Essay: Late Autumn Brings Unpredictable Conditions

First posted in 1999

This originally appeared on the Knoxville News Sentinel's Go Smokies web site.
They don't keep an archive, so I'm not certain of the original date of publication.

Late autumn is perhaps one of the best times of year for visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The number of visitors on the park's roads and trails dwindles considerably as the last colors of autumn fade away, and the cooler temperatures make for clean, crisp views. However, fall also brings some degree of unpredictability.

When planning excursions to the park during the fall, winter, and spring months, it is always a good idea to be a little over prepared for the weather. This is true not only for hikers and campers, but for those viewing the park by automobile as well. The park often receives snow and ice, especially in the higher elevations, when neighboring areas do not. If you suspect adverse weather in the park, be sure to call the park's automated information line (423-436-1200) to find news of weather and road closures before making your trip.

To help avoid being stranded for any period of time in the cold, make certain that your automobile is prepared for cooler temperatures. There are a number of things to keep in mind when winterizing your car, and the following tips are merely a starting point; be sure to contact your mechanic to inquire further about winterizing your vehicle.

  • Battery connections should be clean and secure, and your battery should be checked occasionally to ensure that is in proper working condition.

  • Check to make sure that your radiator contains at least a 50% solution of antifreeze, not just water, to protect your system from freezing, yet allowing your car to cool itself as it negotiates the steep, mountainous roads in the park.

  • You should check the pressure in your automobile's tires more frequently in cooler months, as tires loose one pound of pressure for every ten degree drop in temperature. It is also a good idea to check your spare tire for leaks, and to make certain that you have a jack and tire iron available in the event of a flat.

  • It's also usually a good idea to keep your gas tank as full as possible, and prevent parking the car overnight with less than half a tank of gas.

Even with the above precautions, you can not prevent all problems with your vehicle. In the event you become stranded, it is important to be prepared for a long wait, as it may be a few minutes before your are spotted by another visitor or park ranger, and it make take some time before a tow truck can arrive. Always have some spare warm clothes and a blanket or two on hand to protect yourself from the cold while you wait. While not necessary, a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate can make the wait a little more comfortable as well. Make sure you have your road-side assistance information handy. If you do not have some sort of road-side assistance, such as AAA, be certain that you have the means to pay for a tow, just in case.

On a final note, though the park's maintenance division does spread sand on the roads, icy condition can still occur, especially on curves that are heavily shaded or have a predominantly northern exposure. Remember that driving on ice and snow is considerably different than driving on dry pavement. Each year, numerous automobile accidents occur on the park's icy roads due to driver error. If you begin to slide, but do not have anti-lock breaks on your car, apply pressure to the break with your toes only, as using the entire foot often places too much pressure, causing the wheels to lock. If you find the wheels have locked, briefly release pressure on the break and then reapply. If you have antilock breaks on your car and begin to slide, remember to place continuous pressure on the brake pedal (do not pump it), keep steering, and do not be alarmed by any odd noises or sensations from the break pedal, as these are normal with anti-lock breaks. For more information, be sure to read your vehicle's owner's manual concerning proper breaking technique. Above all, do not drive faster or more aggressively simply because you have anti-lock breaks.

Enjoy your drive. If you plan to go hiking in cool weather, be sure to also read the next article.