More than 9 million people visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it the most visited of our national parks. And who can blame them? There's something for everyone: sweeping mountain peak vistas, thundering waterfalls, abundant wildlife, cold and clear streams, lush landscapes supporting an almost uncountable variety of life.
The park’s peaks and valleys (called coves in this part of the country) and more than 2,100 miles of streams offer ample opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing and splashing about a stream, turning over rocks looking for salamanders.
Yes, it can be crowded on weekends in July and October, the peak of leaf season. But with more than 800 miles of trail, it’s easy to leave behind the maddening crowd.
The U.S. Congress passed legislation creating Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1926, but with the stipulation that at least 300,000 acres be acquired. The state legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee each contributed $2 million to buy parkland. John D. Rockefeller Jr. contributed $5 million that had to be matched by other private contributions. Raising the money and buying the land — oftentimes through eminent domain — took the better part of a decade and Great Smoky Mountains National Park joined the national system in June 1934.
More than 1,200 displaced land-owners left behind farm buildings, mills, schools and churches. More than 70 of these structures have since been preserved so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now contains the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.
Things to do
A kayaker navigates the Sinks on the Little River. (Photo: mikerhicks/Flickr)
The view from the observation tower atop Clingman’s Dome (view shown at top) extends up to 100 miles. At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the tallest mountain in the park and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. The lofty altitude means a respite from the steamy summer heat of the valleys. The average summer high temperatures are in the mid-60s. A seven-mile drive on Clingman’s Dome Road takes you to the summit trail parking lot. The half-mile trail to the top is steep, but just think of the payoff.
Cades Cove — a broad valley where you’re almost sure to see whitetail deer — is one of the most popular, and crowded, spots in the park. But the 11-mile, one-way loop road is restricted to bicycle and foot traffic from sunrise until 10 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday from early May until late September. Wake up early and pedal past historic buildings including three churches, log cabins and a working grist mill.
Why you’ll want to come back
Synchronous fireflies put on a one-of-a-kind light show during mating season — flashing in union, or sometimes in waves. The displays take place for two weeks in early June, and the park service runs a trolley between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont campground for those wanting to spend a summer evening in wonder.
Flora and fauna
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has unmatched biodiversity. More than 17,000 different plants, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, lichen and other forms of life have been documented in the park.
The park is home to 100 species of native trees, including red maple, sugar maple, birch, hickory, Southern magnolia, tulip poplar and Fraser fir. Summer brings blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron.
Wildlife includes black bears — about 1,500 live in the park — whitetail deer, raccoons and 30 different salamanders. Elk were reintroduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in February 2001. The elk roam the Cataloochee Valley.
By the numbers:
- Website: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Park size: 521,086 acres or 814 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 9,463,538
- Busiest month: July, 1,403,978 visitors
- Slowest month: February, 239,587 visitors
- Funky fact: Average annual rainfall ranges from 55 inches in the valleys to more than 85 inches on some mountaintops, so bring rain gear.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems around the country.