Like Geese and Northern retirees, whenever a vacation is planned in January people usually head south. Sun, sand and summer temperatures sound good when you’re sick of rain and shivering when you step outside your door. Instead of putting on Mickey Mouse ears, head to the Smokies and shiver in awe of a beautiful place.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and is unique among our National Parks. Originally privately owned, when the land and roads inside what is now the park were turned over to the government, it was with the stipulation that the government would not be able to charge for it’s use; therefore, it is one of the few national parks that doesn’t have an entry fee. It is also one of the few National Parks that has log cabins, churches, and school houses still standing in it’s borders away from paved roads and throngs of people.
Lack of people is another reason to visit the Smokies in winter; with over 9 million visitors a year it makes it the heaviest trafficked National Park in half the size of Yellowstone. The Cades Cove Campground is adjacent to the most popular location in the park which is the Cade’s Cove loop: an 11 mile road that circles the old settlement that was in the valley beneath the, probably snow-capped, peaks that rise above. Three churches, an old grist mill, and various barns and houses litter the valley floor. Cades Cove also has the highest concentrations of white-tailed deer and black bears in the park, but it’s a more recent transplant that’s more fun to track down.
In 2001, twenty-five Elk were released in the Cataloochee valley as part of a program to reestablish the animal which had once roamed the entire park until eliminated by hunting. Now, one hundred and forty elk can be seen and heard all year long, far bigger than any white-tailed deer you’ve ever seen. Weighing up to 700lbs and standing up to 9’ tall including the antlers, the bull elk is an impressive sight. The best viewing time is during the fall rut, but you can still find them scouring the valley for some last leafy greens in the middle of winter.
Water though is what makes the Smoky Mountains special. Heavy rainfall provides plenty of nourishment for the giant old-growth trees that inhabit some of the forest, which then flows into the many waterfalls that you can hike to. During the winter in the higher elevations, entire streams can freeze over and even the smaller waterfalls can become solid sheets of ice. Many of the streams end up flowing into one of the great flat water paddling destinations in North Carolina; Lake Fontana which stretches over 10,000 acres, has some of the clearest blue water you can find and is perfect for a freezing cold polar bear plunge.
While all of this can be great fun, winter poses some difficulties that have to be taken into consideration. Weather is the obvious concern, and unless you’re an Eskimo, you’re going to need all the necessary jackets and woolly socks. Another hurdle is that you can’t cheat in the Smokies by bringing an electric heater because their campsites, while some are open year round, only allow electricity to be used by people with disabilities. So if you’re supposed -15 degree sleeping bag from Walmart has you shivering anytime it drops below 50, you might want to get more suitable gear that won’t leave you out in the cold (ha ha). During the winter, only two of the ten campgrounds are open: Smokemont and Cades Cove. Thankfully, this keeps your choices simple, and I keep a third option in my back pocket which is the KOA in Cherokee to the south. Not exactly rustic with it’s heated swimming pools and simple camping cabins, if weather and road conditions stop me from getting to Cades Cove or Smokemont, I’d simply change my base camp to the KOA and be adventurous elsewhere.
Another thing that you need to keep an eye on are road closures: Highway 441 closes fairly often due to snow and ice, but since it’s a major roadway it is cleared pretty quickly. If you’re on the Twitter, you can follow updates at @SmokiesRoadsNPS, or you can call (865) 436-1200 for current road closures and conditions. Most other roads stay open all year, but conditions could be treacherous; it’s always best to call ahead.
By the way, all of this information is off the cuff so to speak; as of the time of this writing, I’m leaving in a week to spend 6 days in the Smokies and plan to camp in Cades Cove to take pictures of the wildlife and buildings…and hopefully return with a good story for next month.
If you’d like to keep up with me on a more regular basis, you can follow me on Twitter @amish_hacker or keep up with me on my blog (and read past YC Articles) at http://www.theamishhacker.com.