To visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to get lost in geological splendor. Estimated to be nearly 200 million years old—some of the oldest mountains on this planet—you're transported back in time through haze-filled valleys.
What makes this national park so special is its location, which kept the last ice-age glaciers from reaching the mountains' peaks. This allowed the area to remain intact for more than one million years, which helped the Great Smoky Mountains to develop in many diverse ways. It's this diversity that gives visitors so much to explore in the park. Here's what you need to know before you first trip.
Some people say the Great Smoky Mountains are less eye-catching than other national parks within the country, but that's because the global significance of this park pervades and is distributed throughout the entire 814-square-mile area.
There are few other places on the planet that support so much biodiversity. Twelve thousand plants and animals have been identified so far, but there are approximately 90,000 more that are undocumented.
Despite lacking the concentrated splendors of an Old Faithful or Yosemite Valley, this is the most visited national park in the country, getting roughly 8 to 10 million visitors annually. Three things contribute to this:
- It's one of the few free national parks
- It's located in a major population center
- It's an easy park to access
The geography specifics are just as impressive as the visitor statistics:
- The Smoky Mountains rise from 875 feet to 6,643 feet in elevation. In terms of latitude change, making this elevation gain would be the equivalent of driving from Tennessee to Canada.
- Ninety five percent of this vast area is forested with more than 100 species of trees—more than any other national park—including fir, maples, pine, rhododendrons and spruce.
Wildlife in this park includes white-tailed deer, woodchucks, red and grey squirrels and raccoons; elk have also recently been reintroduced to the park. The most famous of the park's animals is the black bear, with nearly 1,500 throughout the mountains. Be sure to research bear safety before heading into the backcountry. The park is also a great place for bird watching.
Surprisingly, salamanders are the most abundant animal in the park (besides insects and spiders); there have been 30 species of salamanders identified so far. Because of this, the Smoky Mountains are one of the most important regions in the world for these animals.
It's this biodiversity that makes sightseeing so enjoyable.