Owing to the incredible diversity of America’s national park system, each of the country’s 423 national park sites has its own unique history, natural monuments, wildlife, and activities for visitors. Established in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park tops many visitors’ lists, covering 816 square miles in eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. Whether you’ve explored this majestic landscape before or are considering visiting for the first time, here are eight interesting facts you may not have known about Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It's the Most Visited National Park in the U.S.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracted 12.1 million visitors in 2020 — more than any of the other 63 official U.S. national parks. For comparison, that is more than three times the number of people who visited the second-most popular park, Yellowstone, which drew a still-respectable 3.8 million visitors. Park officials estimate that since Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened in 1934, more than 560 million people have enjoyed all that it has to offer. Part of the reason may be that there is no entry fee to the park, and it never closes (although some roads may be closed during severe weather). In addition to countless opportunities for hiking and nature viewing, the park now allows fishing in all of its approximately 2,900 miles of waterways.
You'll Find Some of the Oldest Mountains in the U.S. Here
The Great Smokies are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains, and are some of the oldest mountains in the United States, second only to Dakota’s Black Hills. They formed approximately 200 million to 300 million years ago as continental plates collided, driving the accumulated layers of sedimentary rock into each other. Some layers of rock date as far back as 800 million to 850 million years.
The Park Was Once Home to the Cherokee Native Americans
The Cherokee tribe called the land that is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park home for more than a thousand years. Eventually, as European settlers moved in, they were driven from the land, with thousands forced onto the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in 1838. Before this, a small group called the Oconaluftee Cherokees received permission to stay in the Smokies. Now known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee, they number approximately 11,000 and live within a 56,000-acre reservation known as the Qualla Boundary, which lies just outside the southern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The reservation is open to visitors, with museums and traditional craft workshops offering insight into the regional Cherokee culture.
It Boasts More Than 19,000 Plant and Animal Species
The sheer variety of flora and fauna within the park is one attraction that lures so many visitors to the Great Smokies each year. Scientists have catalogued more than 19,000 species of plants and creatures in the park, but some believe that may only be a fragment of what is actually out there. The area provides a wide range of habitats in terms of elevation, rainfall, and rock types, and each of these micro-climates plays host to different plant life. There are 100 native tree species, more than in any other national park. Add in the more than 1,600 flowering plants that grow here, and the result is a gorgeous carpet of color throughout much of the spring and summer. Some of the plants found in the park are considered threatened or endangered, making the protection they receive all the more important.
One animal that many visitors hope to catch a glimpse of is the symbol of the Great Smokies — the black bear. Recent estimates put the bear population at about 1,500, or two bears per square mile. While keeping an eye open for that prize photo of a bear cub, also look out for some of the other two- and four-legged critters you may run into. These include more than 200 types of birds, 80 types of reptiles, and 65 types of mammals. Open spaces such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee offer the best opportunities for seeing elk, herds of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, and black bears.
It's the Salamander Capital of the World
In addition to the array of wildlife already mentioned, the Great Smokies are considered the Salamander Capital of the World. Often confused with lizards, salamanders are amphibians rather than reptiles. Of greatest interest to biologists are the 24 species of salamanders in the park that have evolved to not have lungs, instead absorbing air through their skin into their blood vessels. Since salamanders outnumber people at the park (which is noteworthy given the number of annual visitors), your chances of spotting one in a stream or on a log are fairly high. If you’re not sure if you’ve found a lizard or a salamander, check for scales — salamanders don’t have scaly skin.
It Has the Highest Point on the Appalachian Trail
The 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail travels through 14 states, from Maine to Georgia, with 72 miles of it passing directly through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In North Carolina, the trail enters the park at Fontana Dam. At the other end, the trail exits the park at Davenport Gap into Cherokee National Forest. Despite the popularity of the Great Smokies, the entire 72-mile path crosses only one road. This stretch of the Appalachian Trail takes approximately seven days from beginning to end.
At 6,634 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point both on the trail and in the park. And, if you don’t feel up to a long trek, you can reach the peak by car. Oddly enough, it is not the tallest mountain in the park; that honor goes to Mount Le Conte. The difference in terminology is based on the elevation of each mountain’s base, meaning one is technically the tallest, while the other is the highest.
Fireflies Are an Annual Event
One of the delights of a summer evening outdoors is sitting back and watching the fireflies, or lightning bugs, as many people in the South call them. At least 19 different types of fireflies live within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but one particular species gets its own special event. This is the only place where visitors can view the synchronous firefly, so named because it is the only species within the U.S. that can synchronize its light displays. The flashing lights are part of the lightning bug’s mating display, and each species has its own unique pattern. For one to two weeks in late May or early June, the evening skies of the Great Smokies are illuminated with vivid lights as the male synchronous fireflies flash together, providing quite the spectacle for the many visitors during this time. If you want to see it, you’ll need to plan ahead — the park has implemented an annual lottery to limit crowds, and only 100 vehicles are permitted for each viewing day.
Visitors Can Witness A Bygone Era in Cades Cove
Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies and is just a short drive from the Gatlinburg entrance. One unusual aspect of the park is that tracts of private land were purchased during its creation. Settlers had come to this valley as early as the 1820s and, even after the park’s opening, a few remained in their homes. The last resident of Cades Cove passed away in 1999, having left his home only a few months earlier. Some buildings are still in their original locations, while others have been moved and rebuilt in the valley to make them more accessible to visitors.
An 11-mile driving loop includes most of the key buildings around the Cove. Visitors can wander around three old churches and their graveyards, a working grist mill, barns, and houses — gaining a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. A few miles outside the national park boundaries, in the Tennessee town of Maryville, a Cades Cove museum displays memoirs and belongings from those who once called it home.
You'll Have to Hike to Reach the Only Lodge Inside the Park
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park have several options for places to stay, including resort towns such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, at the northern entrance. Inside the park, there are several campsites, and hikers on the Appalachian Trail can also spend the night in one of 12 rustic shelters along the route.
However, there is only one lodge within the park: Le Conte Lodge is located near the summit of Mount Le Conte, the park’s third-highest point. The lodge dates back to 1926 and was the brainchild of a local mountaineer. Overnight guests can stay in one of seven log cabins or one of the three lodge buildings. Be warned: There is no electricity and no running water. Each room comes equipped with a propane heater, a kerosene lantern, and a bucket for sponge baths. Given its isolated location, there is no road to the lodge, and visitors must hike from several parking lots, the nearest of which is 5.5 miles away, which takes about four hours each way. However, hearty breakfasts and dinners await those who do stay here, and supplies are brought up to the lodge on pack llamas.