Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Pioneer cabin copyright by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks

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Proof of landscape resiliency -- and incredible diversity -- are on display in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many stories are told within the park’s roughly 800 square miles that cover the Tennessee-North Carolina border like a rumpled blanket.

Though the Smokies run only about 50 miles, within that stretch is the wildest terrain the Southern Appalachian region can claim, and some of the wildest to be found in the eastern United States. At their heart is the national park, which sprawls across 815 square miles, a swath of land just a little over half the size of Rhode Island – probably bigger than the state if you rolled the mountains flat -- on which nature has gone wild.

The Smokies were settled by whites in the 18th century, logged well into the 20th century, and have been flourishing almost as wilderness again since 1934 when this landscape was destined to become a national park. Despite the roughly 9 million visitors who traipse through the park each year, it continues to be a wellspring of biological diversity.

Venture into this park draped over the ridgeline of the Appalachian Range and you’ll discover five different forest types; both grassy balds and heath balds that poke holes in the woods near the mountains’ summits; and vegetative tangles produced by the vigorous growth of catawba and rosebay rhododendrons, magnolia, ferns, holly, and mountain laurel abound.

There are even caves that worm into the karst formations underlying the Smokies’ extreme western portions. Spend time roaming from the park’s 870-feet-above-sea-level basement to its 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and you will, in essence, have negotiated diverse vegetative topography akin to what you would find hiking the Appalachian Trail 2,181 miles, from Georgia to Maine.

Even without its heavily populated surroundings, Great Smoky would be wildly popular with visitors. Its rumpled mountains provide great hiking and course with 2,100 miles of leaping streams popular with anglers and which, lower down where they spread out and flow more serenely, delight young and old alike seeking to escape the high heat and humidity of summer by taking a dip in a river.

Cultural history is rich in the park, with 19th-century homesteads that are well-preserved in places such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee.

Traveler's Choice For:
Hiking, backpacking, cultural history, wildlife, wildflowers, fall colors.

Park History: Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a big, automobile-convenient park attracts more than 9 million visitors a year and entertains them with forested mountainsides, winding roads, flowering shrubs, pioneer-era relics, and other delights.

Lodging at Great Smoky

Unlike most national parks that have more than a few lodges within their borders, most of which you can drive right up to, Great Smoky lays claim to just one lodge. And you have to walk more than a few miles to reach it. But then, that's part of the charm of staying at LeConte Lodge.

Camping in Great Smoky

More than a few folks have headed to Great Smoky during the summer months to relax in the shadows of the mountains. For some families, camping in the park has been passed down from generation to generation.

Hiking in Great Smoky

A strong argument could be made that hiking is what the Appalachian Mountains were designed for. Just look at those mountains! They're steep and rumpled, creased by valleys, cut by streams, and thickly forested.

Seasons in Great Smoky

Turning the calendar at Great Smoky offers a wide range of weather...and a wide range of surroundings.

Traveler's Checklist For Great Smoky

Shared by Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretches for more than 521,000 acres in the rumples of the Southern Appalachians. The park is easily one of the National Park Service's largest properties east of the Mississippi, so it is no wonder that many first-time visitors are overwhelmed. Here's the Traveler's Checklist to help make your trip planning easier.

Great Smoky's Cultural History

The mountains that hold up the park have a long human history, one 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.

Wildlife in Great Smoky

Great Smoky is rich in wildlife, ranging from humongous “hellbenders” (a type of salamander) and wild hogs to 500-pound black bears and heavily anterled elk that resulted from a recovery program launched in 2001. The park also is home to wild turkeys and a highly unusual firefly with a unique ability.

Wildflowers in Great Smoky

Different seasons bring different colors to the Smokies, with daubs of white, yellow, red, blue, and crimson sprinkled among the park's green meadows and forests, depending on the season. With more than 1,600 varieties of flowering plants, you're bound to see some color on your visit.

Fall Colors in Great Smoky Mountains

Straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border in the Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky boasts the largest stands of old-growth forest in the eastern United States and the greatest biodiversity of any U.S. park. This yields a fall outburst of reds, yellows, purples, browns, and golds rivaling those of the New England countryside.

The Geology of Great Smoky

The roof of the Smokies owes its character to time. Erosion is a great equalizer, one that can humble and beat down a landscape. Before wind, rain, ice and snow seriously began gnawing away at the Appalachian Mountains, the range possibly towered to more than 27,000 feet and claimed peaks that could honestly be viewed as such.

Resources For Visiting Great Smoky

This is where you can find websites, helpful phone numbers, friends groups and cooperating associations, and, sometimes, books related to the park.

Some Side Trips In The Area to Consider

The communities surrounding Great Smoky have more than a few interesting attractions and sites to explore if time allows.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park News

It's Physics: Why Smaller Backpackers Can Carry Heavy Packs

Physics seems to have an answer for just about everything. How else could you explain why smaller backpackers can carry rather large backpacks?

Reader Participation Day: How Do You Mix Parks And Politics?

Do national park-related issues affect your decisions at the ballot box?

Finding Fall Color In Unexpected Places

Many areas in the National Park System are famous for autumn color, and visitors flock to places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Acadia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy the seasonal palette of natural beauty. There are, however, some other parks where fall color can be either a surprise—or a favorite destination for savvy travelers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Images