With a light winter pretty well over, Great Smoky Mountains National Park started opening its seasonal facilities this weekend.
Set Up Camp
It’s time to go camping. The park’s Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open all year, but last Friday March 9th, Cataloochee and Elkmont Campgrounds opened. Cosby, Deep Creek and Big Creek come online April 1st, and Look Rock, Balsam Mountain, and Abrams Creek open May 11th. Camping fees range from $14 to $23 per site/night.
The park says Recreation.gov permits campers to reserve specific campsites up to six months in advance. Group campsites and picnic pavilions can be reserved up to a year in advance (group camping is available at Big Creek, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, Cades Cove, and Smokemont). Reservations at the five campgrounds, all group campsites, horse camps, and picnic shelters, are available at Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.
Talk about a great idea—“generator free” campsite loops are available at three campgrounds: Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont. All sites in these sections area reservable through Recreation.gov.
Horse camp reservations for Anthony Creek, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Towstring, all of which open April 1st, are only available through Recreation.gov. Horse sites are $20 (except at Big Creek where it is $25).
Take a Drive
Many of the secondary roads that wind through the park’s most isolated areas are closed in winter. A number of those opened last Friday March 9th, including Little Greenbrier, Rich Mountain, Straight Fork/Round Bottom, Forge Creek, Parson Branch, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (the latter a popular loop from Gatlinburg where a number of the park’s best hikes and interpretive trails start).
Clingmans Dome Road opens earlier than usual next Friday March 16. Light winter snowfall did not create deeply snow-drifted conditions that can occur in a severe Smokies’ winter. May 11th, Heintooga Ridge and Balsam Mountain roads are set to open.
Spread a Picnic
Four picnic areas in the Smokies are open year-round—Cades Cove, Greenbrier, Deep Creek, and Metcalf Bottoms. The first of the others to open will be the popular Chimneys Picnic Area along the Newfound Gap Road on March 15, followed by Big Creek, Collins Creek, and Cosby Picnic areas April 1st. On May 11th, Heintooga and Look Rock will debut.
The largest picnic pavilion in the park, at Twin Creeks, opens April 1st (reservations are required through Recreation.gov only). Five other picnic pavilions can be reserved on on Recreation.gov—at Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Metcalf Bottoms, and Greenbrier picnic areas. Twin Creeks fees range from $35-$75. At other areas, the cost is $20, except at Greenbrier where it is $10.
Take a Horseback Ride
All of the park’s riding stables open in March: In Tennessee, Smoky Mountain Riding Stable opened on March 3rd; Sugarlands Riding Stable on March 9th; and Cades Cove on March 10th. The Smokemont Riding Stable in North Carolina will open March 24. Horseback rides cost $30 per horse per rider for one-hour rides. Other equestrian-based services are available, among them horse-drawn wagon rides along the historic Oconaluftee Turnpike at the Smokemont Riding Stable.
Hike to a Hut
LeConte Lodge, Eastern America’s highest overnight accommodation, opens March 19th. The lodge is so popular the reservations rush for 2012 started last fall—but it's still early in the spring. Reservations that are available often crop up in the colder months, so give it a try. The $121 per night fee for adults and $85 for children 10 and under (without tax) includes dinner and breakfast. A bag or dining room lunch at the lodge with snacks/beverages are available for day hikers and backpackers (reservation required for the dining room). Check out the lodge website.
All three visitor centers are already open daily. March hours are: Sugarlands Visitor Center, near Gatlinburg, TN, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Cades Cove Visitor Center, near Townsend, TN, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.)