©2006 National Park Services The structures left behind by former inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains can be seen in Cades Cove.

History: How the Great Smoky Mountains Were Formed

About 10,000 years ago, when glaciers advanced from the north during the last Pleistocene ice age, the Great Smoky Mountains were already millions of years old. The glaciers cooled the climate of the entire region. Lured by the cold, northern evergreens and other plants extended their range south into the lands of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Later, as the glaciers receded, these forests also withdrew, remaining only on the heights of the Smokies where conditions were cool and moist. Throughout the park signs advise visitors to see "the world as it once was."

Because the great glaciers were stopped in their southward journey by these mountains, which include 25 peaks above 6,000 feet, the Great Smokies today harbor a unique blend of northern and southern animals and plants.

History of the Great Smoky Mountains: Inhabitants and Explorers

Many of the coves and valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains have been settled since the late 18th century, but they remained isolated and inaccessible until the 20th century, when loggers first began harvesting the virgin timber. Still preserved within the park's boundaries are many of the cabins, farmhouses, churches, and barns of the mountain people. In fact, the most popular park destination is Cades Cove.

Cades Cove is a 6,800-acre valley near Townsend, Tennessee. Visitors frequent this area partly because of the unique opportunity to learn about the cultural history of the Great Smoky Mountains. Originally Cherokee territory, Cades Cove remained Indian land until 1838, when more than 14,000 Cherokees were forced to leave the Southern Appalachians.

Subsequently, Cades Cove was established as an American settlement, reaching nearly 700 inhabitants at its peak, pre-Civil War. Pioneers farmed the rich soil and built crude cabins from the materials they found on the surrounding land. The remnants of these cabins, as well as churches and a grist mill, still stand in the valley today. Although the primitive life of the early settler had improved in the intervening years, the settlement slowly dwindled in numbers after the Civil War. The last resident of Cades Cove died in 1999, and the only residents these days are white-tailed deer and the other wildlife that roam the land.

Whether you like history, geology, wildlife, or adventure, you'll find something that appeals to you at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That helps explain why it's America's most popular national park.

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