Great Smoky Mountains

views updated May 08 2018

Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains (GSM) National Park covers approximately 543,400 acres (220,000 ha) of western North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee, making the park the single largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. The mountains received their name from the Cherokee for the smoke-like clouds which frequently shroud their peaks and the grey-green haze of the wooded slopes. In early fall, this grey-green haze becomes a blaze of autumnal colors. The GSM are known for their large stands of some of the world's best remaining examples of temperate deciduous forest , and for their "balds" or treeless mountain tops. The park's size, scenic beauty, and geographical proximity to large population centers are features that contribute to attracting more visitors annually than any other national park (including the somewhat better-known Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon National Parks).

The GSM are situated in what had been one of the least accessible areas of the eastern United States. Natural barriers contributed to relatively low levels of development and exploitation through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. GSM National Park was authorized in 1926. Land purchase (funded in part by a five million dollar donation from foundations associated with the Rockefeller family) began in 1930 and was established through an act of Congress in June of 1934. The Park was formally dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. In 1976, the Park was recognized as a biosphere reserve , and in 1983 the GSM were selected as a World Heritage Site.

The GSM contain several of the highest mountain peaks in the United States east of the Mississippi River. The Park's Mt. Guyot, Mt. Chapman, and Mt. Leconte all tower over 6,000 ft (1,830 m). At 6,643 ft (2,025 m), Clingman's Dome, on the Tennessee side, is the highest point in the Park, as well as the crest of the Appalachian Trail. This peak was named after General Thomas L. Clingman, a soldier and scientist who, while exploring the area with Arnold Guyot in the late nineteenth century, was the first to measure the summit's elevation.

Among the oldest mountains in the world, the GSM also contain some of the oldest rock strata in the eastern United States. Sheetlike layers of slate (a fine-grained rock originally formed from mud sediment ) create jagged outcrops of spectacularly-angled rock, glinting in areas where mica deposits (a sparkling mineral formed when slate is heated) show through to the surface. The slate that makes up much of the jagged central ridge line tells the story of how the mountains were formed by repeated elevations rather than by one single geological event. The bedrock ranges in age from about 600 million1 billion years and exhibits a range of different characteristics owing to metamorphoses caused by the heat and violence of geological shifts.

More than 148,200 acres (60,000 ha) of GSM National Park are pristine or primitive. Early in the summer, the characteristic "balds" of the GSM (clear, treeless patches on the summits) are brightened by rhododendron blooms around their peripheries. Several varieties of spruce, buckeye, birch, hemlock, dogwood are also common. The abundant sunshine and frequent rain of the region help support over 1,500 species of flowering plants, including eight species of trillium, 32 species of violets, and 29 species of orchids. During the last ice age , the highlands were a refuge for northern plant species displaced by the continental ice sheet. Remnants of some of these species, including red spruce and Fraser fir, can still be found at the higher elevations but virtually nowhere else at this latitude. The Park contains the largest virgin forests of red spruce and balsam fir, and the finest virgin hardwood forests left in the United States. Indeed, the slopes of the GSM may support more virgin timber than the rest of the eastern United States combined. In the fall, when the green chlorophyll in deciduous leaves begins to break down, these forests put on a spectacular show of color. Fall colors generally peak between October 1525, when up and down the mountains may be seen the brilliant reds of maples, golden yellow of beech, and the deeper hues of oaks and more southerly species. But Park visitation also peaks at this time, and those visitors who use the main roads through the Park frequently find themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams with other nature-lovers.

Despite the huge annual invasion of tourists and hikers, GSM National Park nevertheless still supports abundant wildlife . Wild hogs, white-tailed deer, turkey, groundhogs, and ruffed grouse are among the species that can be seen and/or heard in the back country. Black bear have done particularly well under the protection and management of the National Park Service , to the extent that they have become habituated to the presence of humans and frequent rest-stops, campsites, and picnic areas. Campers, hikers, and even day trippers in vehicles need to be knowledgeable about bear behavior and about food storage and garbage disposal procedures which help to minimize unwanted attention from the bears.

Several species of trout are found in abundance in the cool and clear mountain streams. Estimating conservatively, about 250 species of birds may be seen in the Park at various times during the year, 165 of these species being resident. The avian population includes twenty varieties of warbler, thirty of finch, and twenty of geese and ducks. The higher elevations provide habitat for ravens and hawks, as well as occasional peregrine falcons and eagles.

GSM National Park also contains approximately 72 mi (116 km) of the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the crest of the Appalachians all the way from Mt. Katahdin, a granite monolith in Maine, south to Springer Mountain in Georgia. In the Park, the Appalachian Trail runs from the Pigeon River to the Little Tennessee River, and here can be found the highest, roughest, and some of the most scenic segments of the entire route. Over 900 mi (1,450 km) of other trails provide hikers and horseback riders with access to dozens of waterfalls, mountain meadows, and scenic, grassy balds.

[Lawrence J. Biskowski ]

Great Smoky Mountains

views updated May 23 2018


GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS, part of the Appalachian Mountains that run along the North Carolina–Tennessee boundary, are about fifty miles long with sixteen peaks above six thousand feet. Originally known as the Iron Mountains, they were inhabited by Cherokee Indians until about 1789. Little about the Smokies was recorded until Samuel B. Buckley, Thomas L. Clingman, and Arnold Henry Guyot explored them in the 1850s. Guyot published the first comprehensive scientific study of the whole region. The mountains are so called because of a blue haze that looks like rising smoke, characteristic of the region. The Great Smoky Mountains became a national park in 1934.


Brown, Margaret Lynn. The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Frome, Michael. Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966; Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980, 1993.

Pierce, Daniel S. The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

Hugh T.Lefler/h. s.

See alsoAppalachia .

Great Smoky Mountains

views updated May 23 2018

Great Smoky Mountains Part of the Appalachians, on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, USA. One of the oldest ranges on Earth, it includes the largest virgin forest of red spruce. The region is renowned for its flora and fauna. Early 20th-century exploitation of the region was restricted by the establishment of a national park. The highest point is Clingmans Dome, 2026m (6643ft). Area: 2090sq km (806sq mi).