Photo by Byron Johnson on Unsplash
Every year, millions of visitors travel from far and wide to take in the majestic landscapes, roaming wildlife, and distinct Appalachian culture of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, this is one of the most visited national parks in the country. Last year alone, the Great Smoky Mountains saw more than 14.1 million visitors, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Here on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau, we are lucky to be just a short drive from this magnificent place!
About the Park
A haven for biodiversity, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses 522,419 acres (or 816.28 square miles), making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Some of the highest mountains in eastern North America are within its borders, including Clingmans Dome, Mount Guyot, and Mount Le Conte. Popular with hikers and adventurers, the highly traversed Appalachian Trail runs through the center of the park on its route through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine.
The park is almost 95% forested, and the National Park Service estimates that 36% of this is old-growth forest with trees that predate European settlement of the area. Diverse in elevation with abundant rainfall, it is believed that about 19,000 species of organisms call this park home, including an estimated 200 species of birds, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians, including many lungless salamanders. There is a healthy black bear population and a variety of other mammal species such as raccoon, bobcat, two species of fox, river otter, woodchuck, beaver, two species of squirrel, opossum, coyote, white-tailed deer, chipmunk, two species of skunk, and various species of bats. Officials also estimate that up to 100,000 species may be undiscovered in the park. Elk were reintroduced to the area in 2001 and have grown in abundance in the park's southeastern section of Cataloochee.
You can find over 100 types of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, over 1,500 flowering plant species, and over 4,000 species of non-flowering plants. The region's unusual richness in biota is one of the major draws for visitors from across the country and the world.
A trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park has to begin in the park. With over 150 trails covering nearly 800 miles of parkland, there is no shortage of amazing views, active wildlife, and lush flora to fill your camera. Some of the most popular hikes are Charlie's Bunion, Alum Cave Bluffs, Andrews Bald, Rainbow Falls, and the Chimney Tops. The hardest part of this task will be deciding which of the 150 trails you want to take! From kid-friendly hikes to those for experienced climbers, the park has a wide variety of options to choose from, no matter your skill level.
Pack a picnic and get out to smell the flowers! Over 1,500 species of them, to be exact! Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to the largest number of flowering plants out of any national park in North America. Blooms can be found year-round, from early perennials and spring blossoms in the late winter to the last asters in the late fall. The park is famous for its displays of mountain laurels, rhododendron, and flame azaleas. The lovely pink and white flowers of mountain laurel bloom in early May through June, and the Catawba rhododendron, which is found above 3,500’ in elevation, reaches its peak bloom in June. Rosebay rhododendron blooms at the lower elevations in June and mid-elevations during July. Flame azaleas bloom at the low and mid-elevations in April and May. The colorful display peaks in late June or early July on Gregory Bald, and for Andrews Bald, the peak is usually in early July.
If you are looking to pitch a tent and spend the night under the stars, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a variety of camping options - from backcountry campgrounds and front country campgrounds to group campgrounds and horse camps. Always remember, when setting up your campfire, to only use dead or downed wood from the park or pre-packaged heat-treated logs.
Seeking some history? Stop by Cades Cove to discover the widest variety of historic buildings in any national park. An 11-mile one-way loop around the cove will allow you to stop and see the sites at your leisure while enjoying the wildlife that frequents the area. Three churches, a working gristmill, barns, log houses, and many other diligently restored eighteenth and nineteenth-century structures are scattered along the loop road.
For those looking to cast a line out on the water, the Park has about 2,900 miles of streams within its borders and protects one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. The park offers various angling experiences, from remote headwater trout streams to large, cool-water smallmouth bass streams. You must possess a valid fishing license or permit from Tennessee or North Carolina. Either state license is valid throughout the park, and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park but may be purchased in nearby towns or online. Special permits are required for fishing in Gatlinburg and Cherokee.
A Brief History
Officially dedicated as protected land in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been internationally recognized for its mountains, plentiful waterfalls, lush forests, and abundant wildlife. The park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1988.
For thousands of years, the land was home to successive cultures of indigenous peoples whose first encounters with Europeans were as traders, primarily arriving from colonies in the Carolinas and Virginia. With the signing of Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, these indigenous groups, including most of the Cherokee, were forced from the region.
As European settlers began arriving in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so did the development of the region's primary industry - logging. The proliferation of logging eventually led to the construction of the Little River Railroad, which hauled timber out of remote areas of the mountains. This inspired several major logging companies to purchase massive amounts of land in the area, and by 1909 the industry was at its peak. By 1920, roughly two-thirds of Great Smoky Mountains National Park land had been logged or burned from fires resulting from logging operations.
With large swaths of land being cut and cleared and the compromise of the area's natural beauty, visitors and locals began banding together in the early 20th century to raise money to preserve the land. Piece by piece, with the help of donations made by private citizens and the federal government, land for the park was purchased and assembled. The Park Service dismantled farms and timbering operations, slowly removing mountain homesteaders, miners, and loggers from the grounds to create its protected areas. The park preserves multiple historic structures that were once part of the early communities that the European American settlers occupied. Many of these preserved sites you can still visit to this day.
For more information on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit the National Park Service website here.