The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the crowns jewels of the United States National Park System, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park straddles the ridge-line of the Great Smoky Mountains, sitting within the Blue Ridge Mountain range and is further considered to be a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, runs Northeast to Southwest through the center-line of the park. Last, but certainly not least the Appalachian Trail passes through the center of the park on its Northward route from Georgia to Maine.
According to gathered statistics the park is the most visited National Park in the United States, boasting more then 11 million visitors in 2016 alone. The park encompasses 522,419 acres, totaling roughly 816 square miles, making it one of the largest protected tracts of land in the Eastern United States. The parks main entrances lie along U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) at the towns of Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC.
The park, chartered by the United States Congress in 1934, was officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. It qualifies as our first National Park, whose land and other costs were paid for in part with Federal monies, whereas previous parks were paid for by state and / or private funding.
The park provides elevations ranging from 876 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at the summit of Clingman's Dome. Over 16 mountains within the park reach elevations in excess of 6,000 feet. This wide range of elevations mimics the latitudinal changes found throughout the entire Eastern United States. Ascending the mountains, within the park, is comparable to a trip from Tennessee to Canada. A compressed cross section of United States coastal plants and animals have found suitable, elevation approach, niches within the park the match their normal Northeast and Southeast climates when found elsewhere.
The park has abnormally high humidity and precipitation levels, when compared to surrounding regions, averaging 55 inches per year in the valleys and exceeding 85 inches per year at the higher elevations. This rainfall is more than the normal averages anywhere else in the United States, with the notable exception of the Pacific Northwest and specific regions of Alaska and Hawaii. Generally speaking the park tends to be cooler than comparable regions at similar latitudes, with an overall temperature range similar to more Northern environs.
The park is almost 95 percent forested, and almost 36 percent of it, is estimated by the Park Service to be old growth forest with many trees that predate European settlement of the area. It is one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old growth forest in North America. The variety of elevations, the abundant rainfall, and the presence of old growth forests give the park an unusual richness of biota. About 10,000 species of plants and animals are known to live in the park, and estimates as high as an additional 90,000 undocumented species may also be present.
Park officials count more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians, including many lung-less salamanders. The park has a noteworthy black bear population, numbering about 1,500. An experimental re-introduction of elk (wapiti) into the park began in 2001. It is also home to species of mammals such as the raccoon, bobcat, two species of fox, river otter, woodchuck, beaver, two species of squirrel, opossum, coyote, white-tailed deer, chipmunk, two species of skunk, and various species of bats.
Over 100 species of trees grow in the park. The lower region forests are dominated by deciduous leafy trees. At higher altitudes, deciduous forests give way to coniferous trees like Fraser fir. In addition, the park has over 1,400 flowering plant species and over 4,000 species of non-flowering plants.