Hiking Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Alum Cave Trailhead

Baskins Creek Trailhead

Big Creek Campground

Bradley Fork Trailhead

Cades Cove - Abrams Falls Trailhead

Chimney Tops Picnic Area Trailhead

Chimney Tops Trailhead

Clingman's Dome - Forney Ridge Trailhead

Cosby Campground - Gabes Mountain Trailhead

Deep Creek Trailhead

Elkmont Campground - Jakes Creek Trailhead

Grotto Falls - Trillium Gap Trailhead

Kephart Prong Trailhead

Laurel Falls Trailhead

Lumber Ridge Trailhead - Tremont Road

Meigs Creek Trailhead

Mingo Falls Trailhead

Newfound Gap Trailhead

Porters Creek Trailhead

Rainbow Falls Trailhead

Ramsey Cascades Trailhead

Tremont Trailhead

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - History

Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves a rich cultural tapestry of Southern Appalachian history. The mountains have had a long human history spanning thousands of years—from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European settlement in the 1800s to loggers and Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees in the 20th century.

The park strives to protect the historic structures, landscapes, and artifacts that tell the varied stories of people who once called these mountains home.

The Great Cherokee

The Cherokee Indians, a branch of the Iroquois nation, can trace their history in this region back more than a thousand years. Originally their society was based on hunting, trading, and agriculture. By the time European explorers and traders arrived, Cherokee lands covered a large part of what is now the southeastern United States.

The Cherokee lived in small communities, usually located in fertile river bottoms. Homes were wooden frames covered with woven vines and saplings plastered with mud. These were replaced in later years with log structures.

Each village had a council house where ceremonies and tribal meetings were held. The council house was seven-sided to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee: Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato. Each tribe elected two chiefs—a Peace Chief who counseled during peaceful times and a War chief who made decisions during times of war. However, the Chiefs did not rule absolutely, decision making was a more democratic process, with tribal members having the opportunity to voice concerns.

Cherokee society was a matriarchy. The children took the clan of the mother, and kinship was traced through the mother’s family. Women had an equal voice in the affairs of the tribe. Marriage was only allowed between members of different clans. Property was passed on according to clan alliance.

The Cherokee readily adopted the tools and weapons introduced by Europeans. Desire for these items changed Cherokee life as they began to hunt animals, not just for food, but also for skins to trade.

As the white population expanded, conflicts arose. War and disease decimated the tribe. The Cherokees were eventually forced to sign over much of their land, first to the British and then to the United States.

In the early 1800s, the Cherokees began a period of change. The Cherokee Nation was established with a democratic government composed of a Chief, Vice-Chief, and 32 Council Members who were elected by the members of the tribe. A constitution and code of law were drawn up for the nation.

During this time, Sequoyah invented a system for writing the Cherokee language. There are 86 characters in Sequoyah’s syllabary, and each is based on individual syllables in Cherokee works. Any person who could speak Cherokee could also read and write it after learning the 86 symbols. The Cherokee Council passed a resolution to establish a newspaper for their nation. A printing press was ordered, the type cast for the cherokee syllabary, and the Cherokee Phoenix was in business.

Unfortunately, the Cherokees did not enjoy prosperous times for long. Gold was discovered on Indian lands in Georgia. Political pressure was exerted by President Andrew Jackson to confiscate Indian lands and remove the Cherokees to the West. Numerous injustices against the Cherokee Nation culminated in the signing of the Treaty of New Echota. Those who signed the treaty did not have the authority to represent the entire Cherokee Nation. Nevertheless, the treaty stood.

The Cherokees were taken from their homes, held in stockades, and forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Almost 14,000 Cherokees began the trek westward in October of 1838. More than 4,000 died from cold, hunger, and disease during the six-month journey that came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Prior to the “Trail of Tears,” a small group of Cherokees in western North Carolina had already received permission to be excluded from the move west. Those individuals, often called the Oconaluftee Cherokees, did not live on Cherokee Nation land and considered themselves separate from the Cherokee Nation.

Permission for the Oconaluftee Cherokees to remain in North Carolina had been obtained in part through the efforts of William H. Thomas, a successful business man who had grown up among the Cherokees. For more than 30 years he served as their attorney and adviser. To avoid jeopardizing their special status, the Oconaluftee Cherokees reluctantly assisted in the search for Cherokee Nation Indians who had fled to the mountains to avoid capture.

Among those in hiding was Tsali, who had become a hero to many Cherokees for his resistance to forced removal. Tsali was being sought because of his role in the deaths of several soldiers. To prevent further hardships for the Cherokees still in hiding, Tsali eventually agreed to surrender and face execution. Due in part to Tsali’s sacrifice, many of those in hiding were eventually allowed to settle among the Cherokees of western North Carolina. This was to be the beginning of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees.

Today there are about 11,000 members of the Eastern Tribe, most of whom live on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or the “Qualla Boundary” as it is often called. The communities of Yellowhill, Birdtown, Snowbird, Painttown, Big Cove, and Wolftown are within the 56,000 acre boundary which covers parts of five western North Carolina counties.

Unlike some reservations in the western United states, this one is entirely open to visitors. In fact, the tourism industry has been very profitable. Hotels, motels, restaurants, campgrounds, amusement parks, a casino, and shops flourish in and around the town of Cherokee. Museums here help preserve and interpret Cherokee history and culture. While the people have adopted lifestyles more modern than those of their ancestors, traditional craft skills continue to be passed on to younger generations. The speaking of the Cherokee language has also seen a resurgence in recent years.

European Settlers

People have occupied these mountains since prehistoric times, but it was not until the 20th century that human activities began to profoundly affect the natural course of events here.

When the first white settlers reached the Great Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s they found themselves in the land of the Cherokee Indians. The tribe, one of the most culturally advanced on the continent, had permanent towns, cultivated croplands, sophisticated political systems, and extensive networks of trails. Most of the Cherokee were forcibly removed in the 1830s to Oklahoma in a tragic episode known as the "trail of Tears. The few who remained are the ancestors of the Cherokees living near the park today.

Life for the early European settlers was primitive, but by the 1900s there was little difference between the mountain people and their contemporaries living in rural areas beyond the mountains. Earlier settlers had lived off the land by hunting the wildlife, utilizing the timber for buildings and fences, growing food, and pasturing livestock in the clearings. As the decades passed, many areas that had once been forest became fields and pastures. People farmed, attended church, hauled their grain to the mill, and maintained community ties in a typically rural fashion.

The agricultural pattern of life in the Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of lumbering in the early 1900s. Within 20 years, the largely self-sufficient economy of the people here was almost entirely replaced by dependence on manufactured items, store bought food, and cash. Logging boom towns sprang up overnight at sites that still bear their names: Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor, Tremont.

Loggers were rapidly cutting the great primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless the course of events could be quickly changed, there would be little left of the region’s special character and wilderness resources. Intervention came when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934. The forest—at least the 20% that remained uncut within park boundaries—was saved.

More than 1,200 land-owners had to leave their land once the park was established. They left behind many farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches. Over 70 of these structures have since been preserved so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now contains the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Geology

Smokies Geology

Most of the rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are sedimentary and were formed by accumulations of clay, silt, sand, gravel, and minor amounts of calcium carbonate in flat-lying layers. The oldest sedimentary rocks were formed during the Proterozoic Era some 800-545 million years ago. Vast amounts of unconsolidated clay, silt, sand, and pebbles were washed down into lowland basins from adjacent highlands. Rocks of the old highlands were over one billion years old, and were similar to the ancient granite and gneiss found in the southeastern parts of the park. These early sites of ocean bottom deposition were formed along the ancient margin of the North American continent as an older and larger supercontinent broke apart.

As more and more of these sediments were deposited, they were eventually cemented together and changed into layers of rock over nine miles thick. Today these rocks are known as the Ocoee Supergroup and are subdivided into many smaller divisions of differing rock types. The different rock types reflect the range of climatic and topographic conditions that existed during their formation.

The younger rocks of sedimentary origin formed during the Paleozoic Era, 450 to about 545 million years ago. These consist of compacted and cemented sand, silt, and clay deposited in an ancient shallow marine continental margin that existed in what is now the Appalachian region. Burrows and trails of worms, as well as small shells of crustaceans that lived in this shallow water along the ancient continental edge, are found in sandstone and shale in the northwestern part of the park. Fossils found in limestone rocks in Cades Cove are about 450 million years old.

Mountain Building

Between about 310 and 245 million years ago, the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate collided with the African tectonic plate becoming part of a "supercontinent" known as Pangaea. Continental collisions take place at a rate of a few inches per year over many millions of years and are the result of continuing global-scale plate tectonics. Evidence of earlier plate tectonic geologic events are found in rocks of the Great Smoky Mountains, attesting to an incredibly long and active geologic history in this area. During one of these earlier continental collisions, tremendous pressures and heat were generated, which changed or "metamorphosed" the Smokies sedimentary rocks. For example, sandstone became recrystallized to metasandstone or quartzite, and shale became slate.

The last great episode of mountain building uplifted the entire Appalachian mountain chain from Newfound-land, Canada to Alabama. These mountains probably were much higher than today, with elevations similar to today's Rockies. As the African tectonic plate gradually pushed against the edge of the North American plate, the original horizontal layers of the rocks were bent or folded and broken by faults. Huge masses of older, deeply buried rocks were pushed northwestward, up and over younger rocks along a large, nearly flat-lying thrust fault, known as the Great Smoky Fault.

Following this final episode of Appalachian mountain building, the supercontinent of Pangaea broke apart, and the North American and African tectonic plates gradually moved to their present position. The new rugged highlands, the ancient ancestors of the Smokies, were subjected to intense erosion from ice, wind, and water. As mountain valleys were carved, tremendous quantities of eroded sediment were transported toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico by rivers and streams. Some of these sediments formed our Gulf of Mexico beaches.

As the mountains were worn down, the layers of rock most resistant to erosion were left to form the highest peaks in the Smokies, such as the hard metasandstone on top of Clingmans Dome. Most of the beautiful waterfalls in the park were formed where downcutting streams encountered ledges of very resistant metasandstone that erodes more slowly than the adjacent slate or metasiltstone. Today, geologists estimate that the mountains are being eroded about two inches every thousand years.

Plate Tectonics

The earth's outer crust is composed of huge, continental-size plates, driven by heat from below, that continually shift position. These moving plates grind past one another, collide into one another, and sometimes override one another. Also, where plate margins are separating or spreading apart, molten rock forces its way to the surface, solidifies and forms new crust. Plate movement is just a few inches a year, but throughout geologic time, this movement and the resulting plate interactions have caused devastating earthquakes, spectacular volcanoes, and the uplift of high mountain chains. The great thickness, variety, and distribution of rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park tell a fascinating story of continental-size plate tectonics spanning more than a billion years of earth history.

The Rocks

Metamorphosed sedimentary rocks are the dominant rock types in the park, but some igneous rocks also occur. Sedimentary rocks form through a cycle of erosion and deposition mostly in water. The eroded materials include cobbles, pebbles, sand, silt, and clay, or the accumulations of shells from ancient sea animals. Igneous rocks solidify from melted rock or lava.

Rocks become metamorphosed when they are subjected to heat and pressure, usually related to mountain building. Metamorphosed sandstone, siltstone, and shale, are most common in the park. However, metamorphosed limestone and dolomite are found in the Anakeesta Formation and unmetamorphosed limestone and dolomite are found on the floor of Cades Cove, below the Great Smoky fault. Siltstone metamorphosed at high temperatures and pressures forms schist, that is found in the eastern part of the park. Metamorphosed granite and granitic gneiss are the oldest rocks in the park and they occur near Bryson City, Ela, and Cherokee, North Carolina. Small bodies of metamorphosed igneous rocks, called dikes, are found from near Fontana Dam to Clingmans Dome. Quartz veins and pegmatite are also present. Geologists have named about 20 different "formations" of rocks in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Throughout the Smokies, large boulders of metamorphosed sandstone are common in streams. The rocks fall from cliff outcrops high in the mountains and over time are moved into steep-sided streams. The boulders are carried downstream, rounded, and eventually broken down into cobbles, pebbles, sand, and silt. Then, over thousands of years, the smallest remnants are carried down the Mississippi River and deposited in the Gulf of Mexico. You may have encountered bits of the ancient Smokies along the gulf’s famous beaches.

The crest of the Great Smokies runs in an unbroken chain of peaks that rise more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 876 to 6,643 feet.

The Top 10 Peaks (elevation in feet)

Clingmans Dome - 6,643
Mount Guyot - 6,621
Mount Le Conte (High Top) - 6,593
Mount Buckley - 6,580
Mount Love - 6,420
Mount Chapman - 6,417
Old Black - 6,370
Luftee Knob - 6,234
Mount Kephart - 6,217
Mount Collins - 6,118

Elevations of Popular Destinations (in feet)
Andrews Bald - 5,920
Charlies Bunion - 5,565
Balsam Mountain Campground - 5,310
Newfound Gap - 5,046
Alum Cave Bluffs - 4,970
Spence Field - 4,920
Chimney Tops - 4,800
Rainbow Falls - 4,326
Ramsey Cascades - 4,275
Grotto Falls - 3,770
Cataloochee Valley - 2,680
Laurel Falls - 2,600
Smokemont Campground - 2,198
Elkmont Campground - 2,150
Little Greenbrier School - 2,070
Oconaluftee Visitor Center - 2,040
Cades Cove Visitor Center - 1,716
Fontana Dam - 1,709
Abrams Falls - 1,473
Sugarlands Visitor Center - 1,462
Abrams Creek at park boundary - 876

Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest point in the Appalachian Mountain range. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher.

Clingmans Dome is a popular park destination. Spectacular vistas await those willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear, pollution-free days, views expand over a 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.

Clouds, precipitation, and cold temperatures reveal the hostile environment atop Clingmans Dome. Proper preparation is essential for a good visit. Although Clingmans Dome is open year-round, the road leading to it is closed from December 1 through March 31, and whenever weather conditions require.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Ecology

The park's 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species grow in habitat associations that form 5 major forest types:

Approximately 80% of the park is comprised of deciduous forests. The Cove Hardwood Forest is the most botanically diverse of these forests. Between 40 to 60 tree and shrub species grow in coves, which are sheltered valleys with deep rich soils. Common species include Carolina silverbell, basswood, dogwood, and magnolia.

The Spruce-fir Forest caps the park's highest elevations. Growing above 4,500 feet in elevation, Fraser fir and red spruce are the dominant trees in this boreal forest. The climate of the spruce-fir forest is similar to climates in areas such as Maine, and Quebec, Canada. The main components of the spruce-fir forest are red spruce and Fraser fir. Other important species include yellow birch, mountain-ash, hobblebush, and blackberries.

Northern Hardwood Forests dominate middle to upper elevations from 3,500- 5,000 feet in the park. These are the highest elevation deciduous forest in the eastern United States. American Beech, yellow birch and maple trees are indicators of this forest type, although many species from other forest types grow here also. The park's Northern Hardwood Forests resemble the forests that grow throughout much of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and southern Ontario. This forest type produces the most brilliant fall color.

Eastern hemlock trees dominate stream sides and moist, shady slopes up to 4,000 feet in elevation to form almost pure stands of the Hemlock Forest. The hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny non-native insect, threatens hemlock forests in the park and in the eastern United States.

Pine-and-Oak Forests are dominant on relatively dry, exposed slopes and ridges, especially on the west side of the park. Despite plentiful amounts of rain, these excessively drained slopes dry out quickly and fire is a regular part of these forest communities. The park uses controlled burning to ensure natural regeneration of species requiring fire for propagation. Typical species include red, scarlet, black and chestnut oaks, along with table mountain, pitch, and white pines. Some areas also have hickories.

Two significant plant communities bear mentioning along with the forest types: the grassy and heath balds. Balds are large meadows or treeless areas located at mid to high elevations in the park, and associated with distinct plant and animal communities. Balds are known to date back at least to the early 1800s, but their exact origin is unknown. Heath balds, which are composed of shrubs such as mountain laurel, rhododendron, blueberry, huckleberry and sand myrtle, can be found on the eastern end of the park. Grassy balds, which are found mostly in the western end of the park, are dominated by grass species and are home to some rare shade-intolerant plant varieties.


Many non-native species have set up residence in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A non-native is any species that occurs outside its native range as a result of deliberate or accidental introduction by humans. Non-natives compete with native species for habitat and food and often take over specialized ecosystems that rare plants or animals need to survive. The non-native species are not natural components of the ecological system and, as a result, have not evolved in concert with the native species.

Often, non-native species will not have natural predators, so their numbers will grow alarmingly. In fact, most of the successful non-natives seem to be pre-adapted to our area. This could be explained by the biological similarity between the smokies and regions of Europe, East Asia, and western North America. The presence of non-native species in the smokies is a detriment to the park as an International Biosphere Reserve because of the reduction in biological diversity as native populations are forced out of their environmental niches.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgids
The hemlock woolly adelgid (pronounced ah-DEL-jid) is a tiny aphid-like insect that poses a very serious threat to the ecology of the Smokies. Without successful intervention, the hemlock woolly adelgid is likely to kill most of the hemlock trees in the national park.

Hemlocks play an important role by providing deep shade along creeks, maintaining cool micro-climates critical to survival of trout and other cold water species. The impact of widespread loss of hemlock could trigger changes more significant as those that followed the demise of the American Chestnut in the 1930s and 40s.

Balsam Woolly Adelgids
The balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) is an insect pest that infests and kills stands of Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) in the spruce-fir zone. This fir occurs naturally only in the southern Appalachians and used to be the dominant tree at the highest elevations. The adelgid was introduced on trees imported from Europe, and the fir has little natural defense against it. By injecting the tree with toxins, the adelgid blocks the path of nutrients through the tree. The trees literally starve to death, and thousands of dead snags are all that are left on the highest mountain peaks.

Wild Hogs
Rooting and wallowing wild hogs (Sus scrofa) threaten natural ecological communities. The hogs will eat just about anything, including Jordon’s Salamanders (Plethodon jordani), which are found only in the park, and the roots and foliage of wildflowers that often take years to mature and bloom

Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) offer stiff competition for the native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Imported from the West during the logging era in the early 1900s, rainbow trout were brought to “improve” the fishing in the mountains. Originally from Germany, the brown trout came into the park from stocked boundary streams. Larger and more aggressive than the native brook trout, these non-native species compete with the brook trout for food and force them into less desirable habitats.

Non-native Plants
There are also over 380 species of non-native plants in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including kudzu (Pueraria lobata), mimosa (Albizzia julibrissin), and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Many of these species are found in sites that have undergone recent disturbance, and, once established, they are aggressive competitors with native plants and can change natural succession. Other problems caused by non-native plants include interbreeding with closely related native species and out-competing rare native plants that require specialized habitats.

Managing Non-native Species
National Park Service policy states that manipulation of populations of non-native plant and animal species, up to and including total eradication, will be undertaken whenever such species threaten the resources being preserved in the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is following this policy as long as the programs to control non-native species do not result in significant damage to native species, natural ecological communities or processes, or historic objects.

Management procedures vary for the non-native species mentioned above. The park is trying to totally eradicate some non-native plant species through the use of herbicides that do not harm the ecosystem. The balsam woolly adelgid problem is being dealt with through an insecticide soap that kills the insect, but is non-toxic to most other organisms and breaks down quickly in the environment. Aerial spraying is ineffective, so each tree must be sprayed individually. This is a very time consuming and expensive process, and only a small part of the total fir population can be protected.

The park stopped stocking rainbow trout in 1975, and fishing is allowed for both rainbow and brown trout. Fishing for brook trout is prohibited in most streams. Current management efforts include the removal of non-native trout species from streams where they are mixed with the native species. Natural barriers, such as waterfalls, are being used to separate brook trout populations from rainbow and brown trout.

So far the most effective method of hog management is a combination of trapping and shooting. A rooting survey is taken in the park to determine the distribution of hogs, and vegetation monitoring is performed in hog exclosures. Exclosures were once sites of hog disturbance, but are now fenced to exclude the hogs. They give researchers the opportunity to monitor what happens to both the plant and animal life in an ecosystem once the non-native species has been excluded.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Wildlife

Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and is a critical sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. Protected in the park are some 66 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 50 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.


The American Black Bear, the symbol of the Smokies, is perhaps the most famous resident of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides the largest protected bear habitat in the East. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate approximately 1,500 bears live in the park, a density of approximately two bears per square mile.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. For many, this famous Smokies’ resident is a symbol of wilderness.

Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, counts conducted in 2006 indicated approximately 1,500 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear’s range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. Because of the loss of habitat, the black bear is now confined to wooded areas or dense brushland.

All black bears in the park are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds while females are generally smaller and weigh less slightly over 100 pounds. However, bears may double their weight by the fall. Bears over 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Wild bears can live 12-15 years or more. "Panhandler" bears, who have had access to human foods and garbage, have a life expectancy of only half that time.

Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears.

Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.


The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk are radio collared and will be monitored during the five-year experimental phase of the project. If the animals threaten park resources or create significant conflicts with park visitors, the program may be halted. Project partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, and the University of Tennessee.

Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s. In Tennessee, the last elk was killed in the mid-1800s. By 1900, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction.

Of the 65 other mammal species documented in the park, the white-tailed deer, groundhog, chipmunk, and some squirrel and bat species are the most commonly seen. Over 200 species of birds are regularly sighted in the park, 85 of those migrate from the neotropics. Some 120 species nest here. Several bird species that are listed as Species of Concern breed here, making the park an important source for repopulating areas outside the park that are showing declines in the numbers of these birds.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a premier place for birds. The crest of the Smokies towers nearly a mile above the foothills, creating a range in elevations and a variety of topographies that provide a diversity of habitats and microclimates for birds. From the high, exposed peaks, to the warmer, sheltered lowlands, some 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics. Many other species use the park as an important stopover and foraging area during their semiannual migration. View a list of Species of Concern in the park.

Changes in elevation affect the types of vegetation that grow in the mountains and determine where many birds can be found. Some species are found only in distinct habitats at certain elevations, while others may range over several habitats.

The spruce-fir forest of the highest ridges is similar to the boreal forest of Canada, and is the southernmost breeding range of the Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Blackburnian and Canada warblers, Veery, and Winter Wren. Chestnut-sided Warblers are common in blackberry thickets, the Dark-eyed Junco abundant in the trees, and Common Ravens soar overhead.

The northern hardwood and cove hardwood forests are mixing grounds for northern and southern bird species. A dozen northern breeding species reach their lowest nesting elevation here and nearly as many southern birds reach their highest limit. The northern Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Black-throated Blue Warbler overlap with the southern Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Cardinal, Hooded Warbler and others.

The southern hardwoods in the middle and lower elevations have the greatest number of birds, those typical of similar elevations and latitudes in the south. Some common species are the Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Screech-Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Song Sparrow, and American Goldfinch. In summer add the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Chipping Sparrow, and others. In winter, the Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-throated Sparrow become common.

Open fields account for less than one percent of park land, but these areas provide habitat for Red-tailed hawk, American Kestrel, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Killdeer, Eastern Bluebird, Field Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and others. In the summer add the Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Yellow Warbler, and Orchard Oriole.

The number of birds and diversity of species change with the seasons. Late March brings the first migrating songbirds to lower elevations, and by late April many species are at peak singing and nesting activity. Yet in the high country, snow lingers and it will be mid-June before songbird nesting is at its peak. In summer, most lowland birds are starting a second brood, while the highland birds are working on their first and perhaps only family of the year. Fall is a time of change when warblers and others wear a confusing molted fall plumage. Restless to migrate, many species will leave at night and head south. In mid-September the Broad-winged Hawks begin to kettle-up over the ridges and glide to the next thermal, with a few Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Northern Harriers, and others joining. Even as the migrants leave, the winter visitors begin to arrive – Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Swamp Sparrow, and others.

You will hear many more birds than you will see in the Smokies’ dense, tall forests. Learning the common songs of the breeding season will make birding trips more successful. Even if you don’t know the song, you can use the sound to locate the bird and get view of it. A person who can identify most species by sight or sound, and who explores as many habitats as possible, can expect to find 100 species a day in peak migration - late April and early May.

Surrounded by warm lowlands, the cool, moist, climate of the park's highest elevations creates islands of habitat suitable for animals commonly found in more northern areas, allowing them to live far south of their present primary ranges. Northern species such as the northern flying squirrel, red squirrel, and rock vole thrive at high elevations, while the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Canada Warbler, Common Raven, and other birds reach their southern most breeding point here in the park.

Over 700 miles of streams in the park support fish. The park boasts over 50 native fish species, including the brook trout, whose fragile habitat is being wrested from the non-native rainbow and brown trout by active fisheries management. Low elevation, slower and warmer streams have the greatest aquatic diversity including four reintroduced federally threatened and endangered small fish: the Smoky Madtom, Yellowfin Madtom, Spotfin Chub, and Duskytail Darter.


The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the "Salamander Capital of the World!" Salamanders are an especially abundant and diverse group in the Great Smokies. In fact, the great majority of vertebrate (backboned) animals, including human visitors, in the park on any given day are salamanders.

Five families of salamanders are represented in the park: Cryptobranchidae, Proteidae, Salamandridae, Ambystomatidae, and Plethodontidae.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, including the Great Smokies, are a major center of evolutionary diversification for the family Plethodontidae, commonly known as the lungless salamanders. There are 24 species of lungless salamanders in the park. The family has undergone an extraordinary level of evolutionary diversification in the southern Appalachian Mountains. As their family name implies, these salamanders lack lungs. They "breathe" (exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide) through the walls of tiny blood vessels in their skin and linings of their mouths and throats. Lungless salamanders occur everywhere in the Great Smokies, in and along streams and under rocks, logs, and leaf litter in the forests.

Salamanders are commonly called "spring lizards" in the southern Appalachians. Lizards and salamanders are, however, very different sorts of animals: salamanders are amphibians while lizards are reptiles. The skins of salamander lack scales and are moist or slimy to the touch. Their eggs are surrounded by clear jelly. Lizards on the other hand, have scales on their skin, and are dry to the touch. They lay eggs with leathery shells.


Prior to park establishment in 1934, a number of animals native to the Smoky Mountains were eradicated by hunting, trapping, changing land uses, and other causes. Extirpated species include bison, elk, mountain lion, gray wolf, red wolf, fisher, river otter, Peregrine Falcon, and several species of fish. A primary goal of the National Park Service is to preserve the flora and fauna of the Smokies in a condition similar to that which existed prior to the arrival of modern, technological humans. In accordance with this mission, the National Park Service has helped reintroduce the river otter, elk, and Peregrine Falcon to the Smokies.

As human activities dominate ever-larger portions of the American landscape, our national parks have become increasingly valuable as sanctuaries for rare and endangered wildlife. Endangered park animals include the northern flying squirrel, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Indiana bat, spruce-fir moss spider, and the Smoky madtom.

The Park Service has been involved in a number of efforts to save these species from extinction. Park resource management crews have conducted prescribed fires in old-growth pine-oak forest to create suitable nesting sites for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Crews have also erected solid steel barricades at cave entrances to protect endangered bats from spelunkers during critical times of the year. Reintroduction programs have also increased the survival chances for Smoky madtoms and Peregrine Falcons.

Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, Wild Turkey, woodchuck, and other animals. During winter, wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Since many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Camping

BACKPACKING IN THE SMOKIES (updated August 2013)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Before planning your backcountry trip, please read through this important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.

Reserve your Backcountry or Thru Hike permits here: https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/

Please direct questions concerning backpacking trip planning to the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. Phone calls are the preferred method of contact. The information office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.
The park has over 800 miles of trails offering hikers a wide range of scenery including spectacular mountain vistas, rushing streams and waterfalls, historic structures, and quiet groves of old-growth forest. You can download a park trail map to find the location of trails, backcountry shelters, and campsites in the park.
Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations. Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a fine under Title 36, Code of Federal Regulations. Maximum fine for each violation is $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.
General Backcountry Regulations
1. Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters.
2. You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. You may not stay consecutive nights at campsite 113 or at any shelter.
3. Maximum party size is 8. Two parties affiliated with the same group may not stay in the same campsite or at the same shelter on the same night(s). Special permits may be issued for a few sites that accommodate parties of up to 12.
4. Fires are only allowed at designated campsites and shelters and must be contained in a fire ring. Constructing new fire rings is prohibited. You may only burn wood that is dead and already on the ground. You may not cut any standing wood.
5. It is illegal to possess firewood originating from a location from which a federal or state firewood quarantine is in effect. Read information about this quarantine and the states affected.
6. Building a fire in the fireplace of any historic structure or removing any parts of a historic structure, including brick or rock, is illegal.
7. Backcountry permit holders may not use tents at shelters.
8. Hammocks may only be used within designated backcountry campsites. They may not be used inside shelters and may not be attached to shelters in any way.
9. All odorous items (e.g., food, trash, lip balm, toothpaste, stock feed, hay etc) must be hung on the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.
10. Human waste must be disposed of at least 100 feet from any campsite, shelter, water source or trail and must be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep.
11. All food, trash, clothing, equipment or personal items must be packed out.
12. Burning food, trash or anything other than dead wood is prohibited.
13. Carving into or defacing trees, signs, shelters or other backcountry features is illegal.
14. Soap, even biodegradable soap, may not be used in any water sources. Bathing and washing dishes should be done well away from water sources and campsites.
15. No dogs or other pets are allowed on any park trails except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. No dogs or other pets may be carried into the backcountry.
16. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the backcountry.
17. No hunting is allowed anywhere in the park
18. Feeding, touching or teasing wildlife is prohibited. You may not willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of elk or bears.




The National Park Service maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations in the park:

• Abrams Creek
• Balsam Mountain
• Big Creek
• Cades Cove
• Cataloochee
• Cosby
• Deep Creek
• Elkmont
• Look Rock
• Smokemont

Bundles of firewood are available for sale in the communities surrounding the national park. In addition, the following campgrounds have on-site sales:

• Cades Cove (at Cades Cove Campground Store)
• Elkmont
• Smokemont (at Smokemont Riding Stables)

You can download a park map on our trail pages to find the locations of these campgrounds in the park.

Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets, but there are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. Shower facilities are available in the communities surrounding the national park. Please inquire about the nearest facilities when you check-in at the campground. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table.

During summer and fall, sites at Elkmont, Smokemont, Cades Cove, and Cosby may be reserved online or by phone at (877) 444-6777. Reservations are accepted only for May 15-Oct 31. All other campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Additional information about when you can make reservations.

In addition to individual campsites, several frontcountry campgrounds offer a limited number of group camping areas.

Campground Regulations

Food Storage
All food and equipment used to prepare and store food (stoves, pots, coolers, etc.) must be kept sealed in a vehicle (preferably the trunk) or in a camping unit constructed of solid, non-pliable material or as otherwise directed at all times when not in use. If your vehicle does not have a trunk for storing food and equipment, the following campgrounds have food storage lockers: Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, and Smokemont.

Dispose of garbage promptly in dumpsters provided. Unattended or improperly stored coolers and food may be impounded by campground staff and stored at the campground office. This regulation will be strictly enforced and violators are subject to fines.

You must register and pay a fee. Check in at the campground office or follow instructions on the Pay Station sign. Checkout or re-register by noon.

Family campgrounds are operated on a first-come, first–served basis, except that family sites at Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont and Smokemont can be reserved in advance for the period May 15 – October 31. Group sites require a reservation. Reservations can be made be calling 1-877-444-6777 or by visiting http://www.recreation.gov

Length of Stay
Your stay is limited to seven consecutive days from May 15 - October 31. A 14-consecutive-day limit applies from November 1 – May 14.

You may have up to six people per campsite.

No more than two motor vehicles or one vehicle with trailer are allowed per campsite. Please keep wheels, including trailer wheels and guest cars, on the pavement. Park only in designated spaces.

You may have two tents or one tent in addition to a motor home or trailer. Please keep tents on the pad, where provided.

Fires and Wood Gathering
Campfires are permitted only in fire grates. You may collect wood only if it is on the ground and dead. Firewood from the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and New York can not be brought into the national park. The United States Department of Agriculture has quarantined firewood from these states to prevent the spread of highly destructive insects that may be living in the wood.

Pets are allowed in the campground but must be confined or on a leash (6' maximum). Pets are not allowed on trails and should not be left unattended in the campground or your car. Please prevent excessive barking and properly dispose of pet waste.

Waste Water
Dish water and bath water must be drained at utility sinks or dump stations, not on the ground. Do not wash or bathe in streams or at water fountains. RV sewage should be drained only at a dump station. Showers and utility hookups are not available in the park. Showers may be available in nearby towns.

Quiet Hours and Generators
Quiet hours are in effect from 10 pm to 6 am. Generator use is prohibited from 8 pm to 8 am. During quiet hours, noise-producing equipment should be turned off and entry to the campground is limited to registered campers. Unreasonable noise, such as operating a generator for more than an hour at a time, is prohibited at any time. Please be considerate of other campers.

Alcohol is permitted in campgrounds and picnic areas, provided the person in possession is at least 21 years old.

Bicycles, Inline Skates and Skateboards
Bicycle riders must comply with all traffic regulations and are restricted to public roads, parking areas, and designated routes. The use of inline skates, skateboards or scooters is prohibited.

Prohibited Items
Fireworks, traps, weapons and the use of chainsaws are prohibited.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Contact

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. However some secondary roads, campgrounds, and other visitor facilities close in winter.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Visitor Information: (865) 436-1200

By Fax: 865-436-1220


Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park.

Three Visitor Centers are located within the national park at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, and Sugarlands. In addition, four Visitor Centers are located outside the park in the communities of Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Townsend. All Visitor Centers are open daily year-round, except Christmas Day.

Two historic grist mills are open seasonally in the park. Both provide demonstrations of corn meal milling.

Cades Cove Visitor Center
Open every day except Christmas Day.
January 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
February 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
March 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
April - August 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
September - October 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
November 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
December 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Inside the park near the mid-point of the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road.

Special Programs
Ranger-led programs are conducted seasonally. Check at the visitor center for times.

Indoor and outdoor exhibits of Southern Mountain life and culture. Includes Cable Mill, a grist mill which operates spring through fall, the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures.

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. Public restrooms.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Open every day except Christmas Day
January - April 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
May 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
June - August
8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
September - October 8:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
November - December 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Inside the park, 2 miles north of Cherokee, NC, on US-441.

Special Programs
Ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Check at the visitor center for location and times.

The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a fascinating collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn cribs and others. Demonstrations of farm life are conducted seasonally.

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. Public restrooms and telephones. Soda and water machines. Backcountry permit station.

Sugarlands Visitor Center
Open every day except Christmas Day.
January - February 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
March 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
April - May 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
June - August 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
September - October 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
November 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
December 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Inside the park, 2 miles south of Gatlinburg on US-441.

Special Programs
Ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Check at the visitor center for locations and times.

Free admission to 20-minute film about the park. Extensive natural history exhibits.

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. Public restrooms and telephones. Soda and water machines. Backcountry permit station.

Gatlinburg Welcome Center - Downtown
Open every day except Christmas Day.
10:00 a.m. -6:00 p.m.

At traffic light #3 on the parkway in downtown Gatlinburg.

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. City of Gatlinburg information. Public restrooms and telephones.

Gatlinburg Welcome Center - On the Spur btw Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg
Open every day except Christmas Day October
Sunday - Thursday 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Friday- Saturday 8:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.

November - April 8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Located 2 miles outside of Gatlinburg on US-441 South

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. City of Gatlinburg information. Public restrooms and telephones.

Sevierville Visitor Center
Open every day except Christmas Day.
8:30 a.m. -5:30 p.m.

Highway US-66 in Sevierville

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. Sevier County, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville information. Public restrooms and telephones.

Townsend Visitor Center
Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. January - May 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
June - October 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
November- December 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Townsend, Tennessee, on US-321.

Available Facilities
Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore and shop. Townsend and local area information. Public restrooms and telephones.

Historic Grist Mills

Cable Mill in Cades Cove, Open From March 15 through the Sunday following Thanksgiving 9:00-5:00

Inside the park near the mid-point of the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road.

Water-powered grist mill.

Mingus Mill near Oconaluftee
Open From March 15 through the Sunday following Thanksgiving 9:00-5:00

Inside the park, 2 miles north of Cherokee, NC, on US 441.

Turbine-powered grist mill.