Area Info / Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

see also: Cradle of Forestry | The Blue Ridge Parkway | The French Broad River
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Easily the biggest natural attraction in the Southeast, or for that matter the United States, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known to all of us. Because of the Park's sheer size, its incredible variety of terrain, and its devastating beauty, this national treasure plays host to over 9 million visitors a year. A brief look at the Park's natural features reveals its draw. Since elevations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park range from 875 feet to Clingman's Dome's peak of 6,643 feet, there's a plethora of ecological niches. These are filled in by over 10,000 documented species of plants and animals. In today's world, it is astounding to find that the park is almost 95% forested. Roughly 25% of this forest is old growth, some dating back hundreds of years. And, of course, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also incredibly large -- 814 square miles of tranquil wilderness.

Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, nature seekers will be pleased to find the activities allowed are as varied as the Park's wildlife: auto touring, backpacking, biking, bird watching, camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, nature walks, and more await visitors. It's a good idea to drop by one of the two main visitor centers to find everything and anything you want to know about the park; there is one located on the North Carolina side, near Cherokee, and one on the Tennessee side, near the Gatlinburg entrance.

When planning your trip, there are quite a few other special activities and educational centers to consider. Here are just a few:

  • Ranger-guided nature tours of the Park offer an informed perspective on the Park's diverse ecology, available Spring, Summer, and early Fall.
  • The Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob, in addition to conducting research, helps to educate park goers about the invaluable resources that the Park offers, and what they can do to help preserve them.
  • The Smoky Mountain Field School is a cooperative endeavor between the National Park Service and the University of Tennessee. The Field School offers guided hikes and workshops on a surprisingly wide variety of topics.
  • While there are assorted camping options, the only in-Park lodging available is Le Conte Lodge. Traveler take note: The Lodge is at the summit of Mount Le Conte, the Park's third highest peak, and is accessible *only by foot*. For the adventurous hiker, it Le Conte Lodge is the perfect accommodation. Fortunately for those not wishing to make the trek, there are ample cabins, bed and breakfasts, and hotels just outside the Park.

Visiting the Park is only enhanced by a general understanding of its history. Some seem to think that it was previously an enormous parcel of pristine wilderness just waiting to be christened a national park, but merely acquiring the land took decades of work and millions of dollars. Around the turn of 20th century, there was a growing national interest in establishing a large national park in the southeast, however, there was no parcel of federally-owned land large enough. The rolling mountains of forest that now make up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were then owned by a great many separate entities, primarily logging interests. Through the selfless work of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as the generous contribution of $5 million from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the park was assembled piece-by-piece. It was finally established on June 15, 1934.

Constructing the Park's infrastructure was no small feat either. The Park's watchtowers, trails, and outer roads were built by President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. Only by 1940, through the unprecedented work and love of so many people, was the Park recognizable as the bastion of ecology and tranquility that many millions know and love today. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a shining example of Americans working together toward a goal to benefit everyone, ultimately creating a lasting monument to land and country. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is certainly not to be missed.