Visits to Smokies park down in 2008, but still tops other parks

Discover is an annual guide to living in Knoxville and East Tennessee.

A tough economy and high fuel prices in 2008 may have caused a drop in the number of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the park still drew more people than any other in the U.S.

According to park officials, 9,044,010 visitors - the lowest total in 12 years - entered the park though its three main entrances and outlying areas.

Despite the downward trend, officials are cautiously optimistic for 2009 as the park celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and encompassing 800 square miles of almost entirely forested land, the Smokies is the most-visited national park in the country - attracting more visitors per year than the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Yosemite National Park in California combined.

Designated a national park on June 15, 1934, the park's hallmarks are its animal life and its preservation of structures and artifacts reflecting the mountain culture of Southern Appalachian.

Weather/climate

With elevations ranging from 800 feet to 6,543 feet above sea level, the park's topography definitely affects its weather.

Temperatures can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler on the mountaintops, while annual precipitation averages 55 inches at lower elevations and 85 inches in the high country.

Spring often brings unpredictable weather, particularly on the mountain crests. Summer is hot and humid at the foot of the mountains but more pleasant higher up. Fall has warm days and cool nights and is the driest period. Frosts begin in late September, and snow is possible in November.

Getting there

Several major highways lead to the park. The following routes provide access to the three main entrances. There is no public transportation to the park.

n From Interstate 40 in Sevier County, take Exit 407 to state Highway 66 south and continue to U.S. Highway 441 south in Sevierville. Follow U.S. 441 to the park.

n From I-40 in Knoxville, take Exit 386B and follow U.S. Highway 129 (Alcoa Highway) south to Alcoa. Then take U.S. Highway 321 south through Maryville to Townsend. Leave U.S. 321 as it forks off east into Wears Valley and continue straight on state Highway 73 into the park.

n From eastbound I-40 in Knoxville, take Exit 387 onto U.S. Highway 441 (Chapman Highway) south and follow through Knoxville, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to the park.

Camping

The park's campsites are divided into front country (developed) and backcountry (backpacking). There also are a limited number of group tent campsite areas. The procedures and facilities for each are different.

Front country

The National Park Service maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations in the park. They are at Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, Look Rock and Smokemont. A map of these sites may be downloaded at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm.

Each site has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets but no showers or electrical or water hookups. Each site has a fire grate and a picnic table.

During summer and fall, sites at Elkmont, Smokemont, Cades Cove and Cosby may be reserved. Reservations may be made by calling 877-444-6777 or by visiting www.recreation.gov. Reservations are accepted only for May 15-Oct. 31. All other campgrounds are first-come, first-served.

No more than six people may occupy a campsite. Two tents or one RV and one tent are allowed per site. Maximum stay during summer and fall is seven days. Maximum stay during the off-season is 14 days. Pets are allowed as long as they are restrained by a leash or are otherwise confined at all times.

Group camping (minimum of eight campers) is available at seven sites: Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont and Smokemont. Maximum stay is seven days. These areas will accommodate tents only.

All group sites require reservations, which may be made by calling 877-444-6777.

Cades Cove has the only store onsite, selling convenience items, groceries and camping supplies.

n Abrams Creek: March 13-Oct. 31; 16 sites; maximum recreational vehicle length is 12 feet; fee is $14.

n Balsam Mountain: May 8-Oct. 12; 46 sites; maximum RV length is 30 feet; $14.

n Big Creek: March 13-Oct. 31; 12 sites; no RVs allowed; $14.

n Cades Cove: open all year; 159 sites; maximum RV length is 40 feet; $17-$20.

n Cataloochee: March 13-Oct. 31; 27 sites; maximum RV length is 31 feet; $17.

n Cosby: March 13-Oct. 31; 165 sites; maximum RV length is 25 feet; $14.

n Deep Creek: April 1-Oct. 31; 92 sites; maximum RV length is 26 feet; $17.

n Elkmont: March 13-Nov. 30; 220 sites; maximum RV length is 32 feet for trailers, 35 feet for motor homes; $17-$23.

n Look Rock: May 8-Oct. 31; 68 sites; no size limits for RVs; $14.

n Smokemont: open all year; 142 sites; maximum RV length is 35 feet for trailers, 40 feet for motor homes; $17-$20.

Backcountry

All backcountry campers are required to have a free permit, which is available at most ranger stations and visitor centers. Campers must stay in designated sites or shelters. Reservations are required for shelters and tent sites.

Reservations may be made by calling 865-436-1231. A backcountry map showing trails, camping areas and a list of rules is available at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm.

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