Located along the Tennessee – North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular parks in the system. With almost ten million visitors in 2009, it is the most visited national park in the country. The park is not nearly as remote as its western counterparts; close as it is to the densely populated eastern seaboard and southeastern states, it’s easy for travelers to come enjoy the Smokies’ breathtaking beauty and the charming culture of Appalachia.
There are two main mountain systems in the United States, and they are very different. The Rockies may enjoy a bit more glory, and they inspired the famous ‘purple mountains majesty’ line, but the Smoky Mountains are part of the Appalachian range. The Appalachians are a much older range and somewhat smaller in general; while the Rockies are new and still growing, the Appalachians have been eroding for millions of years.
The Smoky Mountains do not have the same raw, rugged beauty as the Rockies. There are no deserts here and no sere, sparse landscapes; the Smokies could almost be described as lush. They’re covered with forests, and they boast one of the most diverse ecosystems in the U.S. About 95 percent of the park is forested, with more than a third of that consisting of old growth forest. It’s the largest stand of old growth forest east of the Mississippi River, and many of these trees have been standing since before the first European passed through the Cumberland gap.
The climate of the Smokies can vary wildly. with the temperature changing by ten or twenty degrees as climbers and hikers reach higher elevations. The Smokies get heavy rainfall throughout the year, mainly in the spring and summer, and the region is characterized by high humidity. This is one of the main reasons for the park’s amazing biodiversity, that and the fact that it’s hospitable to lots of different species. Southern species populate the lowlands while northern, cold-loving creatures inhabit the higher reaches. The ‘Smoky’ part of the name comes from this wetness; it actually has nothing to do with real smoke. The range is smoky because the warm, damp air of the Gulf Stream hits the mountains and cools rapidly, causing the characteristic mists that blanket the range in the mornings and evenings.
The Great Smoky Mountains offer no end of activities for outdoor enthusiasts. The park has more than 800 miles of hiking trails for hikers of all experience levels, from simple day walks to strenuous, multi-day backpacking treks. A portion of the famed Appalachian Trail also runs through the park, and there are hundreds more miles of trails devoted to horseback riding. If you don’t have a mount, one of the park’s rental stables can provide one.
Campers are equally well-covered. The park has ten developed campgrounds suitable for car camping or RVs, or you can head to the backcountry for a more primitive and secluded experience. Remember that during peak season, it may prove difficult to find a developed campsite on short notice. Primitive camping is usually free, but you’ll still need a permit from a ranger station or visitor center.
Wildlife watching is a popular pastime in the Smokies. The park is home to at least ten thousand documented species and thousand more undocumented ones. It houses one of the densest populations of black bears in the country. While they are not quite as dangerous as grizzly bears, visitors should still respect their strength. Keep your food safely stowed away.
Deer and elk abound, but hunting is not usually allowed in national parks. Fishing, however, is, and the 700 miles of fishable waterways in the park will have anglers stalking delicious brook, brown and rainbow trout for that campsite cookout.