Ep. 45 – Driving the Dragon, and Hiking in Precipitation

SMR #45  November 19, 2014

Intro

This week on Episode 45 Smoky Mountains Radio, Driving “The Tail of the Dragon”, When all the roads are closed, and our Spotlight Hike of the Week (Meigs Creek Trail).   Let’s Go!

Post-Intro

It is Wednesdat, November 19, 2014 and this is episode 45 of SMR.  As always, I am your host Mike, and I am here to help you have the best possible time on your next Smoky Mountains trip.  Just as a reminder to everyone, we will continue with our Wednesday show, the Smoky Mountain Minute again this week, and there I will feature feedback, questions, news, tips, and lots of other goodies.  If you are new, welcome aboard.  Thanks so much for tuning in.  All that I ask is that if you like the show, please pass the word along to your friends, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcasting app, or leave me a review when you get a chance.  All of those things will help the show continue to grow and allow me to do more and more with the content.  Thanks for listening.

Before we delve into the main part of the show, I invite you to check out our website, SMR.com.  If you are looking for anything you can find it there.  Contact info, social media links, subscribe buttons, hiking stuff, and everything else.  Anyway, Let’s get on with the show.

The Tail of the Dragon

If there is now constant about mountain roads, it is that they are windy.  But there is one road in particular that is so windy that it attracts people from literally all over the country.  I am talking about the part of Hwy. 129 known as The Dragon’s Tail.  The closest landmarks to this road are Fontana Lake and Chilhowee.  You will end up right in the thick of it if you take Parson’s Branch Road out of Cades Cove.  The major section is 11 miles long at Deals Gap and take you through nearly forty hairpin turns around curves.  This is a major reason that riders like this area so much.  But boy is it dangerous.

Like any mountain road, there is no inherent danger.  It is almost always our behavior that makes something dangerous.  This is no exception.  The posted speed limit is 30 miles per hour.  Good luck finding anybody doing that.  The road is a favorite with motorcycles and sports car enthusiasts.  They put the pedal to the medal and see what they….and their vehicle are made of.  Perhaps the biggest draw is people on crotch rockets.  You will see them fly through here at upwards of 60 mph.  And so the danger begins.

Think about the roads lately in the Smokies.  Downed trees, branches, slides, concrete broken up, power lines, and more.  This area is not immune to these problems.  And thou add dozens of hairpin turns to high speed and you have a receipe for disaster.  So why travel this road at all?  Well, it is quite scenic for starters.  You don’t have time to enjoy it because your eyes will be glued to the road, but the scenery is excellent.  It is also famous.  Many, many movies have filmed here including Two Lane Blacktop and The Fugitive.  You can see the dam where harrison Ford jumped in the movie from this road.  This is also the unofficial start of the Dragon.  But stopping and using pullouts in this area is not recommended.  Like I said, people fly through here.  To me, its just not very safe.

To make matters a little worse, there are often photographers taking pictures of you on the side of the road.  Yeah….this weirded me out the first time I saw it.  They are taking high speed shots of you and trying to get you to buy them online.  That promotes some risky behavior.  I’ve seen guys on crotch rockets popping wheelies through here just for the picture.  Its not good.  So with all this, people have to be crashing here, right?

Oh yeah!  And in a big way.  There have been thirty deaths on this road since 2000 alone, and 25 of those were motorcycles.  In the last 15 years, there has only been one year without a death.  And to add to that, there have been an average of 58 accidents there per year.  That works out to one every 6 days.  So with all that, you might think people would slow way down or stay away, right?  Not so much.

There is an odd pride about this road.  You will see on your right an odd tree area decorated with bike parts, helmets, and more that is affectionately called “The Tree of Shame.”  Many people that have had close calls over the years that nearly bit the dust put the twisted parts of their vehicle here as a badge of honor.  There are websites devoted to the fastest times through the dragon, and tricks to do as you go.  This is all part of the problem.

In recent years, there have been increased patrols looking for speeders, and the speed limit has been dropped twice in the last several years.  But it still has some issues.  So the question is, should you stay away from this one all together?  Maybe….as always, it depends.  I’m told this is some of the best riding in the country by my motorcycle friends.  I’ve ridden a bike, I used to own a bike, but I am admittedly a novice, so I would never attempt this on a motorcycle.  If you are responsible and an advanced rider, i’m sure it is an excellent experience.  My buddy that rides just about every day said this can be a great experience, but if you are on a bike, do it with other riders.  So its safety in numbers, so caravan across and that will help minimize risk.  Also, you know I am always looking for ways to help you beat the traffic.  This is one exception.  Your best bet is to take this road during busy times of the year.  When there are lots of cars, speeders can’t cant fly by.  When they are forced to slow down, obviously it is a lot safer in numbers.  So during peak times in October and holidays, you will likely be fine.  When there are not a lot of people on the road, especially near winter and early spring, it becomes the most dangerous.

I think it is a great mountain road.  There is scenery, history, and challenging driving.  I just wanted you to know what you are getting into before you go.  If you take parsons branch road, you are going to have to take this road.  Otherwise, there are easy routes to get around it, so it is not like it is a major artery.  If you decide to go, by all means have a good time.  Just take it slow.  I don’t want anybody to get hurt….and I don’t want to lose any listeners!

(I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on Smoky Mountains radio.com)

When All Roads Are Closed

It is that time of year.  Snow and ice are a constant threat, and more often than not, at least a couple of roads are going to be shut down for the weather.  But what happens when they are all closed?  We ran into this scenario just a couple weeks ago with the big storm and no doubt we will again.  On top of that, many roads are shut down seasonally, so what’s a hiker to do?

Well, alas, there are options.  The most obvious choice is not to hike.  Go shopping, go get something to eat, or chill by the fire and enjoy the scenery from afar.  This is the easiest and safest choice.  Its also a great way to make sure you don’t waste the “good” days that you have on your trip.  But let’s say that doesn’t appeal to you.  What else can you do?

Hiking is not necessarily out of the question.  Sometimes roads will close that don’t give you the option to hike anyway.  They close the roads and with them the trails.  Other times you can still hike despite the road closure.  So, seasonally when Roaring fork closes, you can still hike to the trailheads by walking down the road from the closed gate.  But when weather closes the park, you can’t and shouldn’t do that.  Weather closes all this for a reason.

When this happens, what are your options?  Well, they can be slim to none depending on where you go.  Just remember, in times like this lower elevation is your friend.  There is less snow, less cold, less everything the lower you are.  So with that in mind, I have a couple of ideas.  First, just outside of Gatlinburg is the Gatlinburg trail.  Easy access from town and nice and low elevation.  Its not much of a challenge, but at least it gets you intro a trail.  Another option close to Gatlinburg is the Cove Mountain Trail.  This one runs from just before Sugarlands and spits you out at a road crossing right near Wears Valley.  So its a good shuttle hike or there and back if you really want some hiking.  Its also a great way to reach Laurel Falls when Little River Road is closed.  Again, the low elevation makes this a good winter and bad weather hike.  There are a couple of small trails right off Fonatana Lake (not the AT).  You can also reach a couple of trails from townsend if the y, little river road, and cases cove loop are all closed.

Now one word….or a couple words about this.  If you go, do not block any gates or roads to take your hike.  This was a problem a couple weeks ago, and emergency and repair crews could not get to where they needed to go.  So if you have to block an area to hike, don’t hike.  Also, be smart.  If the weather is dangerous, don’t hike.  Most of you by now know how crazy I am about safety.  Taking chances when you know there is bad weather is just stupid and could endanger your life, your family’s lives, or the rescuers that will be coming for you.  Just don’t do it. Finally, if park officials say explicitly to stay away, do it.  There’s a reason they don’t want you there.  Heed what they say.  They know more about the mountains and the conditions than any of us.  But if the roads are just bad and hiking is safe, it can be an amazing time to get out and hike, even if finding a trail to catch is a little difficult.

I’ll put more info about this in this week’s show notes and on SMR.com

Precipitation

About this time of year, everyone’s minds turn to precipitation….namely the frozen kind.  But whether it is winter, spring, fall, or summer, precipitation is a constant in the Great Smoky Mountains.  So how much do the mountains get exactly?  The park service numbers have a very wide range, but expect anywhere from 55 inches to 85 inches per year.  Oh and during the really wet years, that number can be as high as 8 feet.  Only our u.s.friends around the Seattle area can empathize with that number.  So what does that mean for us?  Well, to start with, precipitation is about constant.  There is almost always going to be rain, sleet, or snow falling somewhere here.  Sometimes you might not even notice.  The famous “smoke” of the Smoky Mountains keeps a nearly continuous mist happening at upper elevations.

So what about planning?  Well, we’ve already said that precipitation should not keep you away, but if you are making plans and want to steer clear of the weather, keep this in mind.  The driest month of the year is typically october.  That is great news for leaf peepers.  The wettest month is June, which usually means those of you on summer vacation are going to see plenty of rain during your trip.  But given the heat that time of year, thats not all bad.

All that precipitation is one reason that trails often end up as mud pits and nearly constant work is done to maintain them.  The run off and erosion is a problem just about everywhere, and the land rarely has time to recuperate.  Again, its another reason good footwear is so important in the Smokies.  Honestly, I have never once hiked a trail in the smokies and not ended up with muddy feet.  It just doesn’t happen.  They stay pretty wet.  Ask an AT thru hiker.  They spend only a matter of days in the national park, but many of them will tell you they are wet before they mention the views, ridge lines, or any of that.  But all that being said, there are plenty of dry days as well, so don’t think you are always going to be rained out.  Won’t happen usually.  The thing to keep in mind is the temperatures with that precipitation.  Average highs in December -February are only a couple degrees above freezing, so you know all that precip is going to stick.  That being said, I think late fall and spring are the most dangerous time.  The temps start high and get low early in the evening.  This is primo hypothermia season.  People just don’t prepare as well.  And being wet and cold always leads to issues.  Check out our show about layering for more details on that.  So the lesson in all that is really good planning and being prepared for whatever might come your way.  If you do that, regardless of the weather, you will have a fantastic time.

I’ll put more info about this in our show notes and on Smoky Mountains radio.com

POST:

News flash….Its cold out there. That’s why I decided to take a week off from our spotlight hike of the week segment.  But get ready, the next one will literally take you days to complete!  No wednesday show this week, so I will talk to you all again on Sunday.   Send me your questions or comments this week so I can answer them on/off the air.  All my contact information and much more can be found right on the website at SMR.com.  So until next time, bundle up, check the weather, and……go take a hike!

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