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Hurricane Sandy snow hits hikers, closes roads in Great Smoky Mountains

7:41 PM, Oct 29, 2012   |    comments
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Millions of people tour the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this time of year for a visual feast of fall colors.  Monday those visitors were captivated by the white frosting on top of the mountains.

"We were going to head out this morning but we saw it was going to snow in the higher elevations," said Jeff Ashley from western Tennessee. "We decided to stay another night and see if we could come up here and play in the snow. This just put the topping on the cake."

Ashley and hundreds of others enjoyed several inches of snow from Hurricane Sandy that piled up in the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Monday the distinct line of snow started at elevations greater than 3,000 feet.  At least four inches accumulated at Newfound Gap at the Tennessee and North Carolina state line where the elevation is more than 5,000 feet.

Newfound Gap Road eventually closed Monday afternoon with temperatures in the lower 20s and winds of more than 20 miles per hour.  The GSMNP frequently shuts down the road between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, NC, during winter because the Park does not use salt on roads for environmental reasons.

"We have sand and snow plows.  We keep the road open as long as it is safe.  Conditions can change at the top in a very short amount of time, so people should always check our website or twitter feed to make sure the road is open," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson.

The park is keeping a close eye on road conditions and also on those who are traveling through the park on foot.  This is a popular time of year for long-distance backpackers to come through the park on the Appalachian Trail.

"I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail and it was 80 degrees two days ago.  We were sweating. Then this [snow] came down last night," said Will Overman of Virginia Beach, VA.

Overman was joined on this leg of his hike by his father, Bill.  Both men became aware of the possibility of severe weather through word of mouth.  Yet, sudden snow accumulations of up to eight inches from Hurricane Sandy managed to sneak up on the hikers.

"You hear it through the grapevine. We heard about the hurricane and heard about the cold front. But we didn't know it was going to do this," said Overman.  "It's about five days of hiking in the Smokies and you're about 5,000 to 6,000 feet the entire time.  There has been a lot of snow and wind."

Backcountry logbooks indicate more than 50 hikers are dredging through the snow and possible roadblocks.

"We're expecting it to be a heavy wet snow that is putting a lot of pressure on those trees," said Soehn.  "With the wind gusts it is anticipated we might have some trees coming down."

Fortunately, Overman said both he and his father came prepared enough to push on through whatever Mother Nature and Hurricane Sandy throw their way.

"We've got [snow] poles, boots, gaiters, down jackets, a good tent, and Gore-Tex," said Overman.  "You stay warm when you're moving."

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park updates all temporary road and facility closures on its website.  The latest updates are also available on the Smokies Roads Twitter feed.

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