The vast wilderness of the Smoky Mountains is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife. Within the boundaries of the national park are 65 mammal species, 240 species of birds, dozens of native fish and 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. Before the creation of the park, humans wiped out a number of species through hunting, trapping and logging. In recent years, however, the park has had success with the reintroduction of several species, including herds of elk.
The most famous resident of the Smokies is the American black bear. Up to 6ft long, and standing 3ft high at the shoulder, the American black bear is the symbol of the national park. Males typically weigh around 250lb (females are smaller and weigh around 100lb), though bears weighing up to 600lb have also been found in the park. Though they look like lumbering creatures when they walk, black bears can run fast, reaching speeds of up to 30mph (faster than 100m world-record holder Usain Bolt). Black bears are omnivores and subsist on wild berries, acorns, grasses, tree buds, flowers and roots, with plant materials providing about 85% of their diet. The other 15% comes from insects, animal carrion and other sources of protein.
Black bears have better eyesight and hearing than humans, though their strongest sense is smell, which is about seven times keener than a dog’s. They are most active in the early-morning and late-evening hours during the spring and summer. In the wild, bears live an average of 12 to 15 years in the park.
Contrary to common belief, black bears are not true hibernators but do enter long periods of sleep. They may emerge from their winter dens periodically during unusually warm spells or if they are disturbed. Female bears sometimes have a surprise waiting for them when they awaken in the springtime, as their offspring are born during their winter sleep. Females typically give birth to one to four cubs every other year. The cubs arrive in January or February. These tiny newborns weigh just 10oz (less than a can of soda) and will remain close to the mother for about 18 months, or until she mates again. Mating, incidentally, typically takes place in July. Both male and female bears have more than one mate during the summer.
An estimated 1500 bears live in the park – just under two bears per square mile. Indeed, this is the largest protected habitat for bears in the east. Black bears once roamed much of North America, but habitat loss has significantly diminished their range and numbers.
Large herds of elk once roamed vast tracts of wilderness in the eastern United States. Overhunting and a loss of habitat, however, spelled disaster for these great mammals, and large elk were wiped out in North Carolina in the 1700s and in Tennessee by the mid-1800s. Their plight was so severe that by the turn of the 20th century, conservationists believed their species, which once numbered 10 million, was headed for extinction.
In 2001 the park service began to reintroduce elk in the park. Twenty-five animals were taken from the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, with another 27 added the following year; all were placed in Cataloochee. These massive herbivores can weigh up to 700lb and stand 8ft high at the shoulder. Males have antlers, which they grow each spring and shed in the winter. These can span up to 4ft and weigh up to 40lb. Elk grow thick coats of hair in the winter, which they then shed come spring. When elk are spotted rubbing against trees and fences, they are often working to shed this excess hair.
One of the most exciting times to be in the park is during the annual elk rut (aka breeding season). During the fall (September and October) up to 20 female (cow) elk and calves gather into harems, guarded by one or two aggressive mature males, known as bulls. As the bulls watch over their harem, other males compete for the attention of the cows – using tried-and-true methods such as wallowing in their own urine to attract the ladies. They also sing their hearts out, letting loose a series of shrieking and bellowing calls in what is known as ‘bugling.’ Sometimes rival bulls face off, charging one another and locking antlers, which can lead to serious injuries or even death.
A strong contender for the cutest animal resident of the park, the flying squirrel has big doelike eyes, pink nose, long whiskers and a small furry body, which can glide silently through the air as the animal leaps from treetop to treetop. Although not actually capable of flight, these small rodents have a patagium – a furry, parachute-like membrane stretching from the front paws to the hind legs. This allows them to take dramatic leaps through the branches, soaring across distances of more than 200ft.
There are two species of the animal in the park: the southern flying squirrel and the northern flying squirrel. The southern is the smaller of the two species, stretching about 9in from nose to tail and often weighing just 2oz or 3oz (about as much as a deck of playing cards). The southern is also the more common of the two species, and can live virtually anywhere in the park. The northern flying squirrel, on the other hand, is about 30% larger, but lives only at higher elevations (above 4500ft) in conifer forests. Owing to habitat loss, the northern flying squirrel is now listed as endangered. Both squirrels are nocturnal, and sightings are rare.
A fine counterpoint to the mighty black bear and massive elk (the biggest mammal in the park) is the pygmy shrew, a rare and diminutive creature so tiny that it weighs less than a penny. It’s one of 11 species of mole or shrew found in the park, and isn’t often spotted since it spends most of its time underground, burrowing in search of tasty insects.
The bobcat is likely the only wild feline living in the national park. Though there are occasional reports of cougar sightings, no concrete evidence of their presence has been found in more than three decades. True to name, bobcats have short, stumpy tails and can weigh up to 70lb. These solitary creatures, with their spotted fur and tufted ears, are quite striking, though rarely spotted owing to their nocturnal habits. Other nocturnal carnivores that inhabit the park include the coyote and the red and gray fox.
More commonly seen mammals are white-tailed deer, eastern chipmunks, red and gray squirrels, raccoons, possums, skunks and bats (of which there are 11 different species in the park). The largest rodent in the Smokies is the beaver, whose handiwork (gnawed-up limbs and dams) you might spot on creeks at lower elevations.
The wide-ranging topography and varied microclimates of the Smokies create a wide range of habitats for birds. More than 100 bird species breed in the park, while many other birds stopover in the park during their semiannual migrations. On the high ridges where the spruce-fir forest grows, prevalent species include chestnut-sided warblers, dark-eyed juncos and northern saw-whet owls.
Lower down, the northern hardwood forest and cove hardwood forest are an unusual meeting point for both northern and southern bird species, which reach their extremes on these thickly wooded slopes. Thus you can spot both the black-throated blue warbler, which typically breeds as far north as Canada, and the southern red-eyed vireo, more commonly found in the tropics.
The greatest abundance of birds is found in the lower and middle elevations. A few common species include the belted kingfisher, the song sparrow, the eastern screech owl and the downy woodpecker. Even open fields and meadows can be fine places to spot birds, particularly wild turkeys, eastern bluebirds and red-tailed hawks.
Although bird-watchers have been active in the park for nearly 80 years, new birds are continuously being sighted – as was the case in late 2016 and early 2017 when both the Ross goose and the long-eared owl were documented for the first time.
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to more than 40 species of amphibians. You’ll find the classic bullfrog, two varieties of dainty tree frogs, the common red-spotted newt and the noxious (to predators) Fowler’s toad. The national park, however, is most famous for its salamanders. With 30 species found in the park, this abundant and diverse group of forest dwellers has earned the Smokies the title of ‘salamander capital of the world.’
The park has 24 species of lungless salamanders. These creatures have followed an unusual evolutionary path, obtaining oxygen not through their lungs, which they lack, but through the walls of blood vessels lining their skin and the inside of their mouths. They are found throughout the park, in leaf litter and logs in the forests and in and alongside mountain streams.
The rather frighteningly named hellbender is the largest salamander in the park – and indeed the largest in North America, as it can grow up to 29in in length. These elusive aquatic amphibians, endemic to the eastern US, are actually prehistoric animals from the Jurassic period, and have been around for more than 65 million years. They have wide mouths packed with teeth and enjoy feasting on crayfish and other unsuspecting creatures that wander past their underwater hiding spots. Hellbenders have a remarkable lifespan, with one study suggesting some specimens can live up to 50 years in the wild. Yet, hellbenders are quite sensitive to environmental change. Seeing species disappear where once they flourished is an indication of declining quality of river life – hellbenders function somewhat like a canary in the coal mine.
Feature: Synchronous Fireflies
One of the great but tiny wonders of the Smoky Mountains is the Photinus carolinus, better known as the synchronous firefly. This aptly named insect is famed for its dazzling display of bioluminescence, where thousands of hovering insects flash in perfect harmony.
Some 19 firefly species live in the park, but Photinus is the only species to synchronize its flashing patterns. These curious insects are actually beetles, and although they spend one to two years developing from larvae, their short adult lives typically last just 21 days.
Although the light display is related to mating, scientists aren’t quite sure why the fireflies synchronize their blinking. One theory is that males will improve their chances of attracting a mate if they all blink together.
The event happens for about two weeks sometime between late May and late June, during the fireflies’ short mating season. The exact dates change every year, and are influenced in part by air temperature and soil moisture. One of the best places to see the display is at the Elkmont Campground. During the fireflies' peak activity, you’ll need a special permit, given out by lottery, to see it at Elkmont – or you can reserve a campsite (though sites book up months in advance).
Some attempts to reestablish animal species have not been successful. In the 1990s a federal program to reintroduce red wolf colonies to the national park was unsuccessful, and the pack was eventually moved to the northeast coast of North Carolina, where the animals fared better.
Late April and early May is peak bird migration in the Smokies, and is the best time to spot birds. A skilled bird-watcher exploring various habitats can document as many as 100 different species in a single day.
Elk can often be spotted grazing in the Cataloochee area and on the fields near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The best time to see them is around dawn or dusk.
Sidebar: Wildlife Reading
- Birds of the Smokies by Peter White
- Mammals of the Smokies by Edward Pivorun
- Bear in the Backseat by Kim DeLozier and Carolyn Jourdan
People of the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains have been shaped not just by forests, rivers and mountains, but also by the people who have lived and toiled in these fertile valleys over the centuries. The Cherokee have deep ties to the land, as these mountains have served as a source of both physical and spiritual sustenance. Sadly many Cherokee would end up being forced to leave and never return. The settlers who came in their wake also developed strong bonds with the land. Old homesteads and other relics from the past can still be found inside the national park.
One of America’s largest indigenous groups, the Cherokee have roots in the Smoky Mountains that date back more than 1000 years. Prior to European contact, the Cherokee lived in fertile river valleys, in small villages set with sturdy wooden-frame houses surrounded by cornfields. There was also a central square and a council house for religious ceremonies and meetings that could hold all of the villagers. Like some other native tribes, the Cherokee recognize seven cardinal directions: north, south, east and west along with up, down and center (or within).
The Cherokee were excellent farmers, and grew corn (the main staple), beans, squash, melons, pumpkins, sunflowers and tobacco. They also supplemented their agrarian ways by hunting and trading with other groups. Society was governed by two ruling authorities – one chief during times of peace, and another who governed when the nation was at war. Despite the hierarchy, tribal councils played an important role at all times in village life.
Although only men could serve as chiefs or priests, women could serve as council members when chosen by the village. In fact men and women in Cherokee culture were considered equals, and there were many opportunities for women of the tribe. Some even served as warriors (Warwoman Creek in north Georgia owes its name to one fierce female Cherokee soldier). Marriage was only allowed between members of different clans. Curiously, Cherokee society was originally matrilineal, with bloodlines traced through the mother.
The Cherokee were a dominant presence on the continent prior to European contact. Through warfare and alliances, the Cherokee soon amassed a territory that spread across more than 125,000 sq miles. It covered a huge swath of the present-day South, including Tennessee, the Carolinas, Virginia and Kentucky.
Unfortunately European contact spelled the beginning of the end for the mighty Cherokee nation. Introduced diseases such as smallpox – to which the Cherokee had no natural immunity – left a devastating swath across the continent. One such epidemic in 1738 killed as many as half the tribe. Conflicts flared with the encroaching settlers, and bloody warfare erupted numerous times over the 18th century. After big territorial losses in the late 1700s, the Cherokee went through a period of great change – spurred in part by George Washington, who sought to ‘civilize the American Indians.’ The Cherokee were encouraged to give up communal farming methods and instead settle in individual farmsteads.
The Cherokee organized a democratic national government, with a chief, vice-chief and 32 council members elected by members of the tribe. They drafted a constitution, with an executive, a legislative and a judicial branch, and ratified a code of law for the newly named Cherokee Nation. Modern farming methods, formal education and Christianity all made inroads into the nation, as mission schools, cotton plantations, gristmills and blacksmithing all opened on Cherokee lands.
One of the pivotal Cherokee figures of this time was Sequoyah, a silversmith and soldier. Although he could neither read nor speak English, Sequoyah became obsessed with the ‘talking leaves,’ and felt that was somehow key to white settlers’ power. After working assiduously for nearly a decade, he invented a writing system for the Cherokee language, which he unveiled in 1821. Consisting of 86 characters, the Cherokee Syllabary became widely adopted by the tribe within a decade. Literacy spread quickly, and five years after the appearance of the syllabary, thousands of Cherokee could read and write – far surpassing the literacy rates of the white settlers around them. Sequoyah became something of a folk hero for the Cherokee, and his achievement is astonishing: it’s the only recorded instance of one person single-handedly creating a system of writing.
The Cherokee Council decided the people needed a national newspaper, so they ordered a printing press and began publishing the Cherokee Phoenix. The paper, which launched in 1828, soon became a strong voice against the Passage of the Indian Removal Act, one of the most dastardly laws passed by an American president. This 1830 law called for the Cherokee and four other tribes of the southeast (the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Seminoles and the Creek) to vacate their lands. The Cherokee lobbied Congress, gathered signatures from around the nation in opposition to the act, and even took their case to the Supreme Court. In the 1832 decision, Worcester vs Georgia, the highest court of the land ruled that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation and that they could not be forcibly moved by the US government.
None of this mattered to President Andrew Jackson. He simply ignored the ruling and ordered the army to invade the Indian lands. Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in stockades. In 1838 some 14,000 Cherokee were marched westward towards Oklahoma and Arkansas. During the six-month journey, more than 4000 of them died from hunger, disease and exposure on what became known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’
Before the mass exodus, a small group of Cherokee in the western part of North Carolina received special permission to avoid being relocated. Around 1000 Cherokee managed to stay behind, and worked to buy back lands that had been taken from them. Today the Eastern Cherokee number around 15,000, with the majority of them living just outside the national park on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or Qualla Boundary as it’s more commonly called.
The Walker Family
In 1870 John Walker, a former soldier who fought for the Union army during the Civil War, settled with his wife Margaret in a log cabin and rural property in Little Greenbrier Cove. Walker was an industrious man who worked at his farm planting orchards, raising livestock and making furniture. Over time, he also added on to the property at the homestead.
He and his wife raised a sizable family at Greenbrier. Of the 11 children – seven girls and four boys – all made it to adulthood, a remarkable achievement in the late 19th century when childhood mortality rates were high and medical care was primitive. Strong constitutions must have run in the Walker genes, as many of the children would live well into their 80s.
The children helped out around the farm, and Walker and one of his sons built a log schoolhouse, which also served as a church, for the growing Little Greenbrier community. Education in those days was a privileged escape from the daily chores, and school ran for a few months during the winter. There the children learned the three Rs – reading, ’riting (writing) and ’rithmetic (arithmetic) – and got to spend time with new friends.
When the boys came of age, they married and moved away, as did one of the girls. The other six sisters never married and remained at Little Greenbrier Cove. In fact, after their father died in 1921, they ran every aspect of the 122-acre farm themselves, raising and growing all of their own food and maintaining the farm – churning butter, chopping wood, curing pork in the smokehouse, drying sheepskin and planting vegetables. They also made their own clothes, taking wool from the sheep then spinning and weaving it into fabrics. Cotton and flax, which they also grew, were transformed into textiles, thanks to the skillful work of the sisters. The siblings even kept a herbal garden, and used homemade remedies to treat illnesses.
Following Congressional approval to create the national park in 1926, the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina began buying up private properties in the Smokies. This sisters had no intention of leaving their mountain homestead. They held out until the national park was formally created in 1940, at which point they sold their farm and homestead for just under $5000. There was just one condition: the five sisters (one had passed away a decade earlier) would be able to spend the rest of their lives on the farm in a lifetime lease. They remained on the land, but life changed for them, as they had to give up traditional practices such as hunting, fishing, chopping down trees for fuel and grazing livestock.
They became something of a curiosity to early visitors to the national park, particularly after an in-depth article on their anachronistic lifestyle was published in a 1946 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. While most of America was enjoying new wonders such as supermarkets and modern appliances – not to mention electricity and indoor plumbing – here was a group of now-elderly sisters living a lifestyle that was straight out of the 19th century. The sisters, however, didn’t mind the attention and put up a ‘visitors welcome’ sign. As travelers passed through ‘Five Sisters Cove’ (as it was soon called), the Walkers offered for sale their handmade toys, woven tablecloths and baked apple pies.
The sisters lived out the rest of their days on the homestead. After the last Walker sister died in 1964, the property was acquired by the national park and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Feature: Rascally Rabbit
There are numerous Cherokee legends set in the Smoky Mountains, and nearly every mountain, river and valley has a name in Cherokee. Chimney Tops, for instance, is called Duniskwalgunyi, or ‘forked antlers’ in Cherokee, while Clingmans Dome is known as Kuwahi, or ‘mulberry place.’ The Cherokee called Gregory Bald Tsitsuyi, or ‘rabbit place’ and believed this mountain meadow was the where the Great Rabbit lived.
Incidentally the Great Rabbit is quite the trickster in Cherokee mythology. One time this large lagomorph and unrivaled leader of all rabbits schemed to steal one of the loveliest coats of the animal kingdom. The story goes something like this: a council of all the animals was being held to see who possessed the finest pelt. When the Great Rabbit got word of the event, he decided to pay a visit to his friend Otter, who was known to have a particularly fine coat. Upon finding Otter at his favorite creekside locale, he decided to accompany him back to the council to keep him ‘safe.’
On their journey, the two camp for the night in a place called Di’tatlaski’yi, ‘the place where it rains fire.’ Feigning great concern for his friend, Rabbit encourages Otter to remove his coat and hang it from a tree branch while he sleeps. Rabbit meanwhile will graciously keep watch to ensure no fiery particles damage Otter’s fine fur. Rabbit waits for Otter to fall asleep, then he flicks embers from their smoldering fire onto his friend, shouting, ‘Wake up, Otter! It’s raining fire! Make a run for it!’ Otter dives into the water, leaving his coat behind in his haste. There Otter remained, where he still lives today (being somewhat mortified, one might imagine, having his clothing stolen from him).
Rabbit, meanwhile, chuckles to himself as he puts on Otter’s coat and makes his way to the council. As the sun hangs low over the craggy horizon, a finely dressed creature in a resplendent coat strolls through the meadow. With a paw over his brow and face in shadows, the creature’s identity remains a mystery. As he draws nearer, Bear sees through the ruse, rips the coat off Rabbit and swipes at him with his sharp claws. The Great Rabbit, however, dodges out of the way, and loses only his tail to Bear’s anger. Rabbit hops off, smiling to himself as he muses over yet another memorable prank played on his unsuspecting mountain colleagues.
Some believe the name ‘Smoky Mountains’ is derived from the Cherokee word shaconage, which means ‘land of the blue smoke.’
After he lost his job and his wife abandoned him, Horace Kephart (1862–1931) moved to the Smokies and reinvented himself as a naturalist and writer. He authored celebrated books about the Appalachian people and its landscapes, and was a major advocate for the park's creation.
One lifelong lover of the Smoky Mountains is the singer-songwriter Dolly Parton. Raised 'dirt poor' (as she described it) in a cabin near Greenbrier Valley, she soared to stardom singing about life in the mountains. After the fires of 2016, she raised $9 million for victims.
Sidebar: Reading the Past
- Trail of Tears: the Rise & Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
- The Walker Sisters: Spirited Women of the Smokies by Bonnie Trentham Myers
- Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart
Forests of the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains boast a staggering variety of plant life, with a greater diversity of flora than any other place in North America. The park is home to around 100 native tree species and more than 1500 flowering plants. Much of its diversity is due to its wide variations of elevation (from 875ft to above 6600ft) and geography, with a mix of both southern and northern species. The park’s abundant rainfall and high humidity in the warmer months also provides ideal growing conditions.
You can see very different types of vegetation depending on where you are in the park. Dry, sunny, south-facing ridges will have different species from those on cooler, wetter, north-facing slopes. Elevation plays an even bigger role in defining what grows where.
Hemlock forests dominate at lower elevations (below 4000ft) in moist areas, across shaded slopes and along streams. Around 87,000 acres of the park are covered by hemlock forests. These evergreen trees were saved from felling, as they weren’t commercially valued by lumber companies. As a result some of the oldest and largest trees in the park are eastern hemlocks. They’ve been called the 'redwoods of the east,' and they can grow to more than 150ft tall, reaching up to 10ft in diameter. Some specimens in the park are more than 500 years old.
Sadly the non-native woolly adelgid (uh-DEL-jid) has wreaked havoc on the hemlocks. Many infested trees have died, and without intervention nearly all will be wiped out. This is having a devastating effect on the surrounding microclimate as they provide a cooling habitat for many other species. Without the towering, shade-providing hemlocks, stream temperatures will increase, endangering the survival of trout and other cold-water animal and plant species. The forest floor will also receive dramatic increases in sunlight, which could in turn wipe out native ferns and other plants reliant on cool, moist shade. The huge gaps in the canopy could also promote other invasive plant species. Compounding the problem is the lack of other shade-tolerant species to take the place of the hemlocks.
Pine & Oak Forest
In the mountains up to about 4500ft, where the slopes are dry and exposed, you can expect to find forests dominated by pine and oak trees. These types of forests are more common on the west side of the park. Thickets of mountain laurel and stands of rhododendron grow well here, as do flowering dogwood trees, galax, yellow poplars and hickory. Of the park’s 11 species of oak and five species of pine, the most commonly found trees are scarlet oak, chestnut oak, black oak, Table Mountain pine, Virginia pine and pitch pine. Forest fires are not uncommon in these habitats and can be necessary for some species' reproduction and forest regeneration.
Cove Hardwood Forest
In Appalachian parlance, coves are sheltered valleys with deep, fertile soils. These are the most botanically diverse forests of the Smoky Mountains, and grow on slopes of up to 4500ft. You’ll find tulip tree, yellow buckeye, sugar maple, black cherry, magnolia, yellow birch and Carolina silverbell among dozens of other species. Wildflowers are also profuse in these forests, and autumn colors are dazzling. Those regions passed over by loggers boast trees of record sizes. One of the best places to see these forests firsthand is along the Ramsey Cascades Trail, or the shorter Cove Hardwood Nature Trail at Chimneys Picnic Area off Newfound Gap Rd.
Northern Hardwood Forest
Growing at elevations of 4500ft to 6000ft, these broad-leaved forests have a decidedly northern feel, akin to the wooded areas of New England and the Great Lakes region. Here you find predominantly American beech and yellow birch dominating the canopy, along with mountain maple, white basswood, yellow buckeye and pin cherry. Around 28,000 acres of northern hardwood forest is old-growth. The Smokies are also known for their beech gaps, when stands of American beech trees take over and monopolize high mountain gaps. Look for them on south-facing slopes along the high ridges, such as along the road up Clingmans Dome, where the gaps interrupt spruce-fir forest at regular intervals.
Spruce & Fir Forest
Dominating the high peaks of the Smoky Mountains are these iconic evergreen forests. Also called boreal or Canadian zone forests, the spruce-fir forest grows at elevations above 4500ft and shares characteristics of habitats in eastern Canada. They are a legacy of the ice age, when northern plants migrated south to escape the continental glaciers. When the weather warmed, these northern species remained, continuing to thrive on the cool mountain ridges of the Smokies. Today, two coniferous species rule the ridges: Fraser firs and red spruce. Unfortunately these forests are being decimated by a non-native insect, with the balsam woolly adelgid wiping out the Fraser fir population. Atop Clingmans Dome, you’ll see large stands of dead Fraser firs stretching in all directions.
After heavy logging in the early 20th century, only pockets of primary forest survive in the Smoky Mountains. Biologists estimate that about 100,000 acres (or 20%) of the national park contains old-growth forest.
One of the best places to see a wide variety of ecosystems laid out in one scenic panorama is at the Carlos C Campbell Overlook on Newfound Gap Rd.
Sidebar: Top Trails for Old-Growth Forest
- Cove Hardwood Nature
- Gregory Ridge
- Laurel Falls
- Porters Creek
- Ramsey Cascades
In some places at high elevations, there are patches of land entirely devoid of trees. These include grassy balds, which are not unlike highland meadows (more commonly observed in lowland prairies), and heath balds, covered in thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendrons. How these unique Appalachian land features formed remains something of a mystery. Grassy balds were used by early settlers to graze their livestock, though scientists have determined through soil samples that these tree-free areas existed even before the sheep and cattle arrived. Another theory is that megafauna – herbivorous mastodons and woolly mammoths – grazed here some 10,000 years ago. Two fine grassy balds where you can contemplate the distant past (and enjoy the magnificent views) are Gregory Bald and Andrews Bald.
Over the last century, a number of non-native insects and fungi have been discovered in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As these typically have arrived from Europe or Asia, the native species have no natural defenses and have quickly succumbed to the devastating blights.
The hemlock woolly adelgid (uh-DEL-jid) was first detected in the national park back in 1992. Within a few years the aphid-like insect spread to other parts of the Smokies, and it now threatens the survival of all eastern hemlocks in the park. Because of the importance of hemlocks, the Smokies face one of the greatest ecological challenges since the blight that wiped out the American chestnut tree. Scientists believe the sap-sucking insect originally came from Japan. Having no predators, it spreads quickly and can kill a fully grown tree in just three to five years. The national park is doing its best to fight the adelgid, using pesticides where possible, though they’ve only been able to treat 15% of the park’s hemlock trees at the time of writing. The park has also released non-native predator beetles (again taken from Japan), which feed exclusively on adelgids, though this has shown limited success.
The lovely flowering dogwood is under attack from dogwood anthracnose, a fungus whose origins are unknown. It has killed thousands of trees in the Smokies, and the park has found no effective treatment for the disease.
Another insect that has left a swath of destruction in its path is the balsam woolly adelgid. First spotted in the park back in 1962, this tiny creature has attacked and killed 90% of the mature fir trees in the park. The Fraser fir, endemic to the southern Appalachian, has been a particularly devastating loss for the park.
The park’s beech trees are also suffering from a combination of non-native beech scale and and a species of invasive fungus.
It isn't just the tiny creatures that are damaging the park's delicate ecosystems. Wild hogs are another hugely destructive species the park has had to contend with. European wild boar were brought to a private game reserve in the early 1900s. Less than a decade later, they escaped and their population exploded. Today the descendants of those first hairy ungulates can weigh well over 100lb. They're adaptable, they breed quickly and often successfully compete with native animals for food sources. They also damage native plants and eat other animals, including one species of salamander found only in the Smoky Mountains. You might see hog traps off in the woods on some hiking trails.
Feature: The Loss of the American Chestnut
American chestnut trees once made up about one-third of the Smokies’ tree species. In springtime their blossoms were so thick that the mountains appeared as if they were covered in snow. Then in the first half of the 20th century, a fungus from Asia swept across the country, killing every American chestnut in its path. By 1950 an estimated four billion trees had died, and the American chestnut forest had been wiped forever from the planet. Botanists describe the chestnut blight as the largest ecological catastrophe in North America during the 20th century.
American chestnuts were once lords of the forest, with their treetops stretching up to 120ft high. You can still see their stumps in the park, some of which even sprout. These young saplings don’t reach very high before they too are felled by the blight, which continues to live deep in the trees' roots.
Some naturalists, however, haven’t given up hope that the chestnut may some day make a comeback. A group of researchers from West Virginia University have discovered a virus that attacks the blight-causing fungus. If they can replicate the virus and move it from tree to tree, the American chestnut may be able to grow and thrive once again. Yet another group is cross-breeding American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts, in hopes of creating a new strain of tree that can someday return to the American forests.
Sidebar: Top Field Guides
- Trees of the Smokies by Steve Kemp
- Wildflowers of the Smokies by Peter White
- Native Trees of the Southeast by L Katherine Kirkman et al
The changing color of leaves transforms the park into a vibrant tapestry of yellows, reds and oranges. At higher elevations (above 4500ft), colors peak from October 1 to 15, with mid and lower elevations peaking from October 16 to 31.
The Smokies harbor various species of carnivorous plants. Among the most unusual is the sundew, which exudes a glistening, sticky fluid that attracts insects. When the insect becomes ensnared, the leaves then surround it, and the plant's digestive juices go to work, slowly consuming the hapless creature.