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Great Smoky Mountains National Park  



The Smoky Mountains

Forest & Stream

Newfound Gap

Clingman's Dome

Sugarlands Area

Oconoluftee Area

Cades Cove Area

Cades Cove Buildings






The most popular of all of America's national parks is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina. The park is visited by more than 9 million people per year, with perhaps 90,000 visitors on a summer weekend! They come to see the ridges, trees, flowers, streams, and waterfalls. Great Smoky Mountains lacks the spectacular scenery of Yosemite or Grand Teton, but it does have the advantage of being within a half day's driving distance of half the population of the United States. The park has the highest mountains in the eastern United States, and some of the largest sections of virgin forest which have been preserved in the east.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fairly large, containing about 800 square miles and 521,490 acres, all of it land. Much of the park--in fact, about 90%-- is maintained as natural or wilderness area, honeycombed with 800 miles of hiking trails, although there are about 384 miles of roads for motorized vehicles. Car-bound tourists can traverse the park from the north entrance, in Tennessee, to the south, in North Carolina, on the Newfound Gap Road.

By the standards of the Rockies or the Sierras, The Smoky Mountains are not particularly high or rugged. But the Smokies, in the southern portion of the Appalachian range, are probably the most impressive mountains in the eastern United States, and contain several of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.

In addition to the natural resources of forest, mountain, and stream, the park also provides a glimpse at the way of life of the people who inhabited the mountains and valleys years ago. Historical displays include fields, houses, barns, churches, mills, and may other types of buildings used by the people who lived in the area.


The area currently enclosed in the park was once the land of the Cherokees who arrived in the area around the year 1000. The Cherokees were a settled people with a fairly advanced society based on agriculture. However, by the late 1700's white settlers moved into the area the Cherokees began to be displaced. In 1819 the Cherokees ceded the land which presently comprises the park to the United States.

Over the next hundred years the settlers, many of whom were Scotch-Irish, established farms, small towns, and were generally self-sufficient and stable. By 1926 there were some 6000 small farms in existence within the area of the park. Remnants of the lives of these people can be seen in many areas of the park, including Cades Cove and the Oconoluftee Area.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

The early twentieth century saw the arrival of lumber companies and widespread cutting of timber, which lasted from about 1900 to 1920.

One of the first people to advocate for the establishment of a national park in the Smokies was W.P. Davis of Knoxville. He and his wife made a tour of western national parks, and returned with a question posed by Mrs. Davis about why there couldn't be a national park in the Great Smokies. The Davis's enthusiastic promotion planted the seed of the idea for a park. Another pioneer in pushing for the idea of a park was Horace Kephart who was one of the first to recognize the potential of conserving the natural characteristics of the Smokies. Kephart came to live in the Smokies in 1904 to escape personal problems, seeking out wilderness and a quiet life. He found what he was looking for in the mountains, and saw the tremendous value of wilderness and natural areas for others. In subsequent years Davis, Kephart, and others promoted the idea of the establishment of a national park. In 1923 a group in Knoxville, the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association, led by Colonel David Chapman, was formed to promote the idea of a national park in the Smokies. The work of photographer James E. Thompson, whose images allowed many to share the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, also contributed to the success of the national park concept.

Unlike parks in the western United States, where the land proposed for inclusion in the park was already owned by the federal government, most if not all of the land identified for a park in the Smokies was in private ownership and would have to be acquired through sale or in some cases condemnation. In many cases land was acquired from the families of people who had lived in the area for generations, but in fact 85% of the land which was eventually acquired was in the hands of timber and pulpwood companies. Millions of dollars were eventually raised to acquire the land needed to create the park, including a donation of $5 million from conservation and national park patron John D. Rockefeller Jr. (who also made major donations for Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Yosemite National Parks), millions donated by ordinary citizens, and a contribution from the federal government of over a million and a half dollars. Buying of land for the park began in 1926. Eventually, some 6600 tracts of land were transferred to public ownership. The last major track acquired, owned by the Champion Lumber Company and which included the 3 tallest peaks in the Smokies, was finally acquired after prolonged and contentious negotiations in 1931.

Because of this success, the park was finally and fully authorized in 1934. Acquiring land from residents whose families had lived in the land for generations was a painful process, and in fact some people whose land was acquired for inclusion in the park were given lifetime rights to continue to occupy their farms and homesteads.

The park was immediately successful, and in 1941 set a record for one year visitation of a national park of one million. It has continued to be the most popular park in terms of visitation in the entire national park system, and has been the most visited park annually since 1940 . In 1976 it was designated an International Biosphere Reserve.

Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains are ancient, among the oldest on earth. Rocks which comprise the landscape are as much as 900 million years old. The original mountains were formed by the collision of Africa and North America, an uplifting which first occurred 300 million years ago.

Although they don't compare to the rugged beauty of the Rockies, Tetons, Cascades, or Sierras, the Smoky Mountains, part of the southern Appalachian range, are the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. However, they are a shadow of what they once were, having possibly reached an altitude of 20,000 feet before the eons of erosion reduced them to their present dimensions.

The Smokies are the "master chain" of the Appalachians. The park itself features 16 peaks greater than 6,000 feet in altitude, topped by Clingman's Dome at 6,643 feet. The view below is typical of mountain views in the park, with mountain ridges separated by deep valleys--an inscribed ridge and valley topography.

The Smoky Mountains have been given their name because of the deep blue haze which characterizes views of the mountains much of the time. The Cherokee called the range "Shaconage"--the place of the blue smoke.

The haze or "smoke" is actually formed by water vapor which is emitted by the thick forests which cover the mountains and valleys in the park.

The land in the park is very rugged. 90% of the land area is characterized by slopes of 10% or greater. The steepness of this land, when combined with abundant rainfall, produces frequent landslides and debris flows.

Although some rocky peaks are evident in the Smoky Mountains, for the most part the peaks are covered by a thick carpet of vegetation. Some mountains are bare on the top, areas which are referred to as "balds."

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