IF you said the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) – you’re absolutely RIGHT – this is the most visited U.S. national park with 8 to 10 million annual visits.That’s 2X as many visitors as at any other national park.Unlike most other national parks, there is no entry fee to the park.
WHY? The reason for free entry dates to the 1930s. The land that today encompasses GSMNP was once privately owned. The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, and local communities, paid to construct Newfound Gap Road (US-441) which runs through the park.
In 1936,Tennessee transferred ownership of this road to the federal government, and stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed …” to travel the road. Newfound Gap Road was then one of the major routes crossing the southern Appalachian Mountains; the state was concerned with maintaining free, easy interstate access. North Carolina transferred its roads through abandonment, so no restrictions were imposed. If GSMNP ever wanted to charge an entrance fee, it would take action by the Tennessee legislature to lift this deed restriction.
About 100 native tree species make their home in Great Smoky Mountains National Park — more than in all of northern Europe. The park also contains one of the largest blocks of old-growth temperate deciduous forest in North America.
It is often called the “Wildflower National Park.” Peak 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. Spring ephemerals include flowers such as trillium (the park has 10 different species), lady slipper orchids, showy orchis, crested dwarf iris, fire pink, columbine, bleeding heart, phacelia, jack-in-the-pulpit, little brown jugs, and violets.
Ephemerals are so named because they appear above ground only in late winter and early spring, then flower, fruit, and die back in a short 2-month period, emerging from February through April, and gone (dormant) by May or June.
These are some of the flowers in bloom the day we visited.
Sorry, no photos as we missed seeing any bears during our visit, but saw several groundhogs and lots of black-capped chickadees.
The GSMNP straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park. Nearby Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend and Cherokee, Sylva, Maggie Valley, and Bryson City in North Carolina receive a significant portion of their income from tourism associated with the park.
The two main visitors' centers in the park are Sugarlands Visitors' Center near the Gatlinburg, TN entrance and Oconaluftee Visitors' Center near Cherokee, NC. Ranger stations provide exhibits on wildlife, geology, history of the park, and sell books, maps, and souvenirs.
Establishing most of the older parks located in the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was different than creating GSMNP. In those cases, Congress carved parks from government-owned lands owned, usually where no one wanted to live.
But people were living in the current GSMNP areas. Land was owned by small farmers and large timber and paper companies. Farmers didn’t want to leave family homesteads; corporations didn’t want to abandon huge forests of timber, miles of railroad, logging equipment, and villages of employee housing.
In the late 1890s, people talked about a public land preserve in the southern Appalachians; a bill entered the NC legislature, but failed. By the early 20th century, Northerners and Southerners were calling for some type of preserve: a national park or a national forest.
What’s the difference? In a national forest, consumptive use of renewable resources is permitted; but in a national park, the environment and resources are protected for everyone to enjoy.
In May, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill that provided for the establishment of the GSMNP and Shenandoah National Park, allowing the Department of the Interior to assume responsibility for administration and protection of a park in the Smoky Mountains after 150,000 acres of land had been purchased.
The government was not allowed to buy land for national park use, so fund raising was started. In the late 1920s, the Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures each appropriated $2 million for land purchases, money was also raised by individuals and private groups. By 1928, $5 million had been raised, but land costs had doubled. The Rockefeller Memorial Fund gave $5 million for purchase of the remaining land.
Farms and timbering operations were abolished to establish the protected area of the park. Mountain homesteaders, miners, and loggers were evicted – 6.000 small farms, large tracts, and other parcels were surveyed, appraised, and sometimes condemned. Timber and paper companies had valuable equipment and inventory which required compensation. The park was officially established in June 1934. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and other federal organizations made trails, fire watchtowers, and other improvements to the park.
- Bears over 1,500 black bears live in the park, which equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile.
- Hiking there are over 800 miles of trails ranging from quiet walkways to multi-day backpacking backcountry treks.
- Historic Buildings GSMNP has one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States. Nearly 80 historic structures — homes, barns, churches, schools, and grist mill.
- Waterfalls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.
- Fontana Dam is the tallest dam in the eastern United States, and is located near Fontana Village, North Carolina.
- Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee visitor’s center is a unique collection of farm buildings assembled from locations throughout the park.
- Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet this is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hiked the half mile up and half-mile down. (MORE in an upcoming post.)