What Makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park Unique?

Jun. 10, 2017

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bisecting the park in an unbroken chain that rises more than 5,000 feet for more than 36 miles. The largest federally protected upland reserve east of the Mississippi River, the park encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Elevations in the park range from 875 to 6,643 feet. This range in altitude mimics the latitudinal changes experienced by driving north or south across the eastern United States, say from Georgia to Maine. Plants and animals common in the Southern United States thrive in the lowlands of the Smokies while species common in the northern states find suitable habitat at the higher elevations.

The Smoky Mountains are among the oldest in the world, formed perhaps 200 million to 300 million years ago. They are unique in their northeast to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate along their slopes during climatic changes such as the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. In fact, the gla¬ciers of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without invading them. During that time, glaciers scoured much of North America but did not quite reach as far south as the Smokies. These mountains became a refuge for many northern species that were pushed southward by the advancing ice then retreated upward as it withdrew. The Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years, giving species eons to diversify.

In the Smokies, the average annual rainfall varies from approximately 55 inches in the valleys to over 85 inches on some peaks - more than anywhere else in the country except the Pacific Northwest. During wet years, over eight feet of rain falls in the high country. The relative humidity in the park during the growing season is about twice that of the Rocky Mountain region. Almost 95 percent of the park is forested, and about 25 percent of that area is old-growth forest - one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forest remaining in North America.

All these conditions coming together - changes in altitude, moisture, temperature and northeast-southwest orientation - create a range of ecosystems that support a tremendous diversity of life. This biological diversity is the hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's amazing diversity of plants, animals, and invertebrates.

More than 12,000 species have been documented in the park - from the big animals like bears, deer, and elk, down to microscopic organisms which are still being discovered. Scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may live here.

  • About 100 species of native trees grow in the Smokies, more than in any other North American national park.
  • More than 1,500 additional flowering plant species have been identified in the park.
  • The park is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders. There are at least 30 differenct species of salamanders, giving the Smokies the distinction of having the most diverse population anywhere in the world.
  • The park is home to more than 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 39 varieties of reptiles and 43 species of amphibians. One of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States, the park protects 2,115 miles of streams in which Southern Appalachian brook trout and 50 other native fish species live.
  • Mollusks, millipedes and mushrooms reach record diversity here.
  • About 1,500 black bears live in the park. This equals a population density of about two bears per square mile.

Culturally, the mountains have had a long human history spanning over 9,000 years ― from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European settlement in the 1800s. The park has an unequalled collection of historic structures, including large two-story dwellings, log buildings, churches, schoolhouses, barns and working grist mills ― 97 historic structures in all, along with preserved scenes and landscapes characteristic of settlers life in the Smokies. In addition, the park contains more than 200 cemeteries, from large fenced areas with hundreds of graves in known marked cemeteries to more remote locations with just a handful of graves or even just one.

Recreationally, the park is a mecca for hikers, nature lovers and sight-seers of all kinds. Hands-on exploration and recreational opportunities abound in the Smokies for visitors to discover the wonders of the mountains and to enjoy the scenic splendor. Great SmokyMountains National Park is the place of both activity and relaxation. Visitors can challenge themselves to a strenuous hike to the crest of a mountain or sit and enjoy a peaceful sunset over the mountains. Auto touring, bicycling, fishing, hiking, picnicking, horse riding, waterfalls, historic buildings, mountain streams, wildlife viewing, workshops and classes, family-friendly ranger-led programs and other educational experiences await visitors.



Eleanor Talley