Great Smoky Mountains National Park: World Heritage Site

Clouds settle over Great Smoky Mountains National Park. National Park Service photo.
Clouds settle over Great Smoky Mountains National Park. National Park Service photo.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River. No other region of equal size in a temperate climate zone can match the park’s amazing diversity of plants and animals. Over 17,000 species are documented in the park and researchers believe an additional 30,000 – 80,000 species live here.

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, formed approximately 200-300 million years ago. They are unique in their northeast to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate along their slopes during climatic changes such as the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. The glaciers of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without invading them. During that time, glaciers scoured much of North America but did not quite reach as far south as the Smokies. Thus, the Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years, allowing species eons to diversify.

Nearly 100 species of native trees find a home in the Great Smoky Mountains, more than in any other North American national park. Almost 95 percent of the park is forested, and about 25 percent of that area is old-growth forest -- one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forests remaining in North America.

It is no wonder that the Great Smoky Mountains was recognized as a National Park, a Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site.

Among the beautiful landscape of the Smoky Mountains is the history of communities and families. The park contains evidence of four pre-Columbian cultures: Mississippian, Woodland, Archaic and paleo-Indian. The early Woodland culture period is of special archeological importance because it shows the first evidence of organized horticulture in North America, with primitive agriculture on river floodplains. The American Indians used the caves of the Smoky Mountains for shelters and chipped gypsum and mirabilite off the walls. Later, saltpeter deposits were discovered in these same caves, and this valuable nitrate was removed and sent to be processed in gunpowder factories between 1809 and 1819.

This national park boasts one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States, including the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. This historic site transports the visitor back to the nineteenth century with a log farm house, barns, a working blacksmith shop, and apple house. Visitors are encouraged to explore the structures to better understand what life may have been like in these mountains two hundred years ago. There are many other historic locations throughout the park including Cataloochee and Cades Cove. Cataloochee was the most populated area of the Smoky Mountains in the early twentieth century and still has some existing buildings including the Beech Grove School, Palmer Chapel, and numerous frame houses. Cades Cove, and ideal spot for observing the wildlife of the park, has a rich history of settlements and community. The National Park Service has maintained Cades Cove as it would have looked in the early days of the settlers, and has restored several of the older log cabins and barns. Cabins and other farm buildings built in diversified architectural style are preserved well and to be visited, such as John Oliver Cabin. Three churches and fourteen cemeteries still exist in the park and are used by the public.

Two more historic locations are the Elkmont Historic District and the Roaring Fork Historic District. The Elkmont Historic District contains two hotel buildings, a social clubhouse, and more than sixty dwellings and outbuildings, representing vernacular designs during the early 20th century. Visitors can enjoy the scenery while camping on Elkmont campground surrounded by historic buildings. The Roaring Fork Historic District is designated to protect historic buildings from the 19th century. Visitors are invited to join a walk or auto tour on the Motor Nature Trail to view one of the larger and faster flowing mountain streams in the park and its wildflower sceneries.

The park offers a wide array of destinations to explore both its natural and the cultural history. Today, visitors can explore the Great Smoky Mountains via hiking trails, auto tours, wildlife excursions, horseback, and waterways -- encountering both nature and the history of the Great Smoky Mountains. This World Heritage Site and national park preserves a rich cultural tapestry of Southern Appalachian history. The hills and valleys of Appalachia contain a long human history spanning thousands of years, and the park strives to protect the structures, landscapes, and artifacts that tell the stories of the people who journeyed and settled there.

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Last updated: March 29, 2021