Fog lingers among the forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Water and hydrocarbons exuded by trees produce the filmy "smoke" that gives the mountains their name.
Everything to know about Great Smoky Mountains
Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border sits a national park of stunning biodiversity and epic hikes.
BY THE TIME Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the United States, was established it was almost too late to save it.
It was 1934; about 80 percent of the forest in the park had been decimated by logging. Much of the land belonged to 1,200 small property owners. It took the governments of Tennessee and North Carolina, donations from wealthy conservationists, the U.S. Park Service, and a whole lot of work to buy out the loggers and landowners, and to restore the Great Smoky Mountains to their glory.
As the mountains regrew their 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species, the haze that gives the Smokies their name filled the mountain valleys in the early morning. The shaconage, as the Cherokee people call it, or “place of blue smoke,” is caused by moisture and organic compounds emitted by the dense vegetation, especially on still summer days.
The Smokies are known for their incredible biodiversity; it’s said that moving from the lowest to highest elevations within the park is the biological equivalent of traveling from Georgia to Maine. More than 1,500 species of flowering plants, 240 types of birds, and around 50 kinds of fish live there.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has five visitor centers, ideal starting points for your journey. Here are our favorite points of departure for exploring the park.
Hiking Mount LeConte could be the bucket-list item for the Smokies. LeConte Lodge sits close to the summit of Mount LeConte, at 6,360 feet the third highest peak in the park. There is no driving to the summit; hiking in is the only way to get there. Built on the site of a tent camp erected in around 1926 to house visiting dignitaries, LeConte Lodge hosts day trippers as well as overnight guests. Spectacular sunrises and uninterrupted nature at LeConte Lodge welcome hikers to the only National Park Service lodging in the park.
Wears Valley, just outside the Tennessee side of the park, has pastoral views and its own lesser known park entrance. The other Tennessee park gates, especially the one in Gatlinburg, get congested at peak times of year. But the Wears Valley entrance just south of Townsend is where many locals enter the park.
Synchronous fireflies light up late spring with their annual stupendous display of nature. At least 19 species of fireflies live in Great Smoky Mountains and the males and females of one species synchronize their bioluminescent flashing. Combined with all of the other fireflies that reach adulthood at the end of April/beginning of May, it’s a light display to rival Fourth of July fireworks. But plan ahead: A free lottery determines who gets to ride the shuttle into the park on certain dates to view the night lights.
Quiet cemeteries may not be for everyone, but they’re certainly excellent places to relax. This national park contains more than 150 cemeteries from tiny plots with just a few headstones to hundreds. Not all of the burial places in the park are marked, but keep an eye out for periwinkle. According to local author Gail Palmer, European settlers planted periwinkle on graves to keep away evil spirits.
ENTER THE PARK FROM NORTH CAROLINA OR TENNESSEE
North Carolina: Located just outside Cherokee, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the starting point for most visitors entering the park from North Carolina. In addition to a sizable bookstore and information desk, the center offers exhibits on Smoky Mountains history, in particular the Cherokee Indians and the early European settlers and their ancestors. Behind the visitor center, the Mountain Farm Museum gives insight into the lives of the people who once farmed the region, with hands-on exhibits and historic buildings brought from elsewhere in the park. Just up the road, the Mingus Mill is a relic of the days when corn was the region’s main crop and water-driven mills the mechanism for grinding it into flour and cornmeal.