The fact invariably stated about Great Smoky is this: It is the nation’s busiest park, drawing more than nine million visitors a year, twice the number of any other national park. Most of the millions see the park from a mountain-skimming scenic highway that, on a typical weekend day during the summer, draws 60,000 people, bumper-to-bumper. Luckily, there is plenty of park, thinly laced by 384 miles of mountain roads. You can pull off the road, park the car, and stroll one of Great Smoky’s many Quiet Walkways, quarter-mile paths into what the signs call a “little bit of the world as it once was.” Eight hundred miles of hiking trails, from a half-mile to 70 miles long, also give you that world. Relatively few visitors walk the trails; most prefer to stay in their cars.
The park, established on 15 June 1934, covers 800 square miles (521,896 acres) of mountainous terrain across North Carolina and Tennessee, preserves the world’s best examples of deciduous forest and a matchless variety of plants and animals. Because it contains so many types of eastern forest vegetation—much of it old growth—the park has been designated an international biosphere reserve. The Smoky Mountains are among the oldest on Earth. Ice Age glaciers stopped their southward journey just short of these mountains, which became a junction of southern and northern flora. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thrust from the weathered rocks. Amid the woodland and craggy peaks bloom more than 1,600 species of flowering plants, some found only here. Shrubs take over in places, creating tree-free zones called heath balds, laurel slicks (because of the shiny leaves), or just plain hells (because they are so hard to get through).
The tangle of brush and trees forms a close-packed array of air-breathing leaves. The water and hydrocarbons exuded by the leaves produce the filmy “smoke” that gives the mountains their name. Air pollution in recent years has added microscopic sulfate particles to the haze, cutting visibility back about 60 per cent since the 1950s. The pollution has also affected the park’s red spruce stand—the southern Appalachians’ largest. And insects are destroying the Fraser fir, the spruce’s high-altitude companion.
The park also preserves the humble churches, cabins, farmhouses, and barns of the mountain people who began settling here in the late 1700s. Most people left when the park was founded, but some chose to stay and live out their lives here. The park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Many people who live in the Eastern third of the U.S. can reach the park in a day. The Great Smoky Mountains are home to over 100 native species of trees, more than are found in northern Europe. At 480 feet, Fontana Dam, on the southwestern boundary of the park, is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: National Geographic Society.