Tennessee and North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunrise in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Robert Baker

Humans have long lived among the natural wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains, a place of breathtaking natural beauty with a vast variety of landscapes, plants, and animals. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina preserves and interprets the natural and cultural heritage of this area. Also designated an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, the park covers 800 square miles of mountainous land and protects more than 100 tree species, 1,500 flowering plants, dozens of native fish, over 200 species of birds and 60 mammals, and the evidence of how people used the area over time. The Great Smoky Mountains has a varied and complex human history in which American Indians, European and American explorers and settlers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, loggers, miners, and mountain people all played a role. With its nearly 80 historic buildings and structures and its magnificent natural landscapes, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an exciting destination, sure to inspire a sense of awe.

The Great Smoky Mountains had already been inhabited for thousands of years before the first white settlers reached the area in the late 1700s. Paleo Indians occupied the area during prehistoric times. Later, around 1000 A.D., the Cherokee Indians--a branch of the Iroquois nation--inhabited the area. By the time Europeans arrived in the Great Smoky Mountains, which the Cherokee named “Shaconage,” or “place of blue smoke,” they encountered a well-established matriarchal society with permanent towns, cultivated croplands, well instituted political systems, and an extensive network of trails.

In their communities, the Cherokee built homes made of wooden frames covered in woven vines and saplings plastered with mud (replaced in later years by log structures). They also constructed council houses, where they held ceremonies. The tribe made important decisions through a democratic process in their council houses, whereby a Peace Chief counseled during peaceful times and a War Chief during times of conflict, and all tribal members had the opportunity to voice their concerns. The Cherokee usually located their communities in fertile river bottoms because they provided good locations for planting ‘the three sisters’--corn, beans, and squash. While the women gathered wild food and cultivated ‘the three sisters,’ Cherokee men hunted and fished throughout the Great Smoky Mountains wilderness. 

Cherokee life drastically changed during the 1700s and 1800s, largely due to the arrival of European and American settlers. Initially the Cherokee, the Europeans, and the Americans co-existed relatively peacefully. They traded with one another, adopted one another’s technologies and other aspects of one another’s cultures, sometimes intermarried, and shared food. Eventually, however, as the white population expanded and as their desire for land grew, conflicts became more prevalent. First the British and then the United States forced the Cherokee, who were organized as the Cherokee nation by the early 1800s, to sign over much of their land.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the “Indian Removal Act” which resulted in the removal of almost all southeastern American Indians from their homelands to west of the Mississippi River. In 1838, nearly 14,000 Cherokees from the East were removed from their homes and forced to make the trek westward to Oklahoma and Arkansas. During this six month journey, known as the “Trail of Tears,” more than 4,000 Cherokees died from exposure, disease, cold, and hunger. Many Cherokee resisted removal and a small group in western North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Cherokee, negotiated to say on their homeland in the Southeast in 1838. In the park, overlooks at Balsam Mountain and Heintooga Ridge provide visitors with a view of the vast wilderness where some Cherokee Indians retreated to avoid removal on the “Trail of Tears.” 

Europeans and Americans came to settle the Great Smokies to farm, mine, and log the forests, and eventually to protect the land with its amazingly diverse landscape, natural resources, and cultural heritage. The nearly 80 historic buildings and structures z throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the many acres of preserved environment provide visitors with an opportunity to behold a site of millions of years of natural history and thousands of years of human history. 

In the park, visitors can take a walk or drive through Cades Cove (a National Register of Historic Places Historic District) or Cataloochee Valley to view the impressive landscapes where the Cherokee once hunted and where white settlers later formed small communities. Surrounded by mountains, Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley with a variety of wildlife. Visitors may glimpse white-tailed deer, of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals. Europeans came between 1818 and 1821, leaving behind historic buildings such as the three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored 18th and 19th century buildings and structures scattered along the loop road.

Cataloochee Valley is surrounded by 6000-foot peaks. A variety of preserved historic buildings are in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. This is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in what was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The estimated 1,200 people who lived here in 1910 farmed and made their living from the early tourism in the area. Cataloochee also abounds with wildlife such as deer, elk, and turkey, which visitors may spot, especially if they take to the fields in the morning or evening. The Boogerman Trail is a seven-mile loop in Cataloochee that takes hikers by picturesque landscapes and the historic remains of early settlements.

Visitors can also explore the Oconaluftee area, much of which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This area offers both a visitor center and the Mountain Farm Museum, which is a collection of historic log buildings gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains and preserved on a single site. Two excellent walking trails start from the vicinity of the museum. Visitors can follow the 1.5 mile Oconaluftee River Trail that connects the Oconaluftee Visitor Center’s Mountain Farm Museum with the Qualla Boundary (a Cherokee Reservation that is open to the public and lies just south of the park). The trail has wayside signs about the cultural and spiritual significance of the mountains to the Cherokee. Once in the Qualla Boundary, visitors can experience Oconaluftee Cherokee Indian culture and tradition through the programs, museums, and the traditional Cherokee village on the reservation.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Visit this website for directions and maps. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files: Cades Cove Historic District: text and photos. The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; however, some secondary roads, campgrounds, and other visitor facilities close in the winter. For a complete listing of the specific hours of operation of visitor centers and information about seasonal openings and closings, please click here. For more information, visit the National Park Service Great Smoky Mountains National Park website or call 865-436-1200.

Several features in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.


Last updated: August 7, 2017