Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountains, span a wide range of elevations, making them home to over 400 vertebrate species, 100 tree species, and 5000 plant species. Hiking is the park’s main attraction, with over 800 miles (1,300 km) of trails, including 70 miles (110 km) of the Appalachian Trail. Other activities include fishing, horseback riding, and touring nearly 80 historic structures.

Things to Do

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has something for everyone

Whether you are an avid outdoorsman, someone who prefers to see beautiful scenery from the comfort of your own vehicle, or someone who wants to learn about the history of the area, there is an activity for everyone to enjoy. Here are just a few of the activities and opportunities that the park offers.

Newfound Gap

The Newfound Gap, named for the southern Appalachian vernacular, in which gap means a low point in a mountain ridge, is the lowest drivable pass in the park. The gap is located at an elevation of 5,046 feet. The gap was discovered in 1874, when it was measured by Arnold Henry Guyot, a Swiss geographer. Guyot measured many of the elevations in the Southern Appalachian mountain range, and has a peak named after him – Guyot Peak, the second highest in the smoky mountains.

The Newfound Gap is a unique experience because of the wide variety of ecosystems that you can experience during the drive. Drivers ascend approximately 3,000 feet throughout the course of the drive, and experience multiple different ecosystems during the experience. Some of these ecosystems include cove hardwood forests, pike-oak forests, and northern hardwood forests, until finally reaching the evergreen spruce-fir forests at the gap’s highest elevation.

The Newfound Gap experiences higher amounts of snow than the surrounding lowland areas, due to the extreme temperature difference caused by the elevation of the gap. 69 inches of snow fall at the gap on average. This snow can sometimes result in the closing of the gap, but when it is not closed, the Gap provides access to Clingmans Dome Road, for snowshoeing opportunities.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a five and a half mile looped road that is a favorite of frequent travelers to the park. The road is named after the Roaring Fork stream, which is one of the largest, fastest flowing mountain streams that are accessible in the park. The drive through the loop is beautiful and charming. During this drive, you can view mountain streams, forests, and well-preserved historical buildings.

Directly before the loop is the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail. This stop is perfect for visitors who want to see some of the historical buildings up close. The trail takes you to an authentic farmhouse, including a tub mill and plumbing system.

The main sight to see during the drive is, of course, the Roaring Fork stream. Frequent visitors recommend driving the road after rain, if you get the chance. The stream will be at its peak during these times, and it makes the inspiration behind the name crystal clear.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is perfect for visitors who value beautiful views and wildlife viewing opportunities. The cove itself is a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. It boasts large numbers of white-tailed deer, and visitors have reported seeing black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, and other animals in this area. The cove is one of the most popular destinations in the park. The cove offers both vehicle and walking access. There is an 11 mile loop road that circles the cove, which is accessible to motorists. This road allows visitors to see the cove at their own pace. There are also walking trails that visitors can travel along, which, while taking more time, is recommended and worth it. 

Cades Cove was a hunting destination for Cherokee Indians for hundreds of years. The Cove was settled by Europeans for the first time between 1818 and 1821. Because of its rich history, the cove offers a wide variety of preserved historical buildings, the most of any other area in the park. These buildings include three churches, a grist mill, barns, log houses, and more! The park offers a self-guiding booklet at the entrance to the Cove.

Cades Cove also offers camping opportunities year round! There are multiple campgrounds in the cove area. The most popular are Cades Cove Campground and Anthony Creek Horse Camp. Visitors can also do independent backcountry camping, as long as they have a permit.

Clingman’s Dome

Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park, at 6,643 feet. It is the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. At the top of the dome, there is an observation tower that offers beautiful 360 views of the surrounding mountains. It is a steep half mile walk to reach the tower, but the views are worth it. Be sure to pack a jacket to visit this area- the dome can be 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the surrounding, lower elevation areas. Clouds and precipitation are also common at the top of the dome.

Before reaching the dome, there is a seven mile drive along the Clingmans Dome Road. The road offers scenic pullouts along the way, each with spectacular views. Even if you do not go all the way to the observation tower, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the views of the area along this drive. Clingmans Dome Road is also the starting point for multiple hiking trails. These trails include the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the Dome at its highest point. The Forney Ridge Trail also begins here, leading to Andrews Bald, a high elevation grassy area.

Grotto Falls Trail

For hikers visiting the park, the Trillium Gap Trail is a beautiful, moderately difficult hike that is enjoyed by many visitors each year. The trail takes you through  hemlock forest, and runs behind the Grotto Falls, a 25 foot high waterfall. The waterfall provides an ideal environment for salamanders, and is ideal for summer hikers looking for a respite from the heat. The hike is a three mile round trip. Black bears are sometimes active in this area, so it is recommended to stay alert.

Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center

If you are interested in the deep, rich history of the Smoky Mountains, visiting the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center is highly encouraged. This visitor’s center has museum exhibits that tell the story of the mountains, ranging from the life of the Native Americans who resided in the area, to the early European settlers. It also tells the story of the formation and development of the national park.

Next to the visitor’s center, there is the Mountain Farm Museum, which contains multiple log structures, including a farmhouse, a barn, a smokehouse, and an apple house. There are seasonal demonstrations of farm life conducted in this museum.
things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife

From rare species to common, large to small, the park provides a rich ecosystem and habitat for all kinds of animals. Here are a few of the animals that you could see in the park.

American Black Bear

The American Black Bear is one of the many animals that reside in the park. Black bears today are often found in highly forested, mountain regions, which are sparsely settled by humans. The main consideration for black bear habitat seems to be inaccessible terrain, thick vegetation, and large amounts of food. The current range of this species is constant throughout the Appalachian mountains. Their population has been stable or increasing over the past few years, and it is estimated to be between 339,000 and 465,000.

American black bears, despite their name, have a wide range of different colorations. Their fur can be white, blonde, cinnamon, brown, and jet black. Some can even be silvery grey, although these mainly occur along the coast of Alaska. Their fur is dense and soft. Female black bears have more slender and pointed faces than their male counterparts. Males typically weigh up to 551 lbs. and females weigh up to 375 lbs.

These bears are dexterous. They have been shown to be capable of opening screw-top jars, and even successfully opening door latches. They are very strong, and are capable of maneuvering weights up to 325 lbs. They have better eyesight and hearing than humans, and their sense of smell is seven times more sensitive than a dog’s. They are very strong swimmers, and use this to their advantage when swimming. They also climb trees, to feet, escape enemies, and sometimes even to hibernate.

Black bears mainly forage by night, although they can be active at any time of day or night. Black bears who live close to humans tend to be more nocturnal than others. They are highly territorial towards other black bears, although they can coexist in areas with abundant food sources. When this happens, a power hierarchy forms, with the most powerful males taking the best spots


The bobcat is named for its distinctive stubby tail. These cats usually have tan to gray-brown fur coats, with black streaks along their bodies. They have a spotted pattern to their coats, which acts as camouflage and aids in their hunting. They have pointed ears with black-tipped tufts of fur. They can grow to be up to 49 inches long.

Bobcats have well-defined territories that they occupy. The size of these territories vary depending on their sex and the distribution of prey in the area. They are active mostly during the twilight hours, usually moving along their territories from sunset to midnight. During this time, they can move anywhere from 2 to 7 miles, depending on the size of their territory. They have multiple areas to shelter throughout their territory. They usually have a main den and several auxiliary shelters, so they are never too far from home during their hunting.

The bobcat is a solitary animal. Ranges can sometimes overlap, depending on the amount of prey available in the area. Male bobcats are relatively tolerant of overlap, while females will rarely go into another’s range. Females have smaller range sizes than males, and often more than one female can reside within a male’s territory. The overlap of territories can result in a dominance hierarchy.

Bobcats have the ability to survive for long periods of time without food. When prey is readily available, they eat large amounts. When prey is less available, bobcats will seek out larger prey, leaving remains that they can return to feed on later. Bobcats mainly hunt by stalking their prey and ambushing it with a short chase, but they can vary their hunting methods depending on the size of their prey. With smaller prey, the bobcat will wait for the animal to wander into their path, then pounce. For larger prey, they will stalk, then rush in to pounce. Bobcats usually prefer smaller prey, but they have been known to kill animals as large as deer when other food is scarce.  The main food source for a bobcat depends on the region it resides in. For example, in the eastern United States, it is the eastern cottontail, while in the north, the main food source is the snowshoe hare.

Bobcats live between 7 and 10 years. Female bobcats raise their young alone, and give birth to up to six kittens at a time. Bobcats are extremely adaptable when it comes to their habitat. They usually prefer woodland areas, but are able to occupy other regions as well. Bobcats can be found in Florida swamps, Texas deserts, and mountain areas. They tend to make their homes close to agricultural areas.

The bobcat is considered a threatened animal. It is not threatened with extinction, but hunting and trading of this animal must be closely monitored. The bobcat is regulated in its range countries, and is often found in protected areas in the United States. The bobcat is valued for its fur and for hunting, which is the main danger to this animal’s population. It does not face danger from many other animals. It can be killed by larger predators, but this is not a common occurrence. The main danger to the bobcat comes from humans.


Coyotes can also be spotted in the bounds of the park. Coyotes can be recognized by their coloring. Their fur is a light grey color, with red interspersed throughout the fur, along with black and white. Coyotes who live in higher elevations often have more black and white spots than coyotes who live in the desert, as it helps with camouflage in these environments. They have a short, soft underfur and longer guard hairs. Male coyotes can weigh up to 44 lbs., while females can weigh up to 40 lbs.

Coyotes are social animals, and live in families. Their core social unit is a family with a reproductive female. Coyotes are monogamous. Females that do not mate will sometimes assist other female coyotes, usually sisters or mothers, in raising their pups until the next mating season. Sometimes, unrelated coyotes join forces for a temporary period of time. This can be for companionship or for hunting assistance. Coyotes, while they may resemble wolves, are much less aggressive towards intruders. They typically do not defend their territory outside of the denning season, and when they do confront intruders, they will chase, but rarely kill them.

One use of the coyotes social group is for hunting. They often work in small groups or pairs to bring down larger prey. Coyotes approach their prey from the front, and often catch excess food. Their hunting parties are not limited to other coyotes. They have been known to form hunting relationships with American badgers. During these relationships, they help each other dig up rodents. Badgers have also been seen with coyotes simply for companionship, creating a fascinating mutualistic relationship.

Coyotes are mainly carnivorous. 90% of their diet consists of meat. They prefer fresh meat, but will scavenge other kills as well. They hunt a wide variety of prey species, including, but not limited to, bison, mule, deer, bighorn sheep, birds, and even turtles. They are not limited to a single type of habitat, and are highly versatile in their environments.


Elk are some of the most breathtaking and most photographed animals in the park. This is mainly due to their antlers.  Only male elk have antlers. They grow in the spring, and the elk shed them in the winter. Antlers can be up to nearly four feet long, and weigh nearly 40lbs. They can grow nearly an inch a day during the growing season. While they grow, they are covered with a layer of soft skin known as velvet.

Elk are known as ungulates, which means that they have an even number of toes on each foot. Other members of this order are camels and goats. They have a four chambered stomach, and are herbivores. Their main food sources include grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. Grass is their main food source near round, with bark supplementing in the  winter when grasses are more scarce. They eat at a very high rate during the summer, and can eat up to 15 pounds of vegetation in a day. They are primarily grazers. They eat mainly in the mornings and evenings, and digest during the day.

Elk are not solitary animals, and they live in single-sex groups during most of the year. This changes during the mating period, when males compete for female attention and create harems, that they then defend from rival males.

Elk follow a migration pattern during the year. They move to higher altitude areas during the spring, and lower areas during the fall. During the winter, elk seek out areas with trees and shelter, both for protection from the elements and bark availability. They are highly adaptable in their environment. They prefer forest habitats, or close to forests, and mountainous regions. They can also inhabit desert-like areas. They have few predators, the main ones being wolf and coyote packs.

Monarch Butterfly Migration

One of the most striking insects that the park is home to is the monarch butterfly. These butterflies are a beautiful tawny orange color, with black and white colorations on the wings. Their wings can span from 3.5 to 4 inches wide. These wings provide them with a slow and sailing flight, with a speed of 5.5 miles per hour on average.

One mystery of the monarch butterfly is their annual migration. Monarch butterflies migrate north and south during the year, along specific flight patterns that remain constant throughout generations. This journey is perilous for the butterflies, but they continue to migrate. Butterflies that reside east of the Rocky mountains migrate to the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, while the western population reaches coastal areas of California.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on one of the natural migration routes. This is potentially due to the population of milkweed plants, which host monarch butterflies.

The Tremont School in Great Smoky Mountains National Park uses the migration event to learn more about the butterflies. They hold an annual tagging event in Cades Cove, where visitors can catch monarch butterflies with nets and put a tiny sticker onto their wings. This helps track them during their migration! For any visitors wishing to see this spectacular event, the height of the migration occurs from September 24th to October 6th.

Great Smoky Mountains Wildlife

Plant Life

Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants, including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Virginia meadowsweet

The Virginia meadowsweet is a rare member of the rose family, a flowering plant native to the southern Appalachian mountains. The meadowsweet is a shrub that can reach up to ten feet tall. It grows in clumps of other cloned individuals, which makes it a clonal plant. This plant does not reproduce sexually, but rather clones itself, produces new sprouts which grow into shrubs.

The Virginia meadowsweet prefers a riparian habitat, which includes floodplains and riverbanks. It grows in cracks that reside along flowing water. It has a complicated root system that anchors it to the cracks. This allows for regrowth in the event that most of the plant is destroyed during flooding seasons. Because of its riparian habitat, it has adapted to seasonal flooding, erosion, and scouring. 

The Virginia meadowsweet is listed as a threatened species. The plant’s population is small, and disturbances in habitat can easily kill off the already small number of individuals. The populations are very isolated from one another. This means that already rare instances of sexual reproduction are even further reduced.

Rock gnome lichen

Rock gnome lichen is the only member of its genus to exist in North America. The other members of the genus live in mountainous regions of East Asia, especially in the Himalayas. This lichen lives in dense colonies that are usually about one millimeter long and 1-2 centimeters across. They are blue grey on top and shiny white on the bottom, and nearly black towards the base. This lichen reproduces asexually, and colonies spread clonally.

Rock gnome lichen lives on vertical rock faces, and relies on seepage water from forest soils to survive. They require very wet conditions, and a moderate amount of light, but dislike direct sunlight. They grow in the Southern Appalachian mountains in humid areas, usually at high elevations. When they live at low elevations, they prefer deep gorges with humid conditions.

Rock gnome lichen is one of two fungal species that is listed as endangered. One of the greatest threats to this species is hikers. It’s habitat often exists in areas that are popular recreation spots, and the soil erosion and trampling that comes from hikers and climbers can destroy colonies. They are also threatened by invasive insects, recreational and residential development, collection, and air pollution.

American Chestnut

Once one of the most widespread trees in North America, the American chestnut is now one of the rarest. This tree is a rapidly growing hardwood tree. It can reach up to 98 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter. As mentioned in the name, the chestnut is a nut bearing tree. It produces tiny green burrs, which are lined in velvet and contain three nuts in each one. The nuts develop in late summer, and burrs fall during the fall.

The American chestnut was once considered the finest chestnut tree in the world, and was one of the most important forest trees in North America. In Pennsylvania, it was thought to have comprised up to 30% of all hardwood trees in the area. There were estimated to be over three billion of these trees before the first half of the 20th century. During this time, a fungal blight came from chestnut trees introduced by East Asia. The blight was discovered in 1904, and by 1906, an estimated 98% of American chestnut trees had been infected. The Chinese chestnut was able to evolve and develop a  resistance, the American chestnut did not. Between 3 and 4 billion of these trees were destroyed by the blight, and now less than 100 remain in their former range.

Kentucky coffee tree

Another rare tree species that can be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Kentucky coffee tree. This tree is noted for its ashy grey, scaly bark. They can grow up to 70 feet in height, with a branch spread of 50 feet and a diameter of 3 feet. The tree is fast growing, and lives for approximately 100-150 years. These trees are often grown in parks and cities for decoration.

The Kentucky coffee tree is a fruit producing tree. They produce hard-shelled beans that come in pods filled with a sweet pulp. The production and form of these fruits is an example of evolutionary anachronism. This concept refers to attributes of living species that are best explained as a result of having been favorably selected in the past due to coevolution with other biological species that have since become extinct. In this case, it is an example because the seed pods are poisonous and too tough for animals to chew through, and too heavy for wind or water dispersal, indicating dispersal through a different means or species.

This tree is considered a rare species, meaning that they should be monitored. It has a wide distribution, but is rare within that distribution. They often appear as colonial groups with interconnected root systems. They tend to live in floodplains and river valleys, but can be seen on hillsides and limestone woods.

The tree’s name comes from the Meskwaki, who drank the roasted ground seeds in a similar beverage to coffee. Settlers used the seeds as a coffee substitute as well.

Japanese honeysuckle

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many beautiful wildflowers, including the Japanese honeysuckle. The Japanese honeysuckle is a twisting vine, which has the ability to climb up to 33 feet in trees. Their leaves are a simple oval shape. They have beautiful flowers, which are double tongued. They open white and fade to yellow, and have a delicious vanilla scent. They are fruit producing. In the fall, they grow black berries, which contain seeds. However, these berries are not edible. Besides the flowers and nectar, all other parts of the Japanese honeysuckle are potentially toxic. The nectar and flowers can be eaten by humans, and have a sweet taste. They also provide a food source for wildlife, including deer, hummingbirds, and rabbits.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Plant Life

Park History

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a rich and diverse history, particularly surrounding the establishment of the park

The Beginning

Long before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, some people began to talk about a public land preserve in the Southern Appalachians. They stated the cool, healthful air of the area as a main reason. A bill was proposed in the North Carolina legislature to preserve the land, but it failed. By the early 20th century, many more people in the North and South were pressuring Washington for some kind of public preserve.

The Motorists Support

Hard working supporters in Knoxville and Asheville made the efforts to create a national park successful in the mid 1920’s. They received a surprising amount of support from motorists, who had the biggest role in the park’s establishment. This was due to push by newly formed auto clubs, including branches of the AAA. Members of these clubs wanted the land preserved, and good roads created, so that they could drive their new cars in beautiful scenery.

The Establishment of the Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in May 1926, when a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge.  The first step in the creation of the park was for the department of the interior to purchase 150,000 acres of land in the area. Since the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use, the former political boosters became fund raisers. The buying of the land was a difficult and long process. There were thousands of small farms, large tracts, and other miscellaneous parcels that had to be surveyed and appraised. The timber and paper companies had valuable equipment and inventory, which needed to be compensated. Beyond this, some people had to walk away from their homes when the land was bought, which was an emotional loss.

The Dedication of the Park

The park was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940. His speech dedicated a sanctuary that is not a local park, a county park, or even a state park, but a national park for all the people of the country and the rest of the world to enjoy.

Great Smoky National Park History

Formation of the Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an area of rich geological features and history

Here are some of the standout features and moments of the park’s geology and formation.

The Rocks of the Park

Most of the rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are sedimentary and were formed by accumulations of clay, silt, sand, gravel, and other elements in layers. The oldest sedimentary rocks were formed during the Proterozoic Era, 800-545 million years ago. Rocks of the old highlands were found to be over one billion years old, and were similar to the ancient granite and gneiss found in other parts of the park. These were early sites of ocean bottom deposition, and were formed along the ancient margin of the North American continent.

The Ocoee Supergroup

As more and more of these sediments were deposited, they were eventually cemented together and changed into layers of rock. These layers of rock were over 9 miles thick. They are now known as the  Ocoee Supergroup and are subdivided into many smaller divisions of rock types.

Collisions and Uplift

During an  earlier continental collision, tremendous pressure and heat were generated. This  changed the Smokies sedimentary rocks. For example, sandstone became metasandstone, and shale became slate. The last great episode of mountain building uplifted the entire Appalachian mountain chain from Canada to Alabama. These mountains probably were much higher than today, likely with similar elevation as the Rocky Mountains.


The new rugged highlands, which were the ancient ancestors of the Smokies, were subjected to intense erosion from ice, wind, and water. As the mountains were worn down, the hard metasand and other erosion resistant rocks were left to form the highest peaks in the Smokies. Most of the waterfalls in the park were formed through downcutting, when streams came across ledges of metasandstone that eroded more slowly than the surrounding rock. Today, geologists estimate that the mountains are being eroded about two inches every thousand years.
How Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed
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