The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the area is over 500,000 acres of pristine mountains, clear rushing streams and waterfalls, native wildlife, and pioneer homesteads. Over 95% of the park is forest, comprised of almost 150 species of trees. Many of these towering giants witnessed the first european settlers to the area.
The park enjoys more visitors each year than any other national park in the U.S. There are three official entrances to the park: just outside Gatlinburg, at Cherokee, and at Townsend. Part of the Appalachian chain, elevation ranges from 875 feet to 6,643 feet at the summit, Clingman’s Dome. These hills are ancient and were once three times higher than the present-day Rockies. Natural erosion have turned the jagged peaks into gentle rises with fertile topsoil to sustain the bounty of vegetation.
The scenery changes dramatically with the seasons. In Summer, rows and rows of verdant peaks rise from the blue-gray haze, as far as the eye can see. Autumn brings a kaleidoscope of brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, golds, and warm rusts to the myriad deciduous trees as they dress in their Fall spledor. In Winter, a hush falls over the misty mountains as snow descends on the peaks and valleys, dotted with evergreens. As the Winter ice melts, the hillsides come alive with the bright Spring greens of new growth and the colorful blossoms of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and wild orchids and lilies.
A drive through the park will reward visitors with unparalleled beauty as the mountain vistas rise in the distance. Wildlife abounds, and it’s common to spot a number of mammals from the road, including whitetail deer, bobcats, beavers, black bears, raccoons, coyotes, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, and even elk, which were introduced in 2001. 66 species of mammals call the Smokies home, along with 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians. The park is a paradise for bird watchers, with over 200 species of birds, including eagles, hawks, and wild turkeys.
Many fascinating points of interest lie in the park, including the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, the well preserved pioneer settlement at Cades Cove, the historic district at Roaring Fork, ancient Cherokee hunting grounds and pioneer cabins at Cataloochee, the Mountain Farm Museum, and various quaint grist mills and numerous other historic sites. Every twist and turn on the mountain drive reveals some interesting tidbit. It might be a cozy little farm in the valley, a cascading waterfall, a group of graceful deer bounding over a split-rail fence, a black bear ambling across the highway, or a flock of wild turkeys foraging in a meadow. The park offers a veritable smorgasboard for the eye.
In addition to all the natural flora and fauna and historical sites, there are several cities within the park or just outside its boundaries that offer many activities. Cherokee is owned by the Cherokee Nation and provides fishing, hiking, rafting, horseback riding, and gambling at a fabulous casino. The gem of the area is Gatlinburg, with all the amenities of most any resort town, including amusement parks, museums, galleries, a huge aquarium, year-round ice skating, activities for kids, and world-class shopping on its charming streets. Skiers come to Gatlinburg in the winter months to hit the slopes and to enjoy other cold-weather sports.
If you’ve never been to the Great Smoky Mountains, you just don’t know what you’re missing. Almost every nook and cranny offer spectacular views, unobstructed by manmade structures. There’s plenty to do and see to satisfy all ages, and the tranquil beaty of the area is truly balm for the soul in our frenetic times.