Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park features one of the finest deciduous forests on the planet. In addition, the Smokies are among the world's oldest mountains and are the highest range east of the Black Hills. This is the most visited national park in the United States, drawing about 10 million people per year. Many travelers plan trips for the fall, when the leaves on the mountain trees are alive with color.
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor centers: Cades Cove Visitor Center, Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and Sugarlands Visitor Center are open year-round.
Other services: LeConte Lodge, 10 campgrounds, and five horse camps
Cades Cove Campground. Open year-round. Reservations are recommended. 800-365-CAMP.
Smokemont Campground. Open year-round. Reservations are recommended. 800-365-CAMP.
Backcountry camping. Open year-round.
Nine other campgrounds are available at various times from mid-March through November.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The great forest looks like a remnant of an ancient time when the world was covered with trees -- a time of constant showers, fog, and endless mist. The forest floor is thick with spongy green moss and colorful wood sorrel, and everywhere there are waterfalls cascading into nooks of rivers and streams. During the summer, a riot of sound seeks your ears: the chatter of red squirrels and the calls of wrens and other birds.
Great mountains rise, ridge upon rounded ridge, beyond the horizon. Made of ancient rock uplifted from deep below the earth's surface, these behemoths are considerably older than the rough, craggy mountains of the western states. The Great Smoky Mountains are the quintessential mountains of the eastern United States.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only an historic site, it’s also one of the best cliff diving spots in the U.S. Click here to check out the cliff diving article, video and images at Discovery’s Fearless Planet.
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park enjoy breathing the Appalachian mountain air and seeing remnants of southern Appalachian mountain culture. To learn about sightseeing at America's most popular national park, go to the next page.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Facts
Region: The border of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina
Size: 521,752 acres
Terrain: Mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and thick deciduous forests
Highlights: Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, and Thunderhead Mountain
Wildlife: Bears, deer, raccoons, opossums, foxes, birds, and salamanders
Activities: Ranger-led nature walks and children's campfire programs; auto tape tours, hiking, bicycling, fishing, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and backpacking
Sightseeing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is truly a vestige of an age lost in the mists of time. It supports an abundance of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, black bear, opossum, and an amazing diversity of bird life. At the higher altitudes, hikers can hear the pervasive drumming of ruffed grouse and the characteristic thumping of the woodpecker. Down lower, the songs of vireo and warbler fill the air. In all, more than 200 bird species inhabit the park.
Part of the Appalachian system, the Great Smokies are remarkable for their wild and luxuriant vegetation. More than 100 species of trees and more than 1,300 kinds of flowering plants grow here. The incredible tangle of trees and brush throughout the park is responsible for the "smoke" that gives the mountains their name. Water and hydrocarbons are exuded in great profusion by the close-packed array of air-breathing leaves, producing the filmy haze that never leaves this place during warm weather.
The park, which covers 800 square miles in the heart of these mountains, has so many types of eastern forest vegetation that it has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve. About half of this large lush forest is virgin growth that dates back to well before Colonial times.
Although this is our most popular national park -- it normally sees more than twice as many visitors as runner-up Grand Canyon -- it is not necessarily the most crowded. More 900 miles of trails provide good backcountry access.
The Appalachian Trail
A good start in terms of getting off the beaten path, the Appalachian Trail, the world's longest continuous walking route, almost perfectly bisects the park from southwest to northeast. The trail passes through 14 states, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, along its 2,174-mile route. Hiking and trail clubs maintain shelters and campsites along the path, which was designated a national scenic trail in 1968.
The trail enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the south through the Cheoah Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest. Most of the 70 miles of the trail, which almost perfectly bisects the park from southwest to northeast, passes through virgin wilderness well away from highways or other trails.
From the southwest, the trail crosses near the 5,530-foot summit of Thunderhead Mountain and then follows the Tennessee-North Carolina border through a thick spruce and fir forest to the fire lookout tower on top of 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the park's highest point. From the tower, depending on the weather, hikers get either a stupendous panoramic view of range upon range of mountains or a swirl of churning clouds.
After the trail crosses a park highway at Newfound Gap, hikers can take a side trip through towering 200-year-old eastern hemlocks to Alum Cave Bluffs, the site of a nineteenth-century commercial alum mine and a reputed source of saltpeter for Civil War gunpowder. After passing near the summit of 6,621-foot Mount Guyot, the trail leaves the park near the Big Creek Campground and enters Cherokee National Forest.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Photo Opportunities
Whether you're hoping to capture photos of deer, mountains, or historical log cabins, you'll have ample opportunity at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are some ideas:
Clingmans Dome Fire Lookout Tower: From this 360-degree vantage point, the average view is 22 miles. On a clear, pollution-free day, however, the range may increase to as many as 100 miles, taking in sites in seven states. The path to Clingmans Dome is a steep half-mile trek.
Cades Cove: The most popular destination in the park, Cades Cove is renowned for the log cabin homes, churches, and grist mill left by 19th century pioneers. This site contains fascinating examples of Southern Appalachian history. Because it's so popular, the valley can get quite congested -- so plan accordingly.
Cataloochee: This is one of the best places in the park for wildlife viewing. White-tailed deer, black bears, raccoon, and woodchucks are some of the animals that frequent Cataloochee. The valley is difficult to reach -- it is accessible via a gravel road from Hartford, Tennessee, or via Cove Creek Road near Dellwood, North Carolina. But visitors are rewarded with extraordinary views of the surrounding mountains.
Abrams Falls: The moderately difficult five-mile hike to Abrams Falls begins in the back of Cades Cove. The falls have the largest water volume of any falls in the park, and the lush surroundings create a striking view. In addition, the pool at the bottom is perfect for swimming and wading.
The inviting scenery of Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts hikers and campers in droves. On the next page, learn how these mountains came to be and who once inhabited them.
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.