The Smoky Mountains are one of the most popular destinations in the United States. Even if you’ve traveled to this beautiful national park before, there may be some things you’ve never heard about the Smokies.
To fill you in on this incredible part of the country, we made this list of 10 amazing facts about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
1. There Are Over 800 Miles Of Hiking Trails in The Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the mountainous Tennessee-North Carolina border, is home to hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails and it’s even crossed by America’s most famous footpath, "The Appalachian Trail." This makes the Smokies a world-class destination for hikers.
With 800 miles of trails, you may wonder, has anyone actually hiked all of these trails? In fact, every year, new hikers join the 900 Miler Club, by hiking every trail in the park within the span of a year. In 2017, local hiker Benny Braden set the record for the fastest completion of the 900-mile challenge by hiking every trail in the park in two months and 19 days.
2. Home To A Synchronous Firefly Event
Every year in late May and early June, the Smokies are home to one of the most spectacular natural displays in the world: thousands of fireflies blinking off and on at the same time. This incredible sight occurs at the peak of a particular species’ mating season and can be viewed at Elkmont Campground in the national park.
Not only is the synchronous firefly event awe-inspiring, it’s also exceptionally rare. Displays of this size and splendor can only be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Southeast Asian mangrove forests in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
3. Home To One Of the Only Elk Herds In The Eastern US
Elk used to range throughout most of North America, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, by the 19th century, overhunting and habitat loss caused the Eastern Elk to become completely extinct.
Luckily, Elk from the western US have been reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains and a handful of other locations in the Eastern US. Today, you can see this elk herd in Oconaluftee Valley region of the Smokies. Bull Elk can weigh around 700 pounds and are the largest animal in the park, so please exercise caution and keep a safe distance when viewing these impressive creatures.
4. Greatest Concentration of Biodiversity in the US National Park System
This 800 square miles of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is host to a dazzling variety of climates and habitats. Inside the national park boundaries, over 19,000 species have been documented and there may be as many as 80,000 to 100,000 more species to discover.
Why are the Smokies so diverse? The changes in elevation within the park produce a wide range of habitats. Tall mountain peaks like Mt. LeConte are home to high elevation Spruce-Fir forests while low-lying valleys like Cades Cove are home to cove hardwood forests. These different habitats support a variety plants, animals, fungi, and insects.
In 1976, the national park was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve due to the stunning array of life it supports. Some great hiking trails that highlight the park's incredible diversity of life are the Alum Cave Trail and the Porters Creek Trail. Driving up Newfound Gap road to Newfound Gap is another way to get a quick survey of all the different plant and animal life in the Smokies.
The Great Smoky Mountains is an excellent tool for finding rare plants and animals in the park.
5. The Great Smoky Mountains Are Home To Giant Salamanders
Of all of the amazing creatures you can see inside the national park, one of the most stunning and rare inhabitants of the national park is the Eastern Hellbender Salamander, the 3rd largest salamander in the world and a truly bizarre-looking animal.
These strange amphibians can weight 3 to 5 pounds and can live up to 30 years in captivity. The Smokies are known as the Salamander Capital of the World and are home to 24 species of salamanders. An excellent hiking trail for seeing salamanders is the Meigs Creek Trail, which begins at the Sinks Waterfall.
6. Two Bears Per Square Mile
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an estimated 1,600 black bears. Since Smokies encompass only 800 square miles of wilderness, that means that there are about 2 per square mile inside the national park.
This high density of bears makes this national park an excellent place to see them in the wild! In fact, on busy summer days, it’s common to witness "a bear jam," where a long line of vehicles forms from motorists pausing to take pictures of black bears by the roadside. Some hot spots for seeing black bears are the Cades Cove Loop Road and the Newfound Gap Road. Be sure to keep a safe distance while enjoying the black bears of the Smokies and be sure to bring your camera!
7. The Smokies has 2,900 miles of streams
A recent survey of waterways in the national park concluded that there are nearly 2,900 miles of streams inside the Smokies. As a temperate rainforest, the Smokies receives around 79 inches of precipitation annually, so there’s plenty of water flowing in streams and rivers in the park.
All of these streams are open for fishing and about 20% of them are large enough to support trout. As a result, the Smokies are a popular destination for trout fishermen who come to fish for rainbow trout and native brook trout.
8. Some of the Oldest Mountains in the World
Though the Smokies are definitely not the tallest mountains, they may be some of the oldest in the world. Geologists estimate that the Appalachian Mountains are 200 to 300 million years old. When the Smokies were first formed by tectonic shifts, they probably stood as tall as today’s Rockies. Over millions of years, forces such as erosion, freezing, thawing, and wind have worn away at the mountains, creating the incredible landscape we enjoy today.
9. Mountain Top Temperatures Never Go Above 80 Degrees
Thanks to their elevation, tall peaks in the Smoky Mountains are generally cooler than valleys and nearby communities. In fact, high elevation regions in the national park like Newfound Gap, Mt. LeConte, and Clingman’s Dome are often 10 degrees cooler than nearby Gatlinburg, TN.
Famously, a weather station on Mt. LeConte has never recorded a temperature above 80° F. On the other hand, the tall peaks can be quite chilly. In 1986, this same weather station recorded a temperature of -32°F, a reading you’d expect to find in Antartica, but not in sunny Tennessee.
For mountaintop weather reports, check out the High On Leconte blog to plan your hiking trip or just to see pictures of the beautiful scenery on this iconic peak.
Mt. LeConte is can only be accessed by hiking trails, but the nearby peak of Clingman's Dome can be reached via the Clingman's Dome road which is open during the warmer months.
10. The Most Visited National Park in the US
In 2016, more than 11.3 million people visited The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For many years, the Smokies have boasted the highest visitation of any park in the national park system. For comparison, the next most-visited parks are the Grand Canyon, that receives 4.6 million annual visits, and Yosemite, which has 3.8 million.
With a dramatic landscape, impressive wildlife, and a remarkable cultural history, it’s no wonder so many people come to visit the Great Smoky Mountains year after year.
Bonus History Fact
Prior to the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s, many people called the Smokies home, so it’s not uncommon to see old cabins and the ruins of homeplaces as you explore through the park. One little-known structure that used to exist in the park was Ft. Harry, a civil war era fort that was built near the present-day route of the Newfound Gap road. This Confederate-controlled fort was used as a way to control this route through the mountains and to protect the saltpeter mines of Alum Cave Bluffs Though nothing of the fort remains today, you can visit the fort which was located near the Chimney’s picnic area.
Come explore this beautiful part of the nation today! We’d love to hear your thoughts! What are your favorite things about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Are there any interesting facts that we left out? We’d love to hear about it in our comments section!
Written by Hayden Brown