Weather in the GSMNP

Whenever somebody complains about the weather in the Smoky Mountains, a typical response from one of the locals will be:

“Give it 15 minutes, it will change.”

And, as a whole that is right.  The weather in the Smokies is relatively temperate.  During the summer it does get warm and during the winter it does get bitter cold, but in the grand scheme of things, it is neither as hot or as cold as other areas of the country.  In the summer, you can go to the top of the mountain in areas like Clingman’s Dome and during the winter you can stay in the lower elevations to stay a little warmer.  The lower than average snow fall in the Smoky Mountains leaves the park open during most of the year, but the elevation means that places like Ober Gatlinburg and Cataloochee can make snow early and for a long time.

Weather data for Lower Elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Month

High

Low

Monthly Precipitation

Monthly Snowfall

Days of Precipitation

Jan

51

28

4.8″

2.3″

9

Feb

54

29

4.8″

2.9″

9

March

61

34

5.3″

T

8

April

71

42

4.5″

0

8

May

79

50

4.5″

0

9

June

86

58

5.2″

0

9

July

88

59

5.7″

0

10

Aug

87

60

5.3″

0

10

Sept

83

55

3.0″

0

5

Oct

73

43

3.1″

T

6

Nov

61

33

3.4″

0.7″

7

Dec

52

28

4.5″

1.0″

8

Weather data for the Higher Elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Month

High

Low

Monthly Precipitation

Monthly Snowfall

Days of Precipitation

Jan

35

19

7.0″

18″

12

Feb

35

18

8.2″

20″

12

March

39

24

8.2″

26″

12

April

49

34

6.5″

5″

10

May

57

43

6.0″

T

10

June

63

49

6.9″

0

11

July

65

53

8.3″

0

13

Aug

64

52

6.8″

0

12

Sept

60

47

5.1″

T

8

Oct

53

38

5.4″

2″

8

Nov

42

28

6.4″

5″

9

Dec

37

21

7.3″

8″

10

Kephart Prong Trail

  • Kephart Prong Trail2.0 miles in length
  • Starting Points – 8.8 miles from Newfound Gap – headed toward North Carolina
  • Points of Interest – CCC Camp, Fish Hatchery, Railroad Remains, Kephart Shelter
  • Difficulty – 1-2

This is a great trail, especially if you are looking for something a little out of the ordinary but still short enough to hike in one afternoon.  Along the way you will get to see some history from the early days of the GSMNP, cross some streams and even take in one of the shelters that you can reserve if you want to stay on the trail overnight.  Also, this trail is named for a very famous person:  Horace Kephart.  Kephart was one of the people that helped with the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and actually established most of the trails in the park.

Kephart Prong TrailThe trail is inclined, gradually gaining altitude as you hike.  Within the first few feet, you will cross the Oconaluftee River on a footbridge.  The trail starts out very wide, easily allowing 3-4 people to walk side by side.  The trail narrows as it continues.  Inside the first half mile yo will come upon a chimney that marks the location of an old CCC camp.  These members of the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build the infrastructure in the National Park during the 30s and 40s.

At 0.7 miles into the trail you will come to the abandon fish hatchery.  This hatchery was used by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.  The WPA helped to establish the National Park.  This hatchery helped to establish the rainbow trout population in the Smokies.  Though this trout did have adverse effects on the native brook trout, the rainbow trout did establish the Smokies as the trout fishing capital of the south.

Kephart Prong TrailIn the last mile of the trail, you will experience 4 stream crossings.  If you are unfamiliar with the term stream crossing, you are going to encounter a stream that runs across the trail.  The stream crossings vary in depth and width.  In most cases, on the trails in the Smokies, there will be some type of bridge to assist you with those crossings.  On all of the stream crossings along Kephart Prong Trail you can choose to cross them by wading across the stream or by using the bridges.  Now, these bridgesd are nothing like the footbridge that you crossed the Oconaluftee on earlier.  These are trees that have been cut in half and laid across the stream.  The logs are held in place by stonework and they have handrails in most cases.

Along the final 0.2 miles of the trail you will encounter the remains of a narrow gauge railroad from the Champion Fibre Company.  Along the side of the trail you will see the iron rails of the railroad covered in most and rusting.  This narrow gauge track system transported materials out of the mountains until the establishment of the national park.  Not wanting to spend the resources to remove the rails from the park, the iron rails have been left in the mountains to testify to a time long gone.

Sugarlands

Sugarlands, of course, is the home of the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Sugarlands is also an area of the National Park that stretches from the Grapeyard Ridge and the Roaring Fork area to Sugarland Mountain.  The road out of Gatlinburg runs straight through Sugarlands and is one of the most used access points to the GSMNP.

The Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee hunted the land that came to be known as Sugarlands for thousands of years before the first European Settlers go to the area.  The settlers that came to East Tennessee found a valley in Sugarlands that was good for growing crops, protected them from the harshest of the winter storms and provided them with  natural insulation from outsiders.  The Sugarlanders were isolationary and stayed to themselves.  Their communities flourished and though life continued around them (the Civil War and other national occurrences) the people of Sugarlands continued along their path.

With the coming of the logging industry, the people of the Sugarland area began to have visitors to their valley.  As the rail lines brought in summer vacationers, the Sugarlanders had new people to sale to their goods to.  They embraced the people of other areas that wanted a mountain spot to vacation.  In fact many Sugarlanders took on legendary status.  Mountain guides like Wiley Oakley helped to map the trails that would become the trails in the Smokies.  Oakley guided visitors on a trail through an area called Scratch Britches that would become known as Rainbow Falls Trail.

When Congress passed the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the people of Sugarlands were some of the first to be displaced be the coming change.  Most of them took the buyout offered by the Park Service but some of the Sugarlanders had to be forced out of the area.  After all of the residents had been removed from the area, the Park Service the CCC began the task of building the structures that we have all come to know and love in the GSMNP.

Modern Sugarlands offers everything a visitor to the Smokies could want and more.  Reservations for campsites, a museum of the wildlife in the Smokies, a video about the foundation of the park, trails and of course, contact with the guardians of the National Park – the Park Rangers.  Ask them questions, get help planning your hike for the day or even let your little ones participate in the Junior Ranger Program.  Sugarlands was a place that visitors of old went to learn about the mountains, some things have not changed.

Rainbow Falls Trail

Summary: The Rainbow Falls Trail is fairly challenging if completed all the way to Mt LeConte. Allow an hour and a half to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt LeConte. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte.

Point of Departure: Cherokee Orchard Road – Turn at light #8 in Gatlinburg and follow the Airport Road 1 mile out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smokies National Park. The name will change from Airport Road to Cherokee Orchard Road. About 2.5 miles after entering the Park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area. You will find the trail head at one edge of the parking area.

Features of Interest: Your first reward comes at the 2.8 mile point when you arrive at Rainbow Falls. At the 6.6 mile point you will come upon an Alum Cave Trail junction which leads left 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge (the only lodging to be found within the Park), which is 6.7 miles from where you began. Overnights at LeConte Lodge require a reservation, which should be obtained weeks or even months in advance by calling (865) 429-5704.

A short jaunt to Rainbow Falls and a challenging climb on to Mt. LeConte await the hiker on The Rainbow Falls Trail. The Rainbow Falls Trail gains nearly four thousand feet in 6.7 miles, making it one of the more uniquely challenging climbs in the Smokies. The original trail is arguably the oldest route to Mount LeConte, and followed the east side of LeConte Creek. At that time, LeConte Creek was known as Mill Creek– because of the large number of grist mills that operated along the creek.

The Rainbow Falls Trail begins along the stream, and 1 mile above Cherokee Orchard, it twists away from the stream onto an exposed ridge. Shortly it returns creekside, the hiker crossing by way of a footlog, and then begins a series of climbing switchbacks.

After you cross the stream a second time, you can spot the high cliff from which the falls descend. The cliff is surrounded by a thicket of rhododendron and a growth of hemlocks.

LeConte Creek is fairly narrow at this point, and forces the water outward into a heavy mist before settling eighty-two feet below. Sunlight reflecting off this mist creates the rainbow effect which gives the falls their name.

When you cross the LeConte Creek for the third time, Rainbow Falls comes into complete view. Navigation over the rocks allows a closer approach–and a better view–of the falls. For the hardier hiker, the trail continues beyond Rainbow Falls, and becomes steeper, before changing again to a more easy course on the way to the LeConte terminus. The hiker should remember–as the trail moves up the mountain and into the cooler, moist upper reaches of LeConte–that temperatures can change considerably and unprepared hikers might find themselves in surprisingly cool temperatures–especially if it’s raining. With the change in climate, plant life changes as well. Balsam, spruce, and mountain ash dominate the trees, and crimson bee balms, asters, Indian Pipes, and monkshoods are also evident.

Note: If you have access to the internet prior to departure, you can check the general weather conditions and temperatures at different elevations. Use this only as a guideline, however, because conditions can change abruptly in the Smokies, which average 90 inches of rain each year.A short distance from the summit of Mount LeConte the Bull Head and Alum Cave Bluff trails intersect the Rainbow Falls Trail. At this point, you will be only a few hundred yards from the top of Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge.

Bull Head Trail

For all you locals, the Bull Head Trail is probably one you’ve heard of before, and if you’ve been to Mount LeConte might have even hiked as you made your way back to civilization.

In all, it’s a 5.9 downhill hike. We’re starting you off at the summit of Mount LeConte and traveling downward toward the Rainbow Falls Trail junction to its intersection with the Old Sugarlands Trail. For wildflowers lookers or fall color seekers, this is a perfect hiking trail and one you’re sure to come back to with the changing seasons.

Starting out, you’ll find yourself at LeConte’s West Point at the intersection with the Rainbow Falls Trail. Many choose to hike up the Rainbow Falls Trail to reach the summit of Mount LeConte and take the Bull Head Trail back down the mountain.

As mentioned this is a wonderful wildflower hike whether you decide to go during the spring or summer. Bee-balms and trout-lilies are just a few of the seasonal blooms you’re sure to notice along the way. Views are just as good, especially at points where you get to gaze down at the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

You come to the Pulpit at mile 3.3 of the hike – a stone cairn built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only can you stand on it and look out to a majestic view, 2 or 3 people can sit on if they wish. Many a Smokies hiker have stopped to eat or take a break at this point.

From there, you’ll swing left before starting the switchbacks. This is the area known as the head of the bull – its profile seen northward. A wild buffalo bull. Talk to someone who has hiked the area over the years and they might be able to show you the whole of the bull. Balsam Point being the bull’s shoulders, the crest of Mount LeConte its body, and the Sawteeth its tail.

Magnolias, hemlocks, sugar maples meet the hiker on the way down past the Pulpit. Rock overhangs are present on this part of the trail and can provide a bit of covering during a pop-up rain storm. But be wary of these overhangs during a lightning storm. From here it’s a near straight line to the Old Sugarlands Trail.

Alum Cave Bluffs Trail

The Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is one of the most traversed in the national park and for good reason. It’s by far the most popular route to Mount LeConte as you gain 2600 feet on the way to 6400 feet.

To reach the trailhead via the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, drive 8.6 miles along Newfound Gap Road traveling east. There you’ll find the sign to the trail and two large parking areas, where a path leads to the beginning of a 2.3 mile hike to Alum Cave Bluff.

The hike itself is a 4.6 mile round-trip climb following by a descent back or 5.1 miles on to LeConte Lodge. Expect the hike to the bluffs to take about 2 and 1/2 hours. Allow for about 3 and 1/2 hours if you decide to go on to LeConte Lodge.

Arch rock is the point of interest along the trail and you’ll bear witness to nature’s majestic power during this 4.6 mile (round-trip) hike. Even better views can be found if you hike on to LeConte Lodge and Cliff Tops.

Just off the parking area, you come to the Alum Cave Bluff Trailhead which is followed on its side for a mile by the Alum Cave Creek. Arch Rock appears at mile 1.5. Here, a set of stone stairs marks your passage through one of the few natural arches inside the national park. Inspiration Point appears at the 1.8 mile mark, where a panoramic view of the area meets the hiker. It’s an overwhelming sight and if you’ve packed a camera this is one of the places to use it. Low shrubs come to dot the trail from here on, before you arrive at Alum Cave Bluff (mile 2.3). Don’t take Alum Cave on name alone. Rather than a cave, it’s black slate that juts out in the form of a ledge, covering the trail and giving the impression of a cave. Alum Cave’s name derives from the alum deposits found along its walls.

If you do decide to continue and hike on to LeConte Lodge, the trail curves and follows the ridge that forms the southern flank of Mount LeConte. You’ll eventually be joined on the left by the Rainbow Falls Trail – 200 yards from it’s finish at LeConte Lodge. LeConte Lodge consists of several wood-shingled cabins, two lodges, and a dining room. There is no electricity and water is pumped into holding tanks from a spring. Reservations can be made at LeConte Lodge by calling (865) 429-5704.

A Bear Story

The last time I visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, my husband and I observed some curious human behavior. We were traveling the loop in Cades Cove when we saw a crowd of people getting out of their cars. Some among them were closely approaching a black bear to take photographs. Alan looked at me uncomfortably and asked, “Does this remind you of anything?” I laughed and stuck my head out the sunroof and said to whomever would listen. “My husband followed a bear to take it’s picture and almost got mauled!” When the pronouncement received only minor attention, we drove on.

I’ve often wondered what possesses otherwise cautious city dwellers to stalk claw footed, spiked tooth, bears for nothing more than a 4×5 photo. My curiosity began the first time I ever came came to the Smoky Mountains National Park twenty years ago.

Black Bear in the GSMNPAlan and I were newlyweds, and he had come home early from work with the idea: It’s a beautiful day, lets go to the Smokies! It was our first time. By evening, we were glowing from the long wonderful drive up Hwy. 19, and we sat by a stream eating fried chicken, honey, and biscuits  We were deep in that “OOH, look at this”, and “AHH look at that” phase of our love affair with the Great Smokies.

All at once I remembered seeing something on TV about the dangers of feeding bears in national parks. Being a real scaredy-cat by nature, I asked Alan about it. “Oh, you’ll be lucky if you ever see a bear.” he said confidently. “They’re afraid of people.” Great! I thought. Aren’t animals more dangerous when they’re afraid?

A couple of minutes went by when I noticed a very black stump about 20 feet back in the forest and across the creek. As I looked closer, little eyes, and then a nose began to appear. My eyes widened. I took one look at Alan, and said sternly, “There’s a bear!” To his bewilderment, I got up and quickly walked some distance to the car.

Oh, no! The doors were locked! I turned around. Alan stood up for the first time, and looked at me in utter amazement. “What’s the matter?” he called.

“There’s a bear right accross the stream!” I yelled back. Alan stared at me for a moment, and then broke out laughing.

What kind of reaction is that? I wondered? Who was this nut I married, and was laughing himself silly? Hadn’t I warned him with all solemnity that danger lurked close by?

At last, Alan turned around and saw I was right. There was a bear. Rather than panic, as I had done, he simply picked up our food, walked back to the car and unlocked it. Thank goodness for that! We both got in. Safe at last!

While I was telling him how frightened I was, he was assuring me I was overreacting. He began fumbling for his camera and film. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to get some pictures of the bear and her cub.” Alan said blithely.

“You’re what?” I looked across the stream to see the bear was indeed a mother with her cub. They were sniffing their way through the picnic area especially around the trash cans. “Are you nuts?” I asked Alan as he reached for the door handle. “You’re not leaving me out here!”

Alan got out of the car and began striding down the road toward the bears. Instantly, I envisioned myself as a young widow and quickly leaped from the car to protect my new husband. Exactly how I was going to do that was unclear. As we walked toward the roaming bears, I alternated between acting brave and warning of impending doom.

Meanwhile, Mama bear and her cub had attracted the attention of an older couple who were driving into the area. They stopped their car just as the bear began walking in our general direction. Impulsively, I climbed on top of the couple’s car, saying, “I hope you don’t mind!”

“No, not at all.” the old man said. Incredibly, he was somewhat amused. He turned his attention back to the bear, and my husband’s boudacious charge. The mother bear and cub disappeared into the edge of the forest. Alan held his forefinger in the air and said excitedly, “I’ll be just be a minute!” Then he too disappeared.

Very quickly, Alan saw his chance for the perfect picture! Excitedly, he framed the “perfect” scene: the cub with it’s paws on the side of a tree and looking right into the camera! Experiencing a bit of tourist nervana, Alan thought, How cooperative! In an instant his delusion of cooperation was shattered by a heart-stopping roar, and the sight of mama bear headed right for him! Alan froze, and mama bear stopped only a few feet from his stunned stare. Luckily, she was only bluffing in an effort to scare off the intruder. Mission accomplished! In shock, Alan retreated a safe distance.

Many naturalists claim the black bear is the strongest animal for its size in North America. Knowing this, and being, no doubt, discerning, you won’t repeat Alan’s mistake by chasing one down for a photo op. Hopefully you will be lucky enough and cautious enough to enjoy the park bears from a reasonable distance. Should one get too close, however, it is helful to know that bears have very poor eyesight and loud noises often scare them away. Also, it is helpful to know a campground bear is more likely to be dangerous because they can be enboldened by the desire for food and a history of having been fed by unsuspecting tourists.

Finally, if you are very unlucky indeed, and do run across the rare bear that shows a persistent interest in you, long-time hiking enthusiast, Charles Blair, suggests throwing rocks and, if all else fails, abandoning your food and climbing a tree.

Keep these things in mind and both you and the bears will survive your trip to the Great Smokies National Park!

Baskins Creek Trail

Surely if you’re an avid hiker you’ve looked for those trails that everyone seems to skip over and has overgrown just enough to feel like you’re really in a remote wilderness. Trails like those still exist, a few in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Baskins Creek Trail falls under that classification if only for its cryptic location.

The lovely 2.7 mile trail begins at the junction of the Trillium Gap Trail and ends in the middle of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – a very popular route for tourists coming to Smokies for the first time. It’s a wonder that the trail isn’t more traversed due to the number of popular places in the area like Grotto and Rainbow Falls.

As mentioned, the Baskins Creek trailhead is located along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Most hikers will park along Cherokee Orchard Road and walk along the trail before coming to the trailhead.

Once on the trail trail, you’ll notice various red maples, oaks, Eastern hemlocks. In winter, you can catch glimpses of Mount LeConte along the trail. You’ll cross Falls Branch at exactly 1 mile into the hike by stepping stones before descending a short ways.

Hikers will be tempted at 1.4 miles to take the side trail leading to the base of Baskins Creek Falls. Be warned, this trail is  not maintained by the national park or any other entity and is steep and can be extremely slippery for even the best of outdoorsmen.

You’ll cross Baskins Creek again at mile 1.6 after walking through a rhododendron tunnel then start a climb up a gulch where you can hear the Roaring Fork on certain days. The trail ends at the Bales Cemetery and the junction of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Kanati Fork Trail

The Kanati Fork Trail isn’t just a Smoky Mountain trail with a funny name. It’s a challenging uphill hike that with test even the most experienced of hikers and one where you can get some incredible shots of spring wildflowers.

In all, it’s a 2.9 mile hike from its trailhead on Newfound Gap Road to the junction with the Thomas Divide Trail. To reach the trailhead, walk 0.3 miles north of the Kephart Prong Trail parking area which is eight miles north of the Oconoluftee Visitor Center.

Like many other trails in the Smokies, the Kenati Fork Trail is a wonderful trail for viewing spring wildflowers, but it’s also a trail that can be fairly muddy if a storm has come through the area recently. The name “Kanati” comes from an old Cherokee tale, though there is no known reason as to why it was applied to this stream.

As you ascend this trail, notice the lush forest of birch and magnolia, as well as the creek valley on your left. Wildflowers that can be found along the Kanati Fork Trail include bee-balm, great chickweed, Dutchman’s britches, rue anemone, violets, trillium, and trout-lily.

Hikers will cross, then cross again, one of Kanati Fork’s feeder creeks, climb a switchback, then crosses the creek for a third time at 0.9 mile on the trail.

Thomas Divide creeps ever closer at the 2-mike marker and you cross another feeder creek before the trail levels off somewhat and another switchback come into play. At 2.9 miles, you reach the intersection with the Thomas Divide Trail and the end of the Kenati Fork Trail. Happy hiking!

Little Bottoms Trail

All you Smokies hikers out there looking for great little creek as well as backcountry campsite to camp out at need to look no further than the Little Bottoms Trail, a 2.3 miler on the Tennessee side of the park.

To get there, prepare to hike 1.3 miles by way of the Cooper Road Trail from the Abrams Creek ranger station. By the time you reach and hike Little Bottoms, you’ll have reached its junction with the Hatcher Mountain Trail.

To say that this trail gets its share of use would be an understatement. It’s THE people use to reach Abrams Falls from Happy Valley and a popular alternate route to the falls for those who wish to avoid the traffic of Cades Cove.

Starting out on the trail you’ll ascend a ridge of pine. The popular Indian Pipe blooms in abundance here from June through August in small clusters. Passing over the ridge, you’ll soon hear the flow Abrams Creek. Backcountry campsite No. 17 is reached at mile 1.6 on the trail and Abrams Creek moves musicly not far from here. An old Smokies homesite is still visible here and campers can use the creek as a water source.

The trail reaches its end at 2.3 miles at its intersection with the Hatcher Mountain Trail. Enjoy the Smokies!