No place this size in a temperate climate can match Great Smoky Mountains National Park's variety of plant and animal species. There are more tree species than in northern Europe, 1500 flowering plants, dozens of native fish, not to mention the birds and mammals. The Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning blue, like smoke. Alarmed at commercial logging threats to the forests, the US Congress authorized the park in 1926, and it was formally established in 1934. Many people come to the park to learn how their forebears lived. Many of the log cabins from the 18th and 19th centuries have been restored and preserved. Endlessly attractive, The Smokies are naturally and biologically diverse. We visited in May and October 2009, and again a couple times in 2010. Go directly to the Smokies Photo Gallery.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker's paradise with over 800 miles of maintained trails ranging from short leg-stretchers to strenuous treks that may require backcountry camping. But hiking is not the only reason for visiting the Smokies. Car camping, fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing and auto touring are popular activities as well.
Most visitors come to the Smokies hoping to see a bear. Some 1,500 bears live in the park. From the big animals like bears, deer, and elk, down to microscopic organisms, the Smokies have the most biological diversity of any area in the world's temperate zone. The park is a sanctuary for a magnificent array of animal and plant life, all of which is protected for future generations to enjoy.
The park is a world-renowned preserve of wildflower diversity — over 1,660 kinds of flowering plants are found here, more than in any other North American national park. From the earliest hepaticas and spring-beauties in the late winter to showy rhododendron and azalea shrubs in summer, to the last asters in the late fall, blooming flowers can be found nearly year-round in the park.
The park is shared by North Carolina and Tennesee. The visitor centers at Sugarlands, Cades Cove, and Oconaluftee are great information sources. Speak with the rangers or volunteers to find out how to best use your time in the park. From your car you can see much of what The Smokies offer, but like any preserved natural area, it is best enjoyed on foot. Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) is the main road through the park and one of the country's most famous scenic drives. From the road you can see wildflowers, flowering trees, colorful fall foliage, mountain vistas, water falls and streams, and historic buildings.
Walking a park trail can be the best way to sense how directly you are related to nature. Walking even short distances can put you in a completely different world. The lack of human-generated noise opens up the many and varied natural sounds. Simply being inside the magnificent forest can be a multi-sensory experience rich with sounds, smells, and that special warmth felt as light rays penetrate the deep shade cast by the forest canopy. As you are dwarfed by the trees, your sense of scale will likely be altered.
Cades Cove is the jewel of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A "cove" in mountain vernacular is a relatively flat valley between mountains or ridges. This particular cove is a showcase for some of the most inspiring natural and cultural treasures in the Southern Appalachians. In fact, there are few other places within the national park system where both wild nature and human history can be enjoyed in such an idyllic setting. The primary access to Cades Cove is the 11-mile, one-way Loop Road. If you are driving this narrow road, watch for bicyclists and hikers along the way.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park and the 3rd highest mountain in the east at 6643'. A "dome" is a rounded mountain or ridge top. The seven-mile-long road to Clingmans Dome trailhead starts just south of the Newfound Gap and reaches elevations well over 6000'. Harsh winter weather at these elevations cause the road to be closed from December 1 through March 31. At the end of Clingmans Dome Road there is a paved, but very steep half-mile trail that leads to an observation tower at the top of the dome. During good weather the view from the tower encompasses a seemingly endless sea of mountain ridges and valleys.
The Appalachian Trail threads nearly the length of the park (some 70 miles) along the crest of the mountains and the Tennessee-North Carolina border. There is a short, two-mile section at the Newfound Gap parking lot where you can see wildflowers in spring and colorful leaves in the fall. Then you can say, "I walked part of the Appalachian Trail."
In mid-October 2009, and again in September 2010, NCBro climbed Mt. Leconte on the Alum Cave Trail. Sheltered by steep slopes and spared from the logger's axe, the forests here look much like they did in the days when Cherokee hunters roamed the rocky bluffs. Half-way up the trail is Alum Cave Bluffs. Be sure to pause for more than a moment to take in the splendid views, sounds, and smells. The second half of the climb to the summit finds the spruce forest changing to fir and mountain ash. The overlooks are known as Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. The trail is quite steep, so unless you have reservations at the Leconte Lodge, be sure to allow 7-9 hours for the climb to the top and the return to your car before dark.
Proceed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Photo Gallery
National Parks Conservation Association — The gradual, accelerated warming of our planet will have disastrous consequences for America's national parks. But all is not lost. Although the situation seems dire, NPCA's report, Unnatural Disaster, says we can still halt the most severe effects of climate change if we take action now. The national parks offer a unique opportunity to draw attention to America’s priceless resources at risk, and to showcase opportunities to act to protect them.