Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of the full-fledged national parks, and for good reason. The mountains are among the oldest on the planet, the park has a wider variety of animals and plants than others, and it’s accessible to the East Coast.
A scrim of blue vapor created by rising mist reflects light and imbues the air. Straddling the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky’s 384 miles of mountain roads offer plenty of spots for visitors to lose themselves in the fog-draped landscape. This is the nation’s most visited park, and its enormous popularity is attributable in part to the fact that it is one of very few that are free year round.
Parkgoers can explore Rainbow Falls, where the tumbling waters create light refracting bands, and also visit the park’s vast, dense forests. Along with some of the 1,500 species of flowering plants and the hundreds of varieties of ferns and fungi, the park is famed as the Salamander Capital of the World. One of the 30 species of salamanders that lives here is the hellbender, which can reach 29 inches in length.
As the sun sets, visitors can admire the 18 varieties of fireflies that decorate the nighttime air, including the synchronous fireflies, the only American species of lightning bug that coordinates its flashing light patterns.
Location : TENNESSEE, NORTH CAROLINA
About Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Size: 522,427 acres.
Visitors: 12,095,720 in 2020.
History : Efforts to protect the Great Smoky Mountains with a national park designation gained momentum in the early 1900s as the logging industry closed in on the forested peaks. Acquiring the land was not simple, however, because it was not a vast tract of wilderness but rather was made up of thousands of parcels of farms and homesteads. Supporting the effort to create the park were newly created auto clubs whose members wanted scenic driving routes.
When visiting : Peak seasons are mid-June to mid-August and in October, especially on weekends. Expect traffic delays. Of note: Among the last people to live in the park were six sisters of the Walker family, who were given a lifetime lease to remain
on the 122-acre homestead where they had long raised hogs and chickens, grew apples, vegetables and herbs, cured meat and spun and wove wool and cotton. Park rules, however, restricted hunting, cutting wood and grazing livestock, so the sisters turned to selling handicrafts and fried apple pies to visitors. They stopped meeting visitors in 1952, and the last sister died in the house in 1964.
Visitor info: nps.gov/grsm.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee covering an area of 522,427 acres, established in 1934.