Planning Your Trip in the Smokies
The official National Park Service website for the Great Smokies (www.nps.gov/grsm) has a tremendous amount of useful information on the park. Before you go, download the Smokies Trip Planner from the NPS site. Once in the park, at a visitor center pick up a copy of Smokies Guide, a free tabloid newspaper published four times a year by the Park Service. For sale at park visitor centers for $5, the Smokies Starter Kit is a useful collection of maps, pamphlets, brochures and other material on the park. Also worth considering is the Smokies Explorer Packet ($19.95), which includes two guidebooks.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association is a non-profit group that has been supporting the park since 1953. It runs the bookstores and gift shops in the park. Its website at www.smokiesinformation.org has a wealth of information and many photos, along with an online store. There also are free Smokies visitor guide apps for iPhone and Android smartphones downloadable from the GSMA website.
History of the Park
More than 10,000 years ago, nomadic people called Paleo-Indians occupied the mountain valleys of the region, including what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. About 3,000 years ago, Eastern Woodland Indians took up a more settled agrarian life in the mountains. At the time the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Cherokee nation had a population of about 100,000 in eight Southeastern states.
The Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, came through the Smokies in 1540. In the 1700s, sizeable numbers of white settlers, mostly from Scotland and Northern Ireland, arrived and began subsistence farming in the Smokies and elsewhere in the mountains.
Conflict between Native Americans and white settlers was an ongoing concern. In response, President Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of all Native American people from the Southern states, relocating them to reservations in Oklahoma. The forced march of the Cherokee that took place in 1838-39 is now known as “Nunna daul Isunyi” in the Cherokee language, or “The Trail of Tears.”
About 600 Cherokee Indians remained in North Carolina. They became the basis of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, based today on the Qualla Boundary reservation adjoining the Great Smokies Park.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, large timber companies moved into the Southern Appalachians, clear cutting the mountains and erecting sawmills and paper factories. Railroads were built, and roads were cut through the mountains.
To preserve the natural beauty of the mountains, people in Asheville and in Knoxville began promoting the idea of a park. There was debate as to whether the park should be in North Carolina or in Tennessee, but eventually a compromise was reached that it would straddle the border of the two states.
In 1904, Horace Kephart, a librarian from St. Louis, arrived in Hazel Creek, in what is now the Smokies, with plans to study the wilderness areas of the Southern Appalachian highlands. Kephart moved into a cabin at the old Adams mining camp just above Sugar Fork. Kephart's book Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, was the first major study of Southern Appalachian culture. He also wrote guides to camping in the park and a history of the Cherokee. Later Kephart, with his friend and nature photographer George Masa, campaigned for the establishment of the Great Smokies park. Although Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, before the park was dedicated (he is buried in Bryson City), he is now known as a father of the Smokies.
Earlier national parks established in the West, such as Yellowstone, were simply carved out of land already owned by the U.S. government, but the situation in the Southern Appalachians was different. Most of the land was in private hands, and money to purchase the land had to be raised privately. Fund raising began in 1925, with money from private individuals trickling in. A John D. Rockefeller family charity saved the day for the park, giving $5 million to be matched with state funds.
Beginning in 1929, land for the park was acquired from the timber companies and from more than 6,000 individual landowners.
In 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established with some 300,000 acres. However, it took several years to complete the purchase of additional land and to resettle most of the landowners outside the park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in a ceremony September 2, 1940, at Newfound Gap.
The construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1940s and 1950s (its southern terminus is near the entrance of the Smokies at Cherokee) and of Interstates 40, 26, 85, 65 and other parts of the national highway system in the 1960s and 1970s made the Smokies more accessible to millions of people all over the East and Midwest.
Entering the Park
There are two main entrances to the park, both on U.S. Highway 441. One is at Oconaluftee about 2 miles from Cherokee on the North Carolina side, about 50 miles or a little over one hour by car from Asheville. The other is at Sugarlands near Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side. Three main visitor information centers are in the park, at Oconaluftee, Sugarlands and Cades Cove. In addition, there is a small visitor station at Clingmans Dome and four information centers outside the park in Tennessee, in Sevierville, Townsend and two in Gatlinburg.
On the North Carolina side there are a number of other places where you can enter the park, typically on unpaved roads, including at Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Bryson City, Fontana and Waynesville.
Elevations in the park range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet. This difference in elevation can affect local weather in significant ways. It can be 15 to 20 degrees F. cooler at Clingmans Dome or Mt. Le Conte than at park entrances. Driving from the Oconaluftee or Sugarlands entrance to Clingmans Dome is the equivalent, in terms of climate and flora, of driving from the Mid-Atlantic U.S. to northern Canada. July and August are the warmest months, while January and February are the coldest.
Precipitation averages 55 inches per year in the lowlands to 85 inches per year at Clingmans Dome. About one day in three in the Smokies sees some precipitation, either rain or snow. Precipitation is pretty well spread out over the year, with September and October generally being the driest months.
It’s advisable to dress in layers, especially from fall through spring and if you are planning to hike or backpack. At higher elevations, a sunny day can quickly turn cold and windy, with ice or snow.
Early spring sees variable weather conditions, with mild temperatures in the lower elevation areas but snow possible at higher elevations. Later in the spring, in April and May, the Smokies warm up, with temps frequently in the 70s or 80s except at the highest elevations.
We hate to tell you, but summer tends to be humid and fairly hot in the Smokies, especially at the lower elevations, where temps can reach the high 80s or low 90s, with rain showers or thunderstorms common in the afternoons. The highest temperature ever recorded in the Smokies was 100 degrees, in 1983. However, evenings generally are much cooler, and at higher elevations it’s always chillier. Mt. Le Conte Lodge, for example, has only once in recorded history (in July 2012) seen 80 degrees, and the average high temperature at Clingmans Dome in July is just 65. You’ll experience more haze -- the blue “smoke” for which the park is named, although today much of that haze is due to pollution from electrical power plants than from natural conditions -- in the summer than at any other time.
Fall is glorious in the Smokies, typically with brisk, clear days and cool to chilly nights, depending on elevation. The first frosts in the park usually happen in September at higher elevations. October is the peak time for leaf peeping, and the month is usually dry, with invigorating temperatures. By November, you’ll probably experience freezing temperatures at night even at the lower elevations.
In winter, snow is light and infrequent at lower elevations, but Newfound Gap with an elevation over 5,000 feet receives an average of almost five feet of snow a year. About half the days in the winter have high temperatures of 50 degrees or more, but at night temps are typically below freezing and can drop to as low as minus 15 to 20 degrees F. at the higher mountain peaks. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the Smokies was minus 23 degrees F. in 1985.
Call 865-436-1200, extension 630, for park weather information. The National Park Service has two webcams in the park, one at Purchase Knob at 5,000 feet and another at Look Rock at around 2,670 feet, so you can get a live peek at the weather before you go.
Best Times to Visit
The biggest month for visitation in the park is July, followed by June, and then October, peak fall-color season. Weekends in October are especially crowded -- expect traffic delays on Newfound Gap Road and serious traffic backups on Cades Cove Loop Road.
Beat the crowds by visiting on weekdays rather than weekends and also by arriving early in the day. Late spring is a great time to visit the park -- wildflowers are in bloom, and it's before the heat and crowds of summer. Winter in the park can be beautiful, especially when there's snow on the ground or rime frost on trees. Some park roads, including Clingmans Dome Road are closed in winter, and at times even the main Newfound Gap Road closes. Call 865-436-1200 for road closure and weather information. Dial extension 631 for updates on road closures and extension 630 for weather conditions.
All content copyright © Lan Sluder except selected photographs used by permission and brief quotations or other fair use text, which are owned by the copyright holder.
We have made every effort to confirm the accuracy of information on this website, and in the Amazing Asheville book and ebooks, but travel information is subject to frequent change, and no warranty is made, express or implied. Please notify us of any errors or omissions, and we will attempt to correct them as soon as possible. All opinions expressed are those of the author, Lan Sluder, unless otherwise noted.