By Mike Hembree
The calendar will claim that summer starts June 20.
School children everywhere will claim that is wrong. And there is evidence—however anecdotal—to support their claim. Summer starts the day—no, the very hour—that the school session is over.
Summer comes early to the Smokies, too, and that might be more evident this year than in others. Families, freed from the Monday-Friday schedules that come along with school, suddenly see daylight—and they run for it. From day trips to Cades Cove to float rides along swollen creeks to extended camping at Big Creek and Smokemont, the rush to the park will be on. And more so this year because of the receding threat of COVID, which temporarily closed the park as it rocked the entire national park system.That date differs from state to state and often from district to district, but the point is the same. It’s the beginning of a season that, despite lasting only about three months, seems as if it’s on the edge of forever. So much to do—sandlot baseball, days on the beach, bikes to race downhill, ramshackle clubhouses to build deep in the woods, video game marathons, mornings to sleep long past that obnoxious 6:30 alarm clock.
The park had strong visitation numbers in the spring as the virus’s grip loosened, clear evidence that people are eager to once again experience the outdoors in general and the beautiful views and trails of the Smokies in particular.
The “school’s out” cry is only one of the reasons summer in the Smokies is such a popular time. With heat and humidity pounding areas north, south, east, and west of the park, the relatively pleasant temperatures in the heart of the Smokies, especially on the shoulders of the higher mountains, offer grand relief. For example, the average high temperature at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in June is only 83. July (86) and August (85) also are generally nice. Illustrating the often-refreshing fall in temperatures at higher elevations is the fact that the June average high at Clingmans Dome is 63, 20 degrees cooler than at Sugarlands.
Summer in the Smokies can be crowded—your neighbors like the park as much as you do, but the density of visitors declines rapidly as you get farther away from park roads. Trail numbers generally drop considerably a couple of miles beyond the trailhead, and this reality offers two of the best things on the Smokies wish list—peace and quiet.
Sit by a stream and listen to the water cascade over rocks. Catch the sounds of birdsong and of robins rustling in the undergrowth. Listen to the wind blowing through evergreens and tall oaks.
On a clear day, enjoy the staggering views from Newfound Gap, the many trails of Mount Le Conte, and the long valley of Cades Cove. Look for the wildflowers of summer on the trailsides.
Summer in the Smokies. It’s the season—with seasoning.
Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.