Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are the highest mountains in the Eastern United States with sixteen peaks rising more than 6,000 feet. Part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the Smokies are an ancient treasure over 300 million years old.
Today, the Great Smokies are within a day-and-a-half’s drive of half the U.S. population. So it comes as little surprise that this American treasure is the most-visited national park in the United States with around 10 million visitors each year. Drawn by deep, lush forests, rushing streams, breathtaking waterfalls and the abundant wildlife, visitors return to the park year after year to find the peace and solace that only a wilderness paradise such as the Great Smokies can offer.
The Cherokee Indians, who originally inhabited the area, had their own name for the Smokies….to them it was “Shaconage,” meaning the “place of blue smoke.” This smoke for which the park is famous, is created by the tremendous amount of water vapor released by the thick forests that cover the mountain slopes.
In the early 1800’s white settlers began to arrive in larger numbers and eventually all but a few of the Cherokee inhabitants were forcefully removed from the region in 1838 in a tragic event that became known as the “Trail of Tears.” The ones that managed to evade capture and avoid removal are the ancestors of today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation located in Cherokee, NC.
As the 19th century progressed thriving agricultural communities developed in places such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee. Today in the park over 70 historic structures such as cabins, schools and churches remain from the pioneer period and help make up the largest collection of historic log buildings in the Eastern United States.
As the 20th century arrived however the traditional agricultural society began to give away to the changes brought on by the logging industry which eventually cut around 80% of the ancient timber that grew in today’s park boundaries.
Fortunately, a massive effort was undertaken to save the remaining land and eventually create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to federal government funds, contributions arrived in the form of pennies from school children, the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund and from countless other benefactors. Over 1,200 inhabitants were required to sell their land within the park and on June 15, 1934 the Great Smokies were officially established.
The Great Smokies encompass over 500,000 acres of beautiful scenery and includes over 800 miles of maintained trails and over 270 miles of roads. Within this vast wilderness is an incredible array of plant and wildlife. More species of plants are present in the Great Smokies than anywhere else in North America. There are over 1,500 species of of flowering plants and fungi and 124 species of trees. Meanwhile over 60 species of mammals, close to 70 species of fish and around 80 varieties of reptiles and amphibians call the Smokies home.
The most famous of all Smoky Mountain residents is of course the American Black Bear. It’s estimated that roughly 1,800 inhabit the park. The best places to see bears and other wildlife is in open areas of the park such asCades Cove and Cataloochee but they can truly appear anywhere at anytime. So keep your eyes open, never approach or feed a bear and always use caution if you encounter one during your visit.
There are three visitor’s centers in the park – Sugarlands, also the location of the park headquarters, is located near the Gatlinburg entrance of the park; Oconaluftee, near the Cherokee, NC. entrance; and at the Cable Mill area in Cades Cove. Numerous recreational opportunities are available to visitors in the Smokies…..Hiking, Camping, Horseback Riding, Fishing, and Bicycling are all great ways to experience the Great Smokies up close and personal.
So, take your time, leave your car behind and get out and enjoy one of America’s truly unique treasures. Once you visit for the first time you’ll be sure to return time and time again in the years to come.