Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cades Cove Motor Trail Parsons Branch Road Opening

Most of the almost 10 million people a year who visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park never leave their cars, trucks or vans while visiting the park. While that might be a shame to some, it does keep the amount of people on the hiking trails and in campsites at a manageable level.

Some people who stay in their cars may be doing so not by choice but because of physical limitations which would not let them make use of the more than 800 miles of hiking trails in the GSMNP. Others may be fearful of what may be waiting for them in the wilds of the Smokies.

All of the roads in the national park allow motorists to not only see the splendor of the Great Smoky Mountains and the beautiful views and vistas year round, but also the chance to see deer, black bear, coyote, wild turkey and a host of other animals who make the national park their home.

I especially love driving or hiking on the unimproved road from the Big Creek Section of the park in Tennessee to the Chattahoochee area near Maggie Valley in North Carolina and Rich Mountain Road which takes you from Cades Cove into Townsend Tennessee.

Another road on my favorite list of motoring trails is the Parsons Branch Road in the far end of Cades Cove which has been closed for more than 4 years but has just been reopened after repairs and much needed improvements.

When the road reopened last Friday I was expecting there to be a big celebration possibly attended by the upper echelon of the park. Instead the road closed sign was simply removed and we drove onto this wonderful historic motor trail.

newly opened Parsons Branch Road

To keep the trail from washing out, the park service has done a wonderful job raising the road and reinforcing the road near stream crossings and placing gray rock in the drainage areas around the road to prevent erosion. Some of the reinforcement can be seen in the photograph above.

Since the road was closed for so many years and it runs through some dense forest the park service also had to cut back plenty of braches and small trees that have tried to reclaim the Parsons Branch Road. Falling tress from the last few years winter wind storms have also been removed from the roadway.

Being 3rd in line to drive on the newly opened Parsons Branch Road (obligations earlier in the day prevented me from being the first) I was surprised how little dust was kicked up by the 2 cars in front of me and how incredibly smooth the ride was compared to even the paved area of the 11 mile Cades Cove Loop.

The Parsons Branch Road runs through some mostly lower elevations with about a dozen stream crossings. On the left you will see virtual walls of rhododendrons running up hillsides that will be spectacular when they bloom in the early summer.

While much of what you will drive by on Parsons Branch Road is second growth forest - areas that have been previously harvested for lumber that are still some fantastic old growth trees. These trees are huge and in many cases larger than most trees you can ever see from a road in the park. One of these old growth trees is pictured below next to one of the Your Smokies cars so that you can really see how huge these trees are.

fantastic old growth trees in the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

You will also find along the motor trail a trailhead that will take you up to Gregory Bald as well as Sheep Pen Gap. There is a small parking area here and plenty of pull offs along the way where you can take a short break and look around.

My only disappointment when driving the Parsons Branch Road Motor Trail was to find litter on the side of the road I feel that should have been picked up while the road was being worked on. I should explain that it was one RC Cola can circa 1978 and in immaculate condition just yards from the road. I just don't get how this was missed. While you are not allowed to removed artifacts, plant or animals from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may remove trash as I often do.

RC Cola can circa 1978

Near the end of the Parsons Branch Road Motor Trail you will see a picturesque low flat falls in the stream bed. This is a great place to have a picnic or snap a few shots.

The road finally ends up on the Tennessee side of the infamous Tail of the Dragon and unfortunately some of the constant whine and growl of motorcycles racing close by...But that's another subject.

Motorcycle on Tail of the Dragon

If you have the time to take the Parsons Branch Road Motor Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park do so - especially in spring, summer and early fall.

The Smoky Mountains leaf season to run early and short for 2007

One of the busiest tourist seasons for the Smoky Mountains is leaf season when people come to see the fall colors as they sweep through the Smoky Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Since there are no less than 108 species of trees represented in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you are sure to see wild pallets of colors as each species of tree will change into a different color at a different time. Add in elevation changes of more than almost 5,000 feet in the park alone and you have a leaf season that is more spectacular and varied and last longer than most other regions in the Unites States.

Smoky Mountains fall colors

Unfortunately the weather in the Smoky Mountains has not been very cooperative for a long leaf season this year due to extremely light rainfall. Sure it was great that you could hike in the Smokies and drive with less rain and mud, but higher moisture content in the leaves means brighter colors and longer life expectancy for each individual leaf.

In the past 3 weeks I can clearly see the lightening of dark green foliage and random burst of red, yellow and orange in the trees already. At the present it feels as though the leaves are about a week or so ahead of schedule and the weather in the Smokies is fabulous.

Smoky Mountains fall colors

Above you see a picture I took yesterday on my property in Sevierville Tennessee of the colors already changing and it looks to me that by mid October we will all be experiencing a riot of colors here.

The peak of the leaf season in the Smoky Mountains varies by attitude and moisture content of the leaves. Higher elevations in North Carolina will be the first to see the color changes and peak leaf season with lower elevations in North Carolina and Tennessee to follow.

For years I have told everyone who asked about the best time to come to be sure to catch the most color in the leaves and my answer is October to early November but if you are disappointed in the leaves colors right in front of you, you are only a short drive to another section of the Smokies where the leaves colors may be more to your liking.

If you are too early to catch the peak of the leaf season, enjoy the beautiful greens and light yellows and splashes of red. If you are to late for the peak of the leaf colors you end up missing the crowds and will usually get a cheaper rate on your hotel or cabin rental in the Smoky Mountains.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Drought conditions still affect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Water is scarce in some parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and the Appalachian Trail which can spell serious trouble for hikers and campers who plan on normally abundant water sources.

We have seen our river and lake levels at extremely low levels this year due to an extended drought for this entire year. Springtime in the Smokies saw excessive wildfires in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding state parks and forests.

Now to compound the water problems in the Smokies large areas of the park are "dry" where most or all of the free running springs won't allow any relief to parched hikers - or local animals.

In particular on the Appalachian Trail between Shuckstack Mountain north of Fontana Dam to Spence Field there is approximately a 16 mile stretch that is dry as well as the Russell Field Shelter and Mollies Ridge Shelter and backcountry sites 4, 5, 6, 7, 16, 26, 42, 113.

Smokies plant life

Today's gentle rain falling in parts of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains might have brought some mild relief from the warmth of the afternoon but other than making the leaves on the ground a little less crunchy while hiking and making for some nice raindrops on a leaf pictures (see above) it was not enough to elevate the issues with drying up streams, lakes and wells in both Tennessee and North Carolina.

Smoky Mountains National Park Lifts Ban on Backcountry Fires

The National Park Service has announced that the ban on backcountry fires for campers and hikers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been lifted.

The fire danger due to extremely dry conditions in the GSMNP caused great concern to the park service causing them to issue a ban on backcountry fires in late August.

Fortunately due to some welcome rainfall and lower temperatures in and around the park, campers and hikers may make fires in the in any of the more than 100 backcountry sites and shelters if they practice safe campfire management.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Popular road in Cades Cove section of the GSMNP Reopens

The most popular section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Cades Cove area and today finally after more than 4 years the Parsons Branch Road will be reopened to motorists and hikers.

The Parson Branch Road

The National Park Service has worked hard to reopen the Parson branch road a one way 8 mile gravel road which takes you from the far end of Cades Cove to US 129 right into the famous Tail of the Dragon a favorite road for motorcycle riders and performance car enthusiasts.

Flooding in May of 2003 damaged the road which meandered through old growth and second growth forest and like the Rich Mountain Road also in Cades Cove, offers a motorist the closest experience to actually hiking the trails in the Smoky Mountains National Park.

Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson explained "When we planned and carried out the repairs we engineered in some changes to the drainage channels and stream crossings that would make it less susceptible to being washed out again, but I think visitors will find that its primitive character and its sense of solitude are still unimpaired."

The Parson Branch Road is scheduled to reopen today at noon. Keep your eye open for representatives of Your Smokies!