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Great Smoky Mountains National Park - A National Treasure

Updated on September 21, 2007

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a national treasure that is renowned throughout the world for its preservation of Appalachian culture and history and for the diversity of the animal and plant life. The park has designations as both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

Endless ridges and forests straddle the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The park is the largest protected area of land east of the Rocky Mountains with 276,000 acres in North Carolina and 244,000 acres in Tennessee. On average, between 8-10 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year

The park offers a wide variety of activities and things to see and do including:

  • Camping
  • Cycling
  • Camping
  • Fishing
  • Hiking
  • Historic Buildings
  • Horseback Riding
  • Picnicking
  • Waterfalls
  • Wildflowers
  • Wildlife Viewing

Fall Colors

Fall is a beautiful time in the Great Smoky Mountains. The fall colors attract many sightseers, especially during October. One reason the colors are so remarkable is the park's diversity of tress. Over 100 species of trees are native to the Smokies.

The colors begin to change as summer ends when the green pigments in leaves deteriorate, giving way to other colors. Carotenoids, the pigment that makes carrots orange and leaves yellow, become visible as the green fades. The reds and purples come from anthocyanins, a pigment that is formed when leaves break down sugar in the bright autumn sunlight.

The autumn leaf season usually lasts several weeks as the colors move down the mountainsides from the highest elevations to the lower ones. It is impossible to know when the peak colors will appear because there are so many factors that affect the color change. Temperature and the amount of rainfall received during the summer are two major factors.

Elevation also affects when colors change in the park. At higher elevations, the display of colors can start as early as mid-September with the turning of pin cherry, yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, and hobblebush.

From early to mid-October, the colors develop above 4,000 feet. For maximum enjoyment, travel along Clingmans Dome Road, the Foothills Parkway, or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The color display usually reaches peak at mid and lower elevations from mid-October through early November. This period usually produces the most spectacular display and includes such colorful trees as hickories, maples, and oaks.


When viewing wildlife, a good rule of thumb is that if you are close enough that the animal changes its behavior, you are too close. Not only is feeding wildlife against the law, but disturbing park wildlife is also a violation of federal regulations. The use of binoculars, scopes and cameras with telephoto lenses are recommended to enjoy wildlife.

The dense forests of the Smokies can make viewing wildlife a challenge. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove provide some of the best opportunities to see black bears, raccoons, white-tailed deer, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to drive at a leisurely pace and sometimes provides a glimpse of wildlife. Wildlife is usually more visible in the winter months when the trees are off of the trees.

Interesting Facts

  • The barn at the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is over 60 feet long and 50 feet wide. A modern 2,500 square foot home would fit in the upstairs loft of the barn. Over 16,000 hand-split wooden shingles are needed to roof it.
  • An experimental program to reintroduce elk to the park was started in 2001. Elk once roamed the Smoky Mountains, but were eliminated from the region in the mid 1800s by loss of habitat and excessive hunting. Other animals that have been successfully reintroduced to the park include barn owls and river otters.


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