Hosting over 9 million visitors annually, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. It is a landscape that combines natural and cultural history beautifully. History unfolds before the eyes, emerging from lush forests and rich lowland valleys.
The national park was officially created on June 15, 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the ceremony at Newfound Gap, a central point along the spine of the mountains that separates Tennessee from North Carolina. Unlike the vast western parks, the Great Smoky Mountains had been inhabited for some time and parcels of land had to be purchased from settlers. Pioneers crossed the mountains from North Carolina in the early 1800s to reach rich, isolated valleys. Before them, the Cherokee lived from these lands. But by the 1920s, the verdant southern Appalachians had been damaged by fires and stripped of most of their timber. A $5 million investment from famous industrialist John D. Rockefeller, along with the support of concerned citizens throughout the region, helped attain the final goal of the park’s establishment, protecting nearly 500,000 acres of land from development and creating a public space for the entire country’s enjoyment.
Make no mistake, despite the roads and easy access, much of the Smokies 500,000 acres are pure wilderness. More species of plants are found within the park than any other area in North America. Over 1,500 flowering shrubs and plants, 124 species of trees and 30 varieties of orchids and grasses can be found here. Interestingly, the Smokies’ unique ecosystem combines two different climates. The lower elevations feature a prime example of deciduous forest while the conifer forests along the mountains’ peaks are more like those found in central Canada. The amazing profusion of vegetation combines with the oil of pine trees to create a vapor that mixes with the moisture-laden air to give the Smoky Mountains their name.
The Smokies are also home to a diverse array of wildlife, harboring over 60 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, nearly 70 kinds of fish and 80 varieties of reptiles and amphibians. White-tailed deer, red fox, wood chucks, squirrels and raccoons are often encountered on quiet roadsides. Peregrine falcons, red wolves and river otters are recent re -inductees to the park, having been previously eradicated from the area. The black bear (Ursus americanus) is easily the park’s most popular citizen. Park officials estimate that between 400 and 600 bears inhabit the park. Bears are highly intelligent and powerful animals that should never be agitated. In the wild, a bear’s natural diet is composed of nuts, berries, insects and carrion, but increasing proximity to humans has caused many bears to become habituated to human-related food. They may occasionally make their way into campgrounds and can even sometimes be found in dumpsters. Feeding bears is strictly prohibited; it not only poses danger to humans, but to bears as well. A bear too accustomed to human food must eventually be euthanized.
See more on the Smoky Mountain National Park at www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm.