. Smoky wisps rising from the mountaintops and, nearer, the dewdrops almost too crisp to process, and the fresh smell that even nine million annual visitors can't ever befoul - a description of a Smoky Mountain morning inevitably falls short of what you'll experience. 'Is this the same place,' you might wonder, 'that two nights ago sounded as though thunder was carving new mountains out of the earth?'
There's more to the haunting smokiness than rain, just as there's a greater reason for the park's popularity than its proximity to big east coast cities. My dad might have been technically right, but you see he also missed the mark a bit; evaporating moisture rising from a landfill doesn't elicit irrepressible awe. You can't find this at home, unless you're extremely lucky. You can't look at the halos drifting from their ancient mountains and not be moved. The Smoky Mountains possess a deep, old earthy power, deeper than root and taller than treetop. So let's all thank Coolidge for setting the land aside. Let's thank the Appalachian settlers who gave up their property. Let's thank Ripley's for the sharks.