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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Gateway City: Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Cherokee, North Carolina
Climate: Elevations in the park range from 800 feet to 6,643 feet and temperatures can vary 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit from mountain base to top.
Number of visitors per year: Between 8-10 million people visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, making it the most visited national park in the country.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves a rich cultural tapestry of Southern Appalachian history. The mountains have had a long human history spanning thousands of years—from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European settlement in the 1800s to loggers and Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees in the 20th century. The park strives to protect the historic structures, landscapes, and artifacts that tell the varied stories of people who once called these mountains home.
Biological diversity is the hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's amazing diversity of plants, animals, and invertebrates. Over 17,000 species have been documented in the park: Scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000 species may live here.
Why such a wondrous diversity? Mountains, glaciers, and weather are the big reasons. The park is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River. Dominated by plant-covered, gently contoured mountains, the crest of the Great Smokies forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, bisecting the park from northeast to southwest in an unbroken chain that rises more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 875 to 6,643 feet. This range in altitude mimics the latitudinal changes you would experience driving north or south across the eastern United States, say from Georgia to Maine. Plants and animals common in the southern United States thrive in the lowlands of the Smokies while species common in the northern states find suitable habitat at the higher elevations.
The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, formed perhaps 200-300 million years ago. They are unique in their northeast to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate along their slopes during climatic changes such as the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. In fact, the glaciers of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without invading them. During that time, glaciers scoured much of North America but did not quite reach as far south as the Smokies. Consequently, these mountains became a refuge for many species of plants and animals that were disrupted from their northern homes. The Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years, allowing species eons to diversify.
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.
Some 100 species of native trees find homes in the Smokies, more than in any other North American national park. Almost 95% of the park is forested, and about 25% of that area is old-growth forest–one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forest remaining in North America. Over 1,500 additional flowering plant species have been identified in the park. The park is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders and is home to more than 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians. Mollusks, millipedes, and mushrooms reach record diversity here.
In recognition of the park's unique natural resources, the United Nations has designated Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve.
The crest of the Great Smokies runs in an unbroken chain of peaks that rise more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 876 to 6,643 feet. The wispy, smoke-like fog that hangs over the Smoky Mountains comes from rain and evaporation from trees. On the high peaks of the Smokies, an average of 85 inches of rain falls each year, qualifying these upper elevation areas as temperate rain forests.
If allowed only one word to justify the Smokies worthiness as a National Park, that word would be plants. Vegetation is to Great Smoky Mountains National Park what granite domes and waterfalls are to Yosemite and geysers are to Yellowstone. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants, including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and is a critical sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. Protected in the park are some 66 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 50 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.
The symbol of the Smokies, the American Black Bear, is perhaps the most famous resident of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides the largest protected bear habitat in the East. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate approximately 1,500 bears live in the park, a density of approximately two bears per square mile.
Of the 65 other mammal species documented in the park, the white-tailed deer, groundhog, chipmunk, and some squirrel and bat species are the most commonly seen. Over 200 species of birds are regularly sighted in the park, 85 of those migrate from the neotropics. Some 120 species nest here. Several bird species that are listed as Species of Concern breed here, making the park an important source for repopulating areas outside the park that are showing declines in the numbers of these birds.
Surrounded by warm lowlands, the cool, moist, climate of the park's highest elevations creates islands of habitat suitable for animals commonly found in more northern areas, allowing them to live far south of their present primary ranges. Northern species such as the northern flying squirrel, red squirrel, and rock vole thrive at high elevations, while the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Canada Warbler, Common Raven, and other birds reach their southern most breeding point here in the park.
Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, Wild Turkey, woodchuck, and other animals. During winter, wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Since many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
A total of 66 mammal species live in the park. The largest, tipping the scales at nearly 700 pounds, is the elk, which was experimentally reintroduced to the park in 2001. The smallest is the rare pygmy shrew - a diminutive creature that weighs less than a dime. Some, such as the coyote and bobcat are reclusive, while whitetail deer are very common and obvious. In addition to deer, visitors most often see red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, skunks, and bats.
The black bear is the largest predator in the park. It is most often spotted in open areas such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. Ten other carnivore species inhabit the park, including coyotes, red foxes, and gray foxes. These nocturnal animals are not often seen unless surprised after dark along roadsides.
Scientists believe that the bobcat is the only wild feline that is lives in the park. Visitors occasionally report seeing mountain lions, however, no concrete scientific evidence of their existence (such as tracks, scat, or other signs) has been found in the area in nearly 30 years. White-tailed deer live throughout the Smokies, but are most commonly seen in areas with open fields such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk were radio collared and were monitored during the eight-year experimental phase of the project. In 2009-2010, the park began developing an environmental assessment of the program and a long-term management plan for elk.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been called the "Salamander Capital of the World." Climatic and geologic factors have combined to spur the development of 30 salamander species in five families, making this one of the most diverse areas on earth for this order. In fact, lungless salamanders have undergone an extraordinary level of evolutionary diversification in the park—24 species inhabit the park, making it the center of diversity for the family.
Whether you delight in the challenge of a strenuous hike to the crest of a mountain or prefer to sit quietly and watch the sun set, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a myriad of activities for you to enjoy. The hardest part may be choosing which auto tour, trail, waterfall, overlook, or historic area to explore! Activities include hiking, wildlife viewing, bicycling, camping, horseback riding and auto touring. After hiking and simple sightseeing, fishing, (especially fly fishing) is the most popular activity in the national park. The park's waters have long had a reputation for healthy trout activity as well as challenging fishing terrain.
Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year with every season offering is own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy. Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Rainbow, and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.
Prior to park establishment in 1934, a number of animals native to the Smoky Mountains were eradicated by hunting, trapping, changing land uses, and other causes. Extirpated species include bison, elk, mountain lion, gray wolf, red wolf, fisher, river otter, Peregrine Falcon, and several species of fish. A primary goal of the National Park Service is to preserve the flora and fauna of the Smokies in a condition similar to that which existed prior to the arrival of modern, technological humans. In accordance with this mission, the National Park Service has helped reintroduce the river otter, elk, and Peregrine Falcon to the Smokies.
As human activities dominate ever-larger portions of the American landscape, the national parks have become increasingly valuable as sanctuaries for rare and endangered wildlife. Endangered park animals include the northern flying squirrel, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Indiana bat, spruce-fir moss spider, and the Smoky madtom.
The Park Service has been involved in a number of efforts to save these species from extinction. Park resource management crews have conducted prescribed fires in old-growth pine-oak forest to create suitable nesting sites for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Crews have also erected solid steel barricades at cave entrances to protect endangered bats from spelunkers during critical times of the year. Reintroduction programs have also increased the survival chances for Smoky madtoms and Peregrine Falcons.
How to donate
Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park assists the National Park Service in its mission to preserve and protect Great Smoky Mountains National Park by raising funds and public awareness, and by providing volunteers for needed projects.
Your gift to Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park can help:
- Preserve, restore and enhance the park's natural and cultural resources
- Provide improved services and facilities for its visitors
- Increase public awareness and support of the park
- Enhance educational and interpretive activities
- Improve trails and facilities
- Repair backcountry shelters and campsites
- Preserve historic structure
- The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains, Horace Kephart
- The Cades Cove Story, A. Randolph Shields
- Wildflowers of the Smokies, Peter White
- Waterfalls of the Smokies, Hal Hubbs
- Exploring the Smokies, Rose Houk
- Civil War in the Smokies, Noel Fisher