Ancient Mountains: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Thrilling views, rich history, and extraordinary biodiversity await at Great Smoky Mountains
Photograph by Paul Marcellini

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is renowned for its plant and animal life, as well as its finely preserved remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. These pristine mountains, among the oldest on earth, together form America’s most visited national park, welcoming nearly 11 million visitors annually.

At 522,419 acres, the park is a vast natural playground, filled with opportunities to fish, hunt, hike, paddle, and camp. The area’s abundant rainfall—some eighty-five inches a year—and extreme elevation changes foster one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country (more than 17,000 species have been documented so far). The rainfall and water evaporation from the trees also produce the smoke-like fog that gives the mountains their name.

A favorite destination for history buffs, the park maintains more than ninety historic Appalachian structures—from houses and barns to schools and churches—one of the finest collections of log buildings in the East. The highest concentration of buildings can be found in Cades Cove, settled by Europeans in the early nineteenth century.

Long before those settlers arrived, these mountains were home to Cherokee Indians. After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Cherokee and other Southern tribes were forced west of the Mississippi on the infamous Trail of Tears. In the decades that followed, the logging industry devastated thousands of acres of woodlands. Groups from Tennessee and North Carolina came together in the early 1900s to save the region’s natural beauty and attract tourists to the area. After the park was officially established in 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program created to combat unemployment during the Depression, built the park’s trails, campgrounds, bridges, and other infrastructure components. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park on September 2, 1940.

web-EMW-Illustration-Final---Marbled-SalamanderThe park is home to some thirty species of salamanders, earning it the title “Salamander Capital of the World.” Perhaps Great Smoky Mountains’s most famous resident is the American black bear, with a park population estimated at 1,500.

Field Notes

Visitors 10,700,000 in 2015; July is the most crowded month, February the least.

Must-See Standing 6,643 feet Clingmans Dome is the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi. It juts from the ridge dividing Tennessee and North Carolina and features a forty-five-foot circular observation tower with panoramic views.

Must-Do Grab a trail map and seek out the park’s forty-plus waterfalls, including the 120-foot Mingo Falls, one of the tallest in the Southern Appalachians. If you don’t feel like hiking, there are several waterfalls you can access by car, such as the Place of a Thousand Drips near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Lodging Hike the scenic seven-mile Bullhead Trail through red spruce and balsam firs to LeConte Lodge, situated near the peak of Tennessee’s 6,593-foot Mount LeConte. The lodge, which predates the national park, offers a variety of rustic cabins and lodge rooms. Overnight guests can fuel up on hearty family-style meals served in the main dining room.

Nearby Unto These Hills, one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the country, tells the story of the Cherokee Nation. Colorful costumes, soaring music, and elaborate sets bring their rich history to life, but it’s the theater itself, set beneath the stars on the side of a mountain in Cherokee, North Carolina, (just minutes from the eastern entrance to the park) that makes the experience unforgettable.