Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the U.S., is an incredibly beautiful place of luxuriantly forested mountain ridges and knobby peaks, meadowed coves, waterfalls, and whitewater rivers: a true wonderland. Any visitor here gets a sense of the area’s sheer specialness.
In this article, we’ll break down some of the “cold, hard facts” proving the Great Smokies are one of the most extraordinary places in the country—and, no hyperbole, in the world.
The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the largest and most impressive ranges of the Southern Appalachians. Here’s some trivia highlighting the awesomeness of these mountains!
- Highest Peaks: The Great Smokies include some of the entire Appalachian chain’s very highest peaks. The loftiest summit in the Great Smokies, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, is the third-highest mountain in the eastern U.S. (only 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell and 6,647-foot Mount Craig, both in North Carolina’s Black Mountains—which, like the Great Smokies, are part of the Blue Ridge Province—rise higher). Several other of the East’s highest peaks, including 6,621-foot Mount Guyot, 6,593-foot Mount LeConte, 6,417-foot Mount Chapman, and 6,370-foot Old Black, also fall within the Great Smoky Mountains.
- “Southern Sixers” in the Great Smokies: Indeed, more than a dozen peaks in the Great Smokies rise above 6,000 feet, putting them in the elite company of the so-called “Southern Sixers”: all the summits in the Southern Appalachians that meet or exceed that lofty elevation.
- A Whole Lotta High Country: The main crest of the Great Smokies looms beyond 5,000 feet for roughly 40 miles, forming one of the great high-elevation blocks in the East.
- Most Prominent Peak in the East: The sheer height of the Great Smokies are impressive enough, but their topographic relief—the difference in elevation between the landscape’s lowest and highest points—is also exceptional. The third-highest peak in the range, Mount LeConte, is considered perhaps the “tallest,” or most prominent, mountain in the East: that is, it rises the most from its base to its summit. LeConte stands more than 5,000 feet above its footings near Gatlinburg only a few miles away.
The great height and massiveness of the Great Smoky Mountains, coupled with the range’s geographic position, mean these great Blue Ridge highlands capture an awful lot of moisture. A lot of that comes from airstreams off the Gulf of Mexico, which get wrung out by this bulky mass of elevated terrain.
- Plenty of Moisture: The high peaks of the Great Smokies may receive 90 inches or more of annual precipitation, which makes this region just about the wettest in the Lower 48 outside of the Pacific Northwest.
- Temperate Rainforest in the Great Smokies: The high rainfall and high humidity of the Great Smoky Mountains mean that many ecologists classify the lush forests here as true temperate rainforest: quite a rare ecosystem at the global scale.
Old Growth & Big Trees
Logging is an important part of the story of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Southern Appalachians in general. Although timber-cutting was extensive here, the ruggedness of the Great Smokies and the fairly early, determined effort to protect the range in a national park kept an impressive amount of trees standing.
- Old-Growth in the Great Smokies: Close to 200,000 acres of old-growth forest remain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which accounts for between a quarter and a third of the park’s timberland. This is, along with New York’s Adirondacks, one of the greatest remaining tracts of ancient forest in the eastern U.S.
- Champion Trees: The amount of old-growth acreage as well as the richness of the growing conditions here mean the Great Smokies also lay claim to some of the biggest trees in the East. Many champion-sized trees have been documented here and continue to be, including a tulip-tree discovered only in 2011 that, at more than 190 feet tall, is the tallest-known hardwood in the country.
The Outstanding Biodiversity of the Great Smoky Mountains
The ancient and big trees of the Great Smokies are only one expression of the range’s incredible biological diversity, which is globally significant.
- Global Hotspot of Temperate Biodiversity: No other comparably sized area in the temperate world can compare with the Great Smoky Mountains in terms of biodiversity: Better than 19,000 species of plants, animals, and fungi have been recorded in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and scientists suspect there may be upwards of 100,000 others yet undocumented.
- The Most Biologically Diverse Part of the Park System: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most biodiverse unit of the entire National Park system.
- Salamander Epicenter: The Great Smokies and the rest of the Southern Appalachians are the world’s undisputed hotspot for salamander diversity; there are some 30 species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which has been called “The Salamander Capital of the World”) alone, including the mighty (and mighty-wrinkled) hellbender.
- Other Smoky Mountain Biodiversity Fast Facts: The region is also famous as an epicenter of fungal diversity: Some estimates suggest there may be 20,000 species of fungi in the Southern Appalachians. More than 1,500 species of flowering plants are found in the Great Smoky Mountains, and better than 200 kinds of birds have been confirmed. There are north of 100 species of native trees in the Great Smokies, more than all of northern Europe!
One reason for all this astounding biological richness is the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains (and the Southern Appalachians in general) served as a refuge for many kinds of organisms during the ice ages of the Pleistocene. The north-south orientation of the Appalachian Mountains allowed plants and other life forms to retreat southward in favorable habitat as a frigid ice-age climate encroached. Glaciers never reached the Southern Appalachians.
Also, the significant elevational spread of the Great Smokies mean that the highest elevations, with their cooler microclimate, support plants and animals more typical of northern latitudes, existing thousands of feet above the balmier ecosystems of the lower slopes, gorges, and coves. That adds up to a lot of species rubbing shoulders, so to speak.
The Great Smokies’ Wild Side: The Primeval Southeast
Great Smoky Mountains National Park also protects the biggest roadless expanses left in the Southern Appalachians, offering backcountry visitors a chance to experience true Southeastern wilderness far from the blacktop.
- The Roadless Great Smoky Mountains: More than 400,000 roadless acres await in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a scale of wildland hard to come by these days in this part of the country.
Experience the Majesty of the Great Smokies
We hope all the trivia we’ve rolled through above has whetted your appetite for a boots-on-the-ground visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s one thing to know these highlands are a great salamander hotspot or host to some of the highest mountains in the eastern U.S. But there’s a magic here that goes beyond such facts, and that’s open to one and all who make the journey and hit the trails. We hope you’ll get a taste for it yourself!