GATLINBURG, Tenn. — For more than 100 years, people in East Tennessee have escaped the sweltering summer heat in the cities by heading high in the mountains.
The old joke was heading to the Smokies was "hillbilly air conditioning" that was free with the cool mountain air. The higher you go, the more the mercury drops.
The elevation from Knoxville through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge wavers between around 900 and 1,100 feet. The high Friday in those areas was 91 degrees.
Gatlinburg is at an elevation of around 1,400 feet and the high Friday was 89 degrees.
It only takes a 10-mile drive for the temperatures to usually drop roughly 10 degrees at the trail-heads for Chimney Tops and Alum Cave. The elevation in that area ranges from around 3,500 to 3,800 feet.
Drive another four miles and the elevation is nearly a mile high at Newfound Gap. The temperatures here is typically 15 to 20 degrees cooler than Knoxville. The high Friday was 77 degrees.
Drive another seven miles from Newfound Gap and you'll reach the highest peak in the Smokies at Clingmans Dome. The temperature in the parking area Friday was 68 degrees compared to 91 degrees in Knoxville.
The drawback to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome is both sites are loaded with traffic and crowds.
If you want to picnic and camp in the coolest area of the park without fighting crowds, Balsam Mountain on the North Carolina side of the Smokies is the place. It's the only campground at more than 5,000 feet.
The picnic area is at more than 5,300 feet elevation. It also features old stone picnic tables built by the CCC that stay in the shade and are cool to the touch.
The high temperature Friday at Balsam Mountain was 73 degrees.
You can drive to all of the aforementioned locations in the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle.
So, get out of the heat by getting outside in Mother Nature's mountain air conditioning. The views are spectacular. You can also look down with sympathy on the folks baking in the heat wave thousands of feet below your comfortable perch.
You can check the temperatures at Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome by visiting their webcams on the National Park Service website.