Thursday, May 22, 2014

Riding Our National Park Systems: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Riding Our National Park Systems
by Lenice Basham
PairADice Mules, Belle, Mo.

*If you have a National Park System you would like to see featured in this segment, or have photos of you and your family riding in a National Park System, send your photos/suggestions to

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. It is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. It was the first national park whose land and other costs were paid with federal funds. Previous parks were funded with state or private funds. John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $5 million dollars toward the park. The United States government added $2 million to the cost with private donations for the remaining $5 million for a total cost of $12 million. 

More than 1,200 landowners had to leave their land when it was created a National Park. Half of the National Park is in Tennessee and half of the park is in North Carolina. It earned its name from the smoke like haze that clings to the ridge. Cherokee called it Shaconage or “place of the blue smoke”. The park sets along the Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest and the Pisgah National Forest. The National Forests each have horse camping sites available within their boundaries as well as about 600 miles of trails per each National Forest site for additional trails.

The park has a moderate climate with mild winters and hot humid summers. There are elevations from 875 feet to 6,675 feet. There are variations in the temperature of 10-20 degrees from the mountain base to the mountain tops. There are currently 550 of 800 miles of trails open to horse/mule riders. The park’s backcountry is managed as a natural area where the “forces of nature” determine trail conditions. The National Park Services cautions that there may be swollen streams, bridge washouts, downed trees and trail erosion. They do not recommend trail riding in this park from early December until May. The park had their highest number of visitors in 1993 with 10,300,000 visits being recorded. Current information indicates that camping is down as much as 6.8% this year from last. There is one commercial lodging site within the park, LeConte Lodge. It is located on the summit of Mount LeConte and is only accessible by hiking at 6,360 feet. There are multiple trails that lead to the lodge. The lodge offers overnight stays as well as lunch, dinner for those headed back down the trail.

The Clingman’s Dome is an additional site of interest that you may want to visit while in the park. It is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. It is a one-half mile hike to a 54’ observation tower where you get a 360 degree view of the mountains. You can see for over 22 miles from the Dome. The observation tower was built in 1959. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee.

There are more than 130 species of trees and 4,000 plant species within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There are also about 600 black bears in the park. The National Park Service indicates, “Black bears in the Park are wild and their behavior is sometimes unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat all bear encounters with extreme caution and follow these guidelines.” They had the following guidelines for encounters with bears along the trails: Don’t approach a bear if you see it. Slowly back away from the bear. If the bear follows you or approaches you, try changing directions. If the bear gets closer, begin talking loudly or shouting at it. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as big as possible. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Don’t run and don’t turn away from a bear.

The park also contains elk that were experimentally released in February 2001. Two dozen elk were imported into the park. Elk once lived in the national park but were eliminated in over hunting and loss of habitat in the late 1700’s. In 1991, wolves were also reintroduced into the park. About 25 wolves remain in the park. The park also contains some snakes. Copperhead and timber rattler snakes can be found in the park. Copperhead’s can be found below 3,000 feet and Timber Rattler snakes can be found up to 6,000 ft.

There are five different drive-in horse camps within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, four in North Carolina and one in the Tennessee section:

Anthony Creek campgrounds in the north western section near Cades Cove. Cades Cove is an 11 mile one way loop. It is the most visited part of the park and is a valley surrounded by the mountains. It is a great spot for wildlife viewing. Cades Cove contains historic farm buildings from the 1820’s. The horse camp is open from late March until November.

Big Creek campgrounds in north eastern section in North Carolina near Cosby, TN

Catalooche campgrounds in south eastern section in North Carolina near Maggie Valley, N.C. This is similar to the Anthony Creek campground but is not as crowded and is away from busy traffic routes. It is located along the Catalooche River. There are several different trails that leave camp. The Boogerman Trail is restricted to hikers only so make sure you take a look at a map to make sure you are only on a trail that is able to be used for horse/mule riding. This campground has four horse stalls (tie stalls by looking at pictures) for each campsite.

“The road into the campground is 12 miles long and will take approximately an hour to drive into the camp,” said mule rider Teddy Royal. He and his wife camped with their mules. “It is very narrow with over 20 blind curves. Half of the road is paved and the rest is dirt. It is a pain to drive in and out but it is one of my favorite places to ride in the Smokies,” says Royal.

Round Bottom campgrounds in eastern section in North Carolina near Cherokee N.C. Round Bottom is the most remote of the campgrounds.

Tow String campgrounds in the southern section in North Carolina near the Cherokee, N.C. entrance.

“The trails are well marked, with a map of the park, you can preplan your day down to the miles to travel,” says Royal.

Drive-in horse camps have designated parking spots and most sites allow two vehicles and two trailers per site with a maximum occupancy of six people and 4 horses/mules. The horse camp amenities are different depending on the site, but most are equipped with barbeque grills, picnic tables, horse hitching racks and refuse containers. All of the horse camps have at least portable toilets and most do not have drinking water.

The National Park Service has the following recommendations for trail riding at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park:

Avoid thawing or frozen trails – save them for dry times. Soil is easily damaged when it is soft. Stay on the trails and don’t use shortcuts. Ride single-file down the center of the trails. When crossing roads and paved areas, dismount and lead your horse/mule. Pack out what you pack in. Know which trails are open to horses/mules. Check the trail map before you head out for the day.

Keep horses/mules away from the springs. Carry and use a collapsible bucket to water your horse/mule. Use processed feed to eliminate introducing weed seeds into the park. Avoid disturbing wildlife by observing them from a distance. Bears are dangerous – do not feed them or other wildlife.

Pets are not allowed on trails or in the backcountry areas. Do not pick, dig or remove any plant, flower or natural object. This includes antlers and rocks. It is illegal to remove any of these items from the park.

Reservations must be made in advance by contacting 877-444-6777 between 10 am and 10 p.m. You may also make reservations online at This site takes care of all reservations made at National Parks. Don’t expect them to be able to answer any of your questions concerning the site or area of interest. Fees are $20 per site, except for Big Creek, which is $25 per site. Fees cannot be paid at the park. A cancellation fee will be charged if you can (or change) your reservation.

You will want to take a look at the National Park website prior to making your reservations to look for news releases or alerts about the campground. Information about camp closures, weather closures and other necessary information is available at the parks website. An added bonus for all iPhone users is Hiking The Great Smoky Mountain National Park app that is available for $1.99 on iTunes. The app is meant for hikers – but I think it can easily be used by trail riders. This app provides information about trailhead information, hiking distances, elevation change, trail difficulty, trail rating, trail description and trail map. I believe the trail map (which is not internet bound) would be the best part of the app. (Not that my husband ever gets me lost on the trail…).

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