Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains. Get to know more about the national park that made this area everything it is today! On this page, we’re quoting from the official National Park Service website on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and providing a sort-of compact introduction to the information their website offers. We recommend nps.gov as the first go-to online resource for all information on the Smoky Mountains and information suchs as events, weather, closings, and other things visitors would need to know as they will be the first website to be updated and stay up to date on that information.
A Wondrous Diversity of Life Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.
Great Smoky Mountains is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system. Biological diversity, or ‘biodiversity’, means the number and variety of different types of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms in a location or habitat. Encompassing over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, no other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park’s amazing diversity. Over 19,000 species have been documented in the park and scientists believe an additional 80,000-100,000 species may live here. In partnership with the University of Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has created a series of tools to help people engage with the park’s natural resources.
In 1998, the Smokies began a park-wide biological inventory of all life forms; this project is referred to as an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory or ATBI. The goal of an ATBI is to determine what species live in the park, their distribution, and their ecological community. Scientists have discovered nearly 10,000 species that were not previously known from the park, and many of these (~1000) had never been seen anywhere in the world before; they were new to science. The extraordinary diversity of this park led to the park’s designation as a United Nations World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. The ATBI in the Smokies is coordinated by our non-profit partner Discover Life in America, or DLIA. Together, the park and DLIA have made tremendous progress, and the ATBI has grown to become the largest sustained natural history inventory in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.
Bears in the Smokies
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings.
Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate that roughly 1,500 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear’s range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. However loss of habitat has resulted in a significant reduction in this range.
Black bears in the Smokies are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical adult male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds while adult females are generally smaller and weigh slightly over 100 pounds. However, bears may double their weight by the fall. Bears over 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, however bears which have had access to human foods and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time.
Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears.
Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.
Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year with every season offering is own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy.
Here are some of the most popular destination hikes in the park:
One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. Five miles roundtrip is a good maximum distance for novices.
Hiking with children? Kid-friendly hikes are an excellent way to learn and enjoy the outdoors.
Thinking about a multi-day backpacking trip? Reservations and permits are required for all overnight stays in the park’s backcountry. When choosing your route, check the Backcountry section of the Temporary Road and Facilities Closures page to determine if the trail you are considering is open and that there are no warnings or special notices posted for it.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a world-renowned preserve of wildflower diversity—over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants are found in the park, more than in any other North American national park. You can see where to find many of these flowers on the Species Mapper. In fact, the park is sometimes referred to as the “Wildflower National Park.” From the earliest hepaticas and spring-beauties in the late winter to the last asters in the late fall, blooming flowers can be found year-round in the park.
A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals begins the yearly show. Ephemerals are so named because they appear above ground only in late winter and early spring, then flower, fruit, and die back within a short two month period. They emerge from February through April, and are gone (dormant) by May or June.
This remarkable group of plants is adapted to the rhythm of the overstory trees. Ephemerals appear before deciduous trees leaf out, when full sunlight is streaming to the forest floor. This is also a time when soil moisture is high and soil nutrients are plentiful due to the decomposition of tree leaves that fell the previous autumn. The ephemerals exploit these conditions—they flower, fruit, and their above-ground parts decay before summer gets into full swing. The peak of spring wildflower blooming usually occurs in mid- to late-April at lower elevations in the park, and a few weeks later on the highest peaks.
In summer the display continues with brilliant red cardinal flowers, pink turtleheads, Turk’s cap lily, small purple-fringed orchids, bee-balm, butterfly-weed, black-eyed susans, jewel weed, and many others. By late summer and through the fall, goldenrod, wide-leaved sunflowers, tall ironweed, mountain gentian, monk’s hood, coneflowers, and numerous varieties of asters begin to bloom. Purple umbels of sweet Joe-Pye-weed stretch towards the sky and can reach heights of ten feet.
Be A Junior Ranger
Junior Rangers are critical to the success of the National Park Service’s to protect special places and stories. Junior Rangers are learners and leaders. There’s a lot of ways to be a great Junior Ranger; whether you teach others about keeping a safe distance from wildlife, or by learning more and more about the world around you. .However you want to be your best Junior Ranger, we have a variety of options to get you started.
Connecting Future Junior Rangers through Digital Activities
Below you will find several activities you and your future Junior Ranger can complete. Want your badge? After completing any of the activities on this page, or at www.smokieees.org Print this badge. Design and color it to match your own Junior Ranger values.
Find Your “Virtual” Park
National parks offer extraordinary experiences, but it’s not always possible to get to a park in person. Fortunately we have ways to connect with national parks from a distance through digital opportunities and activities to do in your own home or neighborhood. There are enough activities to keep you occupied for days! Find some suggestions below to engage with parks remotely and check for additional opportunities on park and NPS program websites.
NPS partners also have interesting ways to stay connected with national parks on their websites and social media, including live tours, kids activities, reading lists, digital suggestions, and more. Check out the National Park Foundation’s suggestions for Park Activities You Can Do from the Comfort of Your Home or Take a Virtual Visit to a National Park.