Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s Favorite

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s Favorite

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With more than 9 million guests each year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited site in the National Park system. It’s not difficult to see why: some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States, an ecosystem that contains 100,000 different types of plants and animals, 850 miles of hiking trails, brilliant fall color, impressive waterfalls, top-notch camping sites and more than 90 historic structures make the Smokies one of America’s must-see destinations.

The park covers 521,085 scenic acres along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The main North Carolina entrance is just outside of Cherokee on U.S. 441 North at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which is open year-round. This is an ideal place to begin your visit – nature exhibits, a bookstore, a re-created mountain farm and an easy talking trail along the Oconaluftee River all set the scene for your park visit.

From here, a world of outdoor opportunity awaits. There are 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies, and auto tours of the park offers access to panoramic views, rushing mountain streams and waterfalls, weathered historic buildings and lush hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

For those wanting to get a more up-close-and-personal view of the park, hiking trails abound. Andrews Bald is one of the Smokies’ finest moderate hikes. The trip passes through an extraordinary spruce-fir forest to the grassy filed of Andrews Bald. With stunning views, this is an ideal spot for a picnic in the sky. Big Creek is an easier walk and a perfect hike for less experienced or first-time hikers. The trip provides gorgeous scenery with abundant wildflowers and a view of Mouse Branch Falls.

While you’re here, you’ll be part of one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. The park protects 66 species of mammals including elk and black bear, 200 varieties of birds, 50 species of native fish and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. The upper elevations of the Smokies receive an average of 85 inches of rain each year, qualifying them as a temperate rain forest. With all this biodiversity in a relatively small area, the United Nations has designated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve.

There’s a great deal of human history here – the park is part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. From native Cherokee (whose 18th century lives are re-created at the nearby Oconaluftee Indian Village) to the Scots-Irish settlers, visitors can experience the rich history and culture that springs from these mountains. Close to 100 historic structures, including homes, schools, churches, barns and grist mills, preserve Appalachian mountain heritage.

Jason Frye

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