A Piece of Heaven on Earth
A Beautiful place where you can still see the stars
Majestic, awe-inspiring, and inviting, the Great Smoky Mountains lie on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. This subrange of the southern Appalachian Mountains is known for its diverse wildlife as well as its immense amount of plant variety. The Smokies are an International Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they contain the most extensive strand of old growth forest east of the Mississippi River.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park was formed in 1934 to protect this unique Appalachian ecosystem. Today it is America’s most popular national park with over 9 million visitors per year. Within the park boundaries, you can see wild places, historic buildings from eras past, and remnants of mountain culture.
Clingmans Dome, the Smoky Mountains' highest peak, rises to 6,643 feet (2,025 meters) above sea level. The peaks of the Smoky Mountains rise much higher than their surroundings, leading to increased precipitation and cloudiness at the higher altitudes. The Smoky Mountains are named for the unique fog that often forms over the peaks of the range which look like smoke plumes from a distance.
At the end of the Paleozoic era, the ancient ocean had deposited a layer of marine sediments, creating limestone. The North American and African plants collided, which started the Alleghenian Orogeny. These events created the Appalachian mountain range, around 325 million to 265 million years ago. Some 20,000 years ago, glaciers spread south. They did not reach the Smoky Mountain area, but they did change the climate considerably, increasing precipitation (erosion) and reducing vegetation growth. Those glaciers receded northward about 15,000 years ago, and gradual warming expanded the growth of hardwoods.
The forests of the present-day Smoky Mountains can be divided up into three families based on the forces that formed the mountains: the cove hardwood forests that are present in the stream valleys and lower mountain slopes, the northern hardwood forests that can be found on higher slopes, and the spruce-fir forests found at higher elevations.
Some History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Native American tribes used the Smoky Mountains as a hunting ground for 14,000 years. Spear points found in the park have been dated to be from between 8000 and 10000 B.C., while there are examples of ceramics and agriculture dating to 1000 B.C. To 1000 A.D. Once the reliance on agriculture increased, tribes moved away from hunting and used the Smoky Mountain region less and the fertile valleys more. Remains of villages have been found along the Little Tennessee River.
When the first Europeans arrived in North America, the Cherokee inhabited the region. Most of their settlements were built atop previous villages in river valleys. At the end of the French and Indian War, many new settlers entered the area and brought conflict. The Cherokee aligned themselves with the British during the American Revolution, and in 1776 American forces invaded the Cherokee’s territory. Many Cherokee towns were burned and destroyed.
Years of conflict led to the Cherokee giving control of their lands to the US government in 1805. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the relocation of Native American tribes from their homes in the southeast to areas west of the Mississippi River. Many people died from disease, starvation, and exposure suffered during the journey. The removal of the Cherokee in 1838 was the last of the marches west, forced by state and local militias and precipitated by the discovery of gold in the mountains of northern Georgia. Between 2,000 and 6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokees died during the journey.
Settlers began filling the region in the late 1700s. Early forts included Wear’s Fort in present-day Pigeon Forge and Whitson’s Fort in present-day Cosby. In 1790 William and John Whaley settled what is now the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The early 1800s brought settlers to the Sugarlands, Roaring Forks, and Cades Cove areas. Early pioneers in the area were subsistence farmers who grew their own food and raised their own livestock. As communities grew, grist mills, blacksmiths, and other community amenities grew with them.
The Civil War brought division to the communities in the Smokies, and many settlers left the area not to return. Logging became the dominant industry as the industry advanced with better technology and the need to access Appalachia after depleting forests elsewhere. Logging stopped in the 1930s with the formation of the national park.
Tourism became an industry in the very early 1900s when visionary locals created destinations like the Wonderland Hotel and the Appalachian Club to cater to the Knoxville elite. Creation of the park proved to be challenging, with many competing interests at stake including land and farm owners, logging companies, the Tennessee and North Carolina state legislatures, and established communities. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt presiding over an opening ceremony at Newfound Gap in 1934.
Principle areas for tourism and visiting the park are Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in Tennessee and Cherokee in North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center opened in 2006 in Townsend, Tennessee and is dedicated to preserving the local Appalachia culture.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park occupies the eastern edge of Tennessee and the western edge of North Carolina. With such easy access for residents of the east coast, it’s no wonder that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is such a popular family vacation destination.
From Tennessee, the most common route into the park comes by way of Knoxville, through the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Southbound on Highway 441 will bring you to Sugarlands Visitor Center, the starting point for pretty much any Smoky Mountain adventure.
From Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the most straightforward starting point is the town of Cherokee, North Carolina. You will find the Oconaluftee Visitor Center north of Cherokee on Highway 441.
Things to do
Road trips and scenic drives are a favorite way to see a lot of territory in a small length of time. Many parts of the park are accessible by a scenic drive, and routes vary from highway blacktop to tight and winding gravel and dirt trails. One of the most popular roads is the loop through Cades Cove. Many of the parks best-known landmarks are a short hike off of access roads, allowing for the perfect mix of quick car travel and leg stretching exercise.
Hiking is one of the most popular draws to the park. You can hike a few minutes to visit a beautiful waterfall, or across technical mountain ridges, hike through the entire park, or even attempt the Appalachian Trail. The famous Appalachian Trail bisects the park on its 2,200-mile trek north from Springer Mountain in Georgia on its way to Maine. The trail passes through 14 states. With such a plethora of hiking options, there is sure be a perfect trail for your family vacation.
Camping is also a popular activity in the park. The park has many campsites, both front-country and back-country. Front-country campsites must be reserved online. Back-country camping requires a permit. Amenities vary by area. Horse camping and group camping are also available.
Hikers and campers should research their route and expected conditions carefully and come prepared. Adequate supplies such as water, food, and warm clothing for chilly nights are just a few necessities that hikers should review before setting out on a trip. With the right supplies and attitude, hikers are sure to have an adventure.
The Smokies are a photographer's dream, from macros of plant life to stunning landscapes and postcard perfect waterfalls. Photographers and dreamers alike will love spending a night under the dark night skies counting stars and capturing mesmerizing star trails. Those coming to the park during a meteor shower are in for the experience of a lifetime!
Nature watchers and birders will be delighted by the variety of wildlife found in the park. From songbirds to eagles, from coyotes to bears, the Smoky Mountains are home to a diverse number of species.