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.
Quite large as Eastern parks go – more than 800 square miles -- Great Smoky Mountains National Park occupies a rugged, heavily forested portion of the southern Appalachian Mountains astride the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Thanks to its high accessibility, automobile-convenient character and many scenic and historic attractions, Great Smoky attracts more than 9 million visitors a year and is the most heavily visited of the 58 National Parks.
Note that it’s spelled Smoky, not “Smokey,” and don’t ask why. The name derives from the blue-gray haze and cloudiness so common to these mountains and valleys. The Cherokees referred to the mountains in this area as Shaconage (Sha-CON-uh-GEE) which means “land of blue smoke” or “blue, like smoke.” The blue tint results when short wavelengths of light -- the blue-violet end of the visible spectrum -- are scattered by volatile organic compounds exhaled by trees, shrubs, flowers, ferns, vines, and other vegetation. The tint is mostly due to the trees, especially conifers, which contribute VOCs in disproportionately large amounts. The same basic effect accounts for the blue haze in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Great Smoky lacks the eye-popping grandeur of flagship Western parks such as Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, but visitors love the forested mountainsides, winding roads, flowering shrubs, pioneer-era relics, and relatively unspoiled character of the place. Big chunks of land with these qualities are scarce in the Eastern U.S., and people are willing to go out of their way to find them.
When you get right down to it, though, Great Smoky isn’t such an out of the way place. In fact, accessibility is a major reason for its extraordinarily high visitation. As geographers are inclined to say, the place has a great relative location. It’s within a one-day drive of most big cities of the East and Midwest, within a two-day drive of two-thirds of the American population, and positioned between the Florida vacationlands and major Northern population centers. In addition, the popular Blue Ridge Parkway feeds traffic into the park, there is no admission fee, and the park is ideal for windshield touring.
Visitation is highly seasonal in Great Smoky, with most of it jammed into the summer peak and the fall color season. Fall foliage is gorgeous in the Smokies, by the way. When the color season peaks -- usually in mid- to late October – hordes of visitors converge on the park (and clog the roads) for “leaf-peeping.” It helps that the weather in September and October is usually dry and clear.
The fewest visitors come in January and February because of the cold, snow, and icy (or closed) roads and trails. Though off-season visitation offers less congestion and better visibility from the high overlooks (up to 70 miles instead of just 15), it does have its weather discomforts and risks. Some ill-prepared hikers have died of hypothermia when caught by snowstorms or chilly rains.
This is a hikers' park as well as a great scenic-driving park, and the mountains have made it so. About 800 million years ago, a shallow inland sea occupied the area now covered by the Smoky Mountains. Thanks to erosion from nearby mountains, vast amounts of sand, silt, and gravel were deposited on the sea bottom. These were compressed and cemented into sedimentary rock layers -- primarily limestone, sandstone, and shale – that reached a thickness of 20,000 feet. Over time there were some igneous intrusions and both the sedimentary and igneous rocks underwent metamorphic processes that physically and chemically altered them.
A mountain building era, the Appalachian Revolution, began more than 200 million years ago and produced mountains extending about 2,000 miles from Georgia into Canada. Immense tectonic forces caused the sedimentary rock strata to warp, fold, and break. The resulting anticlines and synclines gave the land a distinctive wrinkled or corrugated appearance, with long, narrow ridges separated by long, narrow valleys.
Heavy erosion smoothed, rounded, and greatly reduced the size of the mountains. In addition, the cracking (faulting) and tipping of the rock strata created a very complicated array of geologic structures and landforms. Along an east-west line extending about 60 miles, an overthrust fault caused older Precambrian rock strata to slide over younger Cambrian limestone and bury it. Subsequent erosion exposed the younger rock and created flat-bottomed valleys surrounded by mountains. The geologic term for a structure created in this way is fenster (from the German word for window), but in the Smokies it is known as a cove. Cades Cove, one of the park’s major attractions, is the best-known example.
Cades Cove is the place where the park’s pioneer history is on display, and a rich history it is. English and Scottish settlers began arriving in this area in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some moved inland from Charleston, while others traveled down the piedmont from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Early settlers took the best valleys and coves, so the late arrivals had to settle for less desirable land. Much of this land consisted of coves and dead-end, flood-prone valleys that were so remote and poor in quality that they could support only a hardscrabble existence. What emerged was a distinctive Appalachian culture with tough, self-sufficient, economically deprived people who were largely isolated from the outside world and had lifestyles that were not drastically different from that of their pioneer forebears.
Mountains blanketed with great forests of chestnut, elm, oak, and other trees attracted the logging industry and railroads, which finally came to the Southern Appalachians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. While reducing the trees to stumps they reduced the region’s economic and cultural isolation. But even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, some of the more remote Appalachian coves and valleys remained inhabited by mountain people who eked out a traditionally simple living centered on farming, logging, hunting, trapping, and making moonshine.
Nearly all the families that owned land now within the borders of the park were forced to sell their land to the federal government and move elsewhere. Today, their legacy remains in the form of the preserved/restored log cabins, barns, frame churches, and other historic structures that tourists see in and near the park, and especially at Cades Cove. Another legacy is a lingering dislike for federal government interference in people’s lives. Some people even think it’s OK to hunt bears and other game in the park, since their granddaddies did “before the federal government kicked them off their land.”
Well, that’s not exactly how the government set out to create the park, but displacements did occur. The idea for a park in this area was first advanced in 1899 and again in 1923. Congress finally provided initial authorization (administration and protection authority) for a park in 1926, but provided no federal money for the project. The task of acquiring the land would be left to the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. The strong fund-raising effort in the 1920s – especially in the Knoxville and Asheville areas – is a great credit to the many people in both states who worked hard to get the park. Not enough money could be raised, however, and the campaign would have failed had it not been for a last-minute $5 million donation by park benefactor John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Congress finally authorized the full development of the park on June 15, 1934.
There was a great deal of opposition to establishing the park. Many people saw the project as a government threat to their livelihoods and lifestyles. A good many wanted a national forest created so that logging and hunting could continue. There was considerable resentment about the way the land was acquired. It was not like establishing a park in Western states, where it was possible to simply change the status of land (such as a national forest or military installation) that the federal government already owned.
Timber companies owned about 85 percent of the land in the Smokies. Although these companies had a huge investment in timber, railroads, company towns, etc., it was a fairly simple matter to buy their holdings. This was not the case for the remaining 15 percent of the land. This consisted of land owned by thousands of smallholders (predominantly farmers), most of whom did not want to leave even if they got fair market value for their land. Nearly all the approximately 5,665 people who were displaced deeply resented being forced out. Most complained that they were lied to, mistreated, and cheated. Some were allowed to stay on lifetime leases, with the land reverting to the government when they died.
Most of the land that was roughed up by logging, farming, mining, and related activities has reverted to forest and meadow since the 1930s. Few park visitors are even aware that much of the landscape they admire today had a derelict and pretty well beat up appearance within living memory.
Visitors typically just drive through the park, taking in the scenery from their cars. The main windshield touring route is the east-west trending Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441), which traverses the park between the two main gateways -- Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and Cherokee on the North Carolina side. The Cades Cove Loop Road is also very popular for windshield touring and wildlife watching. It’s badly congested during the peak seasons, though, and many savvy visitors opt to ride the shuttle buses or rent bikes. Information about the Cades Cove Loop Road is included in a Traveler's Delightful Dozen report on windshield touring in the parks.