America's most visited national park features about 520,000 acres that stretch across five counties in Tennessee and North Carolina. Great Smoky Mountains National Park's free admission, impressive variety of flora and fauna, and easy accessibility to one-third of the U.S. population—reachable by a little more than a day’s drive in most cases—make it a must-see destination for more than 12 million people each year. Here are 11 facts to know before you head for the Smokies.
1. The Great Smoky Mountains’ signature haze is created by evaporation and high elevation.
Some parts of the park receive over 80 inches of annual rainfall. That, combined with the evaporation from the trees, creates the characteristic wispy clouds that weave through the mountains. That dreamy mist is the inspiration behind the smoky nickname that has lasted for centuries; the Cherokee called the region Shaconage, which translates to “place of the blue smoke.”
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s creation was sparked, in part, by a travel writer's new lease on life ...
After he lost his job and his wife left with their six children, librarian and writer Horace Kephart opted for a clean start in the Smokies. Mountain life inspired him to write Camping and Woodcraft: A Guidebook for Those Who Travel in the Wilderness, still considered a must-read for serious outdoor enthusiasts.
Eventually, concern over logging companies' decades-old practice of stripping the forests motivated him to protect his beloved Appalachian home. Along with likeminded people, including motorists involved with the American Automobile Association, Kephart worked to get the area designated as a park. Unfortunately, Kephart was killed in a 1931 car crash before he got a chance to see the results of his efforts. To recognize his contributions to the national treasure, a 6217-foot peak in the park was named Mount Kephart.
3. ... And help from a Japanese photographer.
George Masa, born Masahara Iizuka, immigrated from Osaka, Japan, to the U.S. to study mining. After working at an upscale hotel near the Smokies, he eventually opened his own photography studio. Masa photographed the Great Smoky Mountains, and his images (usually accompanied by text from his friend Kephart) were used in articles and other promotional materials to support the creation of the national park.
4. The land for Great Smoky Mountains National Park was purchased in an unconventional way.
To create the national park, Congress required that only money from the states or private donations be used to buy the land. Residents of Tennessee and North Carolina pledged $5 million for the project; still, that was only half of the amount they needed. Fortunately, John D. Rockefeller donated the additional $5 million after seeing Kephart and Masa’s work, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt allocated the last $1.5 million needed to complete the project. This was the first time federal funds were used to buy land for a national park.
5. An ample amount of amphibians live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Visitors make the trek to spot black bears, elk, and white-tailed deer, but the Smokies are also home to over 30 species of salamanders. In fact, the park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World. Although they are amphibians and not reptiles, the salamanders are sometimes referred to locally as “spring lizards.”
6. Cataloging the biodiversity at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a community effort.
Discover Life in America’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory catalogs the staggering variety of wildlife in the park and estimates that there are more than 100,000 different organisms in the Great Smokies. Citizen scientists help with other projects, such as replanting ginseng and collecting dragonflies for mercury testing.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been internationally recognized for its plant and animal life.
Because of its vast array of plant and animal life, the park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. More than 100 types of native trees and shrubs have been identified in the park—more variety than all of Northern Europe.
8. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been used as a TV set.
In the 1950s, Disney produced a television-series-turned-live-action film called Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Some scenes for the show about America’s favorite frontiersman were filmed at the park, specifically around the Mountain Farm Museum area.
9. Dolly Parton has served as an official park ambassador for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
U.S. senators and representatives, state governors, and the Secretary of the Interior all attended the re-dedication of the park on its 75th anniversary in 2009, but they might have been overshadowed by the presence of Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton, who performed at the event as an official park ambassador.
10. Historic buildings are featured throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The legacy of 18th- and 19th-century Appalachian settlers lives in the more than 90 historic structures on park grounds, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cades Cove Loop Road showcases some of the best examples of early Appalachian architecture, including the John Oliver Cabin (built in 1822 and the oldest structure in the park), Primitive Baptist Church, and Methodist Church.
11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park's only hotel offers a no-frills place to stay.
The LeConte Lodge is the only indoor lodging available on park grounds, but visitors shouldn’t expect a luxurious stay. Opened in 1926 and accessible only by hiking, there is no running water, electricity, or telephone at this location atop Mount Le Conte. The trek to LeConte is so steep that trained llamas are used to carry supplies to the lodge three days a week.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.