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A Brief Park History

From its inception in 1923, the idea for creating a national park of thesmokey mountains travel Smoky Mountains area was fraught with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Financial, cultural and political issues were overcome to create what is today the most visited national park in our American Park system. Read a brief history of how the Great Smoky Mountains National Park came about and who the dedicated and visionary individuals were that stuck with the effort for 17 years until the Park’s dedication in 1940.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most visited part of the Park – and for good reason. This fertile mountaingreat smoky mountains, fall color, tn, nc valley is surrounded on all sides by mountains. An 11-mile one-way loop road winds around the valley, with stops at preserved pioneer structures. A visitor’s center with pioneer exhibits, a 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls, abundant wildlife, campgrounds, bike rentals, spectacular foliage in autumn, and facilities for horseback riding all make Cades Cove a complete visitor’s sampler of all the Park has to offer. Plan on spending the day – pack a lunch.


North Carolina’s answer to Cades Cove – without the crowding. Interestingly, Cataloochee had a greater population (approximately 1,200) at its peak than Cades Cove. Well off the beaten path, Cataloochee offers historic structures, opportunities for hiking, campgrounds, and spectacular vistas. It doesn’t offer quite as much as Cades Cove, so isn’t as crowded – but that’s the attraction for many people.

Auto Touring

If we can’t convince you to get out of your vehicle and enjoy the very best the Park has to offer (150 maintained hiking trails totaling 800 miles, mountain vistas, old growth forests, nature trails, trout streams) then try some of these fantastic auto tours!

Park Entrances

There are six entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Besides the two main entrances at Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina, there’s an entrance at Townsend, Tennessee (billed as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”) and three lesser-known entrances at Cosby, Cataloochee, and Wears Valley. Gatlinburg and Cherokee are at the northern and southern terminus of Newfound Gap Road – the only road that completely traverses the Park. In addition, there are more opportunities for lodging at these two points of the Park boundary.

Visitor Centers

Park visitor centers are maintained in three locations within the Park. At either end of Newfound Gap Road (the only road that completely.traverses the Park) visitor centers are open daily at Sugarlands (by Gatlinburg TN) and Oconoluftee (near Cherokee NC). The third visitor center is located in Cades Cove midway around the 11-mile loop road.

Visitor centers maintain naturalist exhibits, provide Park literature such as trail maps, self guided tours, and books, and Park Rangers are on-hand to answer all Park-related questions.


Before a handful of brilliant folks began the process to charter it as a national park, two-thirds of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains was owned by logging companies. For three decades, the Little River Lumber Company cut and hauled away great portions of one of the country’s greatest deciduous forests. A visit to Tremont (enter the Park from Townsend, Tennessee and turn right at the “Y”, then travel approximately 1 mile to the Tremont entrance) and its self-guided tour will give you a good idea of the lumber operation that existed. The road follows the old railroad bed and parallels Little River as it passes through the area that was a company-owned town. The Little River Lumber Company also built two other such “towns” – at Townsend and Elkmont. After a monumental effort, all the land now comprising the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (over 500,000 acres) was purchased from more than 6,000 individual owners, including several lumber companies, and the Park was created in 1934. The last load of timber came out of Little River in 1938, and it’s estimated that more than one billion board feet of lumber was extracted from the virgin forest of the Great Smokies – enough to build 100,000 three-bedroom homes.


Tom Branch Falls in the SmokiesThe Smoky Mountains contain many wonderful streams and waterfalls – many of which are rewards for trekking the well-maintained hiking trails. The easiest to get to is Laurel Falls (it’s paved for the handicapped) is just off Little River Road between the Sugarlands Visitors Center (which is near near Gatlinburg) and the “Y” to Townsend. The tallest and, arguably, most exciting is Ramsay Cascades. Chuck Summers has taken some superior photos of many of the waterfalls in the Smokies.


One-hundred fifty maintained hiking trails totaling more than 800 miles crisscross the Park. Many parallel trout streams and lead to waterfalls. Several hikes are featured within these pages. They offer great opportunities to get out of your vehicle to view wildflowers in spring, fantastic mountain vistas in winter, fall foliage in the autumn, and record-size trees in summer.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies (6,643 feet). Some days it’s in the cloudsView From Clingmans Dome (see photo below), but on clear days it affords spectacular 360 degree views of the Park (photo right). To get to Clingmans Dome, you want to be on Newfound Gap Road (the only road which completely traverses the Park). One-tenth of a mile south from Newfound Gap you will turn onto Clingmans Dome Road. From there, you’ll travel 7 miles, passing several pullouts for views, and end up in a parking area from which you walk a short distance to the top of the mountain. The turnoff to Clingmans is about 25 miles from Cherokee or 22 miles from Gatlinburg. Open from April through December, the road to Clingmans Dome is closed in winter.

Newfound Gap Road

The only road that completely traverses the Park, Newfound Gap Road runs the 33 miles between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg TN. This road has so much to offer in the way of nature walks, hikes, mountain views, and historic structures, that we devote a much longer article (with great photos) about the Newfound Gap Road experience.

Mt. LeConte

One of the Park’s finest features – from afar or up close – Mt. LeConte hosts five great hiking trails to the top. One of the most popular hikes to Mt. LeConte is the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. Mt. LeConte also boasts the only lodging within the Park: Mt. LeConte Lodge – Cabins. Accessible only by trail and available only by reservation, Mt. LeConte Lodge and the views of the Smokies Mt. LeConte affords the hardy hiker are well worth the effort. Call 423.429.5704 forClingman’s Dome Tower, great smoky mountains national park, tn reservations, which should be made several months in advance.

Old Growth Forests

Saved from the huge lumber companies when the Park was established, some virgin stands of old-growth trees exist in the Great Smokies. The American Forests organization reports that the Smokies contain 21 national champion sized trees. Will Blozan, a North Carolina arborist has discovered 30 champion-sized trees throughout the southern Appalachians. The Greenbrier section of the Park is home to several beauties. For example, there’s a black cherry that has a circumference of 210 inches and a northern red oak measuring 257 inches.

Appalachian Trail

Sixty nine of the 2,015 miles that make up the Appalachian Trail cross the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains, serving as a border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The AT serves as a backbone to which several major Smokies hiking trails connect. Learn more about the Appalachian Trail.

Wildflower Pilgrimage

Asters, wildflower, great smoky mountains, tn, north carolinaThe 49th annual Wildflower Pilgrimage will be held 22-24 April this year. Conducted by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, the Pilgrimage consists of nearly 100 guided long and short walks, auto tours, talks and demonstrations to view wildflowers, trees, ferns, geology, and more. You don’t have to be a biology major to appreciate this event – it’s designed for the average Park visitor. The cost is normally $8 for adults and $5 for students. Children under 13 are free. Write GSMNP, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738 or call 423.436.1200.

Horseback Riding

Despite the damage horses do to trails, horseback riding is still supported in the Great Smoky Mountains. Both drive-in camps and horses-for-hire are available.

Renting a Horse

Want to rent a horse in the Smokies? Horseback riding at an hourly rate is available from March until late November at 4 stables located within the National Park. Rates are about $20 per hour (subject to change). Some weight and age limits apply. Call the numbers below if you are interested in for operating hours and hourly rates.

Horse Riding Locations

Cades Cove, near Townsend, TN (865) 448-6286
(also offers hayrides and carriage rides)
Smokemont, near Cherokee, NC (828) 497-2373
Sugarlands, near Gatlinburg, TN (865) 436-3535.


Outstanding Universal Value

Brief Synthesis

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a major North American refuge of temperate zone flora and fauna that survived the Pleistocene glaciations. The park includes the largest remnant of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era left in the world, and provides an indication of the appearance of late Pleistocene flora.  It is large enough to allow the continuing biological evolution of this natural system, and its biological diversity exceeds that of other temperate-zone protected areas of comparable size. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with undisturbed, virgin forest including the largest block of virgin red spruce remaining on earth.

Criterion (vii): The site is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Criterion (viii): Great Smoky Mountains National Park is of world importance as the outstanding example of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era, providing an indication of what the late Pleistocene flora looked like before recent human impacts.

Criterion (ix): The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest remaining remnants of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era in the world. It is large enough to be a significant example of continuing biological evolution of this natural system.

Criterion (x): The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most ecologically rich and diverse temperate zone protected areas in the world. There are over 1300 native vascular plant species, including 105 native tree species, plus nearly 500 species of non-vascular plants — a level of floristic diversity that rivals or exceeds other temperate zone protected areas of similar size. The park is also home to the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species (31) — an important indicator of overall ecosystem health — and is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders, with 24 species. 


At over 209,000 hectares, the property is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems in the southern Appalachian mountains, and contains one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old growth forests remaining in North America. Over 90% of the property is managed for wilderness values. The park adjoins several national forests on parts of its boundary, providing some additional protection and connectivity to the larger landscape.

In spite of the park’s size, it does face important challenges. Air pollution from outside park boundaries diminishes park views, damages plant life and degrades high elevation streams and soils. Non-native insects and invasive plant species threaten forest health, with potentially serious impacts on several tree species including hemlock, fir and ash. Non-native wild hogs can also have locally significant impacts on the park and park staff are also taking measures against several species of non-native trout.

One potential threat was resolved with a recent agreement not to build the long-proposed North Shore Road, thereby assuring protection to a significant portion of the property. 

Of note is the All-Taxa Biological Inventory, a concentrated effort to identify and record every single species within the park. This will greatly assist park management in understanding and protecting the park’s resources.

Protection and management requirements

Designated by the U.S. Congress in 1934 as a national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is managed under the authority of the Organic Act of August 25, 1916 which established the United States National Park Service. In addition, the park has specific enabling legislation which provides broad congressional direction regarding the primary purposes of the park. Numerous other federal laws bring additional layers of protection to the park and its resources, including the Clean Air Act. Day to day management is directed by the Park Superintendent. 

Management goals and objectives for the property have been developed through a General Management Plan, which has been supplemented in recent years with more site-specific planning exercises as well as numerous plans for specific issues and resources. In addition, the National Park Service has established Management Policies which provide broader direction for all National Park Service units, including Great Smoky Mountains.

Park management plans for the property have identified a number of resource protection measures, such as environmental assessment processes, zoning, ecological integrity and visitor monitoring, and education programs to address pressures arising from issues both inside and outside the property, including air pollution and non-native invasive species. The park has a robust research program with over 140 research permits issued in a given year. Air quality and water quality are closely monitored in the park along with several other vital signs indicating the health of the ecosystem. These other vital signs include brook trout distribution, aquatic macro-invertebrates, vegetation, soil chemistry and climate change. Extensive pest management efforts are in place to reduce the impact of forests pests and exotic, invasive plants on the integrity of the ecosystem.


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