Exploring a Floral Hot-Spot
Wander the deep, dark woods of the Great Smoky Mountains and you'll enjoy perhaps the richest exponent of the Southern Appalachian forests, renowned for their biological richness. There are more than 1,600 species of flowering plants in the national park. Because of the great altitude varieties in the Great Smokies, one can hike through the major forest zones of eastern North America on a single trail, from cove hardwood forests in lower drainages to spruce-fir associations on 6,000-foot peaks.
Check out mammoth trees on a number of hiking routes, like the Alum Cave Bluff and Fork Ridge trails, which access some of the Smokies' virgin timber. The mountains harbor the greatest remaining old-growth forest in the eastern United States. Between 100,000 and 200,000 acres of trees in the national park were never logged due to the ruggedness of the terrain, and serve to demonstrate the historic scale of North America's great eastern forests prior to Euro-American development.
Some summits in the Great Smokies are bare of trees and occupied instead by rocky grassland heaths and shrub thickets. These "balds," as they are known, offer worthy hiking destinations, providing the breathtaking summit views of endless rolling ridges the Appalachians are renowned for. According to the text Timberline, it is thought that balds owe their origin to a combination of factors: climatic variation may have both extinguished spruce-fir forest and lowered hardwood treeline on some summits, and burning and grazing by Indians and Euro-Americans alike probably also prevented successful re-colonization by trees.
The floral variety of the Great Smokies is mirrored by its great assortment of animal life. The range supports one of the most diverse populations of salamanders in the world; some 30 species can be found, including the hellbender, one of the largest known. The Park Service estimates a density of two American black bears per square mile in the national park, one of the highest on the continent. Keep your eyes peeled while hiking, and cruise the Cades Cove Loop Road at dawn and dusk, to view the plentiful white-tailed deer. Elk, re-introduced in 2001, are most commonly seen in the Cataloochee Valley. You may also come across signs of non-native wild boar.
Take the bicycle for a spin on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which winds through a pastoral valley framed by densely-forested mountains. The road, also popular for auto-touring, is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings before 10 a.m. from the second week of May until the second to last Saturday in September---a great opportunity to bike the Cove in peace and quiet. Aside from wildlife, check out the numerous historic buildings, testament to Euro-American settlement history in the Smokies. The Cades Cove Campground Store offers bicycle rentals in summer and fall.
If you need a break from rhododendron thickets and mountain-top balds, you'll find plenty of activity in the Appalachian towns bordering the park. On the Tennessee side, take in Dolly Parton's appropriately named Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge. Cherokee, North Carolina, offers cultural demonstrations to broaden awareness of the Cherokee Nation, for whom the Great Smokies are an important geographic and spiritual landmark. And considering the Smokies' location, you're apt to hear some great Americana music in the neighborhood.