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State charges against the two teenagers arrested in connection with November’s deadly Gatlinburg fires have been dropped, but prosecution could resume with federal charges.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an amazing array of mini-ecosystems — from peaks over 6,000 feet to low valleys, from moist densely forested coves to dry meadows. A walk from mountain base to peak compares with traveling 1,250 miles north. Several resident plants and animals live only in the Smokies.

Rainbow Falls Trail: The Rainbow Falls Trail is the next trail in line to get a complete rehabilitation through the Smokies Trails Forever program, funded by Friends of the Smokies. 

Dealing with the aftermath of two major storms while preparing for what could be another record-breaking visitor season, trail crews in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been keeping busy this spring. 

“Three major projects are taking place in addition to the normal routine spring cleaning that our crews do, along with storm damage that we’ve had from several different wind events,” said park spokesperson Dana Soehn.

This past weekend, May 6-7, was the 34th annual installment of the Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition (GSMBE.) The expedition began in 1984 as the brainchild of author, naturalist George Ellison of Bryson City, master birder Rick Pyeritz of Asheville and East Tennessee State University ornithologist and field guide author Fred Alsop.

When starting the hike, it’s not immediately obvious why the Chimney Tops Trail should be appointed for long-term closure. The brook is babbling, the sun is shining and the trees are towering just as one would expect of a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the results of a recent trail rehabilitation effort make for exceedingly pleasant walking. 

But as the trail nears its terminus at the twin peaks of the Chimney Tops, the reason becomes abundantly clear. Its harbingers are announced with a jumble of burned branches here, an area of blackened ground there, and the sudden realization that, even on a brisk winter day when it’s hard to smell much at all, there’s a faint odor of charcoal in the air.

According to the National Phenology Network, Punxsutawny Phil had it all wrong when he emerged from his hole this month to declare six more weeks of winter — across the Southeastern U.S, the NPN’s data shows, spring 2017 is arriving three weeks earlier than the 1981-2010 average. 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is looking for volunteers to help gather the data that will bring such generalizations down to a more local level. Phenology — the ways that plants and animals respond to seasonal changes — has been the subject of increasing interest as discussions about climate change have heated up, and the park is now four years into a volunteer program to collect data for the larger NPN project.

For those who love the outdoors, it’s not hard to list the reasons why Western North Carolina is a spectacular place to live, and from that standpoint, the year 2016 certainly didn’t fail to deliver. The curtains are now closing on 2016, but the year will get its proper send-off with this roundup of favorite moments and memorable stories from the past 12 months outdoors.

The smoke has cleared from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which escaped the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Nov. 28 to cover more than 17,000 acres and result in 14 deaths, but park officials are just beginning the daunting task of dealing with the aftermath.

Just as wildfires were beginning to subside in North Carolina, gusty winds whipped a flare-up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into a frenzy that climbed down the mountain to enter the town of Gatlinburg and spur forced evacuations around the area.

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