Located along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a nature lover’s paradise spanning more than 500,000 acres and welcoming more than 11 million visitors each year. In fact, it is recognized as the nation’s most visited park and just one visit will show you why.
First and most obviously, is the natural beauty of the park. As the most biodiverse park in the National Park System, it is home to over 19,000 species of animals, plants, fungi and other organisms. This includes 68 species of mammals, 67 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, 43 species of amphibians and over 200 species of birds. Because elevations within the park range from 850 feet to a whopping 6,643 feet, you’ll also find a wide variety of plant life here as well, which includes over 1,500 different species.
Although the majority of the park is covered in dense forest, it is possible to catch some of the wildlife in action by driving along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5.5 mile long one-way road that winds past streams, cabins, mills and other historic buildings, or by visiting some of the park’s open areas like Cades Cove or the Cataloochee Valley. Both can be seen from a self-guided auto tour or enjoyed by foot on one of the many hiking trails.
All total, there are 384 miles of roads in the park, most of which offer amazing views of the surrounding forest. Tour booklets with guidance such as landmarks, park history and wildlife information are available for certain roads including Newfound Gap Road and Upper Tremont Road, while the Smokies Road Guide highlights both main roads and scenic back roads.
If bicycling is more your style, be sure to check out the 11-mile one way loop around Cade’s Cove where you can enjoy a safe ride with excellent views. The Cataloochee Valley and Lakeview Drive are also suitable for bike riding, as well as the Oconaluftee River Trail outside of the city of Cherokee.
Scattered throughout the park, you’ll also see lots of historic buildings (over 90 of them) including barns, mills, churches, houses and schools, all of which have been preserved or rehabilitated to some degree, and some that have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Not only are they fascinating to look at, but they also give you a glimpse at what living in one of these historic communities may have been like. For the best opportunity to see some of these structures, be sure to visit Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Cataloochee and the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
You can also learn more history about the park by participating in one of the guided hikes or workshops that are offered by several of the park’s partner organizations. For hikes, check out the Friends of the Smokies or the Great Smoky Mountains Association, while the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the Smoky Mountain Field School both offer educational programs that will teach you all about the animals and plants that call the park home.