It’s been a while since I wrote extensively about the national park system, so I’m excited to announced that August’s Featured Travel Destination is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Let’s start off our coverage with some fun facts that you may not know about this popular park.
1 It’s the most-visited national park in America.
National park junkies surely already know this, but the average person might not be aware that the Smokies attract between 8 and 10 million visitors each year – more than Yellowstone, more than the Grand Canyon!
How is that possible? Well, for one thing, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is big. It covers more than half a million acres in Tennessee and North Carolina, so many people frequently drive through the park on their way to somewhere else. It’s on the eastern side of the country, where most people live. And the fact that it’s free to visit doesn’t hurt, either.
2 It’s considered the salamander capital of the world.
A majority of the vertebrates inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park on any given day are not humans, but salamanders. The slimy amphibians can be found throughout the park.
Among the 30 species of salamanders are 24 varieties of “lungless” salamanders. This wacky creatures breathe by soaking in air through their skin and the linings of their mouths.
3 The Smokies have more than 800 miles of hiking trails.
The Smokies are more than 95% forested land, so naturally, hiking and camping are big here. The park boasts more than 800 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Entire books have been written about the hiking trails in the Smokies. The National Park Service estimates that the average hiker travels at 1.5 miles per hour in the park, so take a look at the park’s official trail map (PDF) and be sure to plan your route accordingly. And don’t forget the bear spray!
4 Elk have been reintroduced to the Smokies.
Elk were once widespread in this area, but hunting and loss of habitat killed them off in the mid 1800s.
In 2001-02, more than 50 elk were brought back to the Smokies. At last count, around 140 elk were living in western North Carolina. The best place to see them is in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern part of the park, and they are most visible in morning and early evening hours.
River otters and barn owls were also successfully reintroduced into the Smokies. One species, the red wolf, was reintroduced but failed, due to low rates of reproduction.
5 A memorial marks the spot where President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.
On September 2, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park as an official national park. The ceremony took place on Newfound Gap Road along the state line.
That spot has been commemorated with the Rockefeller Memorial, created in honor of the Rockefeller Foundation, which in the 1930s coughed up the $5 million necessary to buy the land. Both Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures agreed to contribute $10,000 to the construction of the memorial.
6 The Smokies are home to 66 types of mammals.
That includes about 1500 black bears, roughly two per square mile. Bears are the biggest predators in the park, but there are also coyotes and bobcats, which are far more rare. Pests like raccoons and skunks abound, and look up to see bats and flying squirrels at night.
My favorite smaller mammal in the park is the pygmy shrew, which is just 2 inches long and weigh only 3 grams. Their tiny hearts race at 1,000 beats per minute. These fellas must eat constantly (usually worms and insects) to stay alive – they will die if they go more than an hour without food. That sounds like a stressful existence!
7 The park is full of historic log cabins.
The NPS notes that almost 100 historic log buildings have been preserved or restored throughout the park. This includes houses, barns, churches and schools.
Among the best spots to find them is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a six-mile, one-way loop. In addition to the log structures, the loop takes visitors past waterfalls, thick forest, and wildflowers.
8 Fewer than a third of the species living in the park have been documented.
According to the NPS, more than 17,000(!) species of plants and animals have been identified in the park. But scientists say there are at least 30,000 more (perhaps as many as 80,000) that haven’t yet been documented. That’s a whole lot of foliage and wildlife!
The reason for the diversity is the wide range of environments in the park. The elevations go from 875 feet in the lowlands to 6643 feet up in the mountains, so lots of different types of plants and animals can find a home somewhere in the Smokies.