Although the Smoky Mountains rise to a height of more than 6,000 feet, none of the mountain tops can really be considered to be above timberline. According to the National Park Service, the few balds that do occur on summits are a result of past forest fires and should not be considered part of the alpine zone. However, the thick mantle of red spruce, Frasier fir (mostly depleted), yellow birch, mountain maple, mountain-ash and blueberrries that covers the high peaks does resemble some of the conifer forests found much farther north.
Northern Hardwood Forest
Below the conifer forest grows a group of hardwoods that you might expect to find in northern New England. The dominant trees include the American beech and yellow birch, while other species such as the sugar maple, buckeye and wild cherry occur less frequently. Mountain laurel and the Catawba rhododendron frequent the understory, adding much spring color when the flowers are in bloom.
On drier sites and at slightly lower elevations, the northern beech-birch forest gives way to an oak and pine mixture. Among the pines, amateur botanists might find the table mountain, pitch and white pine. Mixed in with the pines are the red, scarlet, black and chestnut oaks. Also present in smaller amounts are a few species of hickories, the yellow poplar and the flowering dogwood. This type of forest can also be found growing in the hills that surround Cades Cove.
Small rivers, streams and waterfalls are very abundant in the dissected landscape of the Great Smokies, providing numerous trails where hikers can stroll next to cascading torrents of foamy water. Alongside these streams the eastern hemlock dominates and if left alone these conifers will grow well past the height of 100 feet. Also present are the red maple, river birch, yellow poplar and Rosebay rhododendron.
In the lowest valleys, a hardwood forest grows that is similar to bottomlands found all across the South. Of major importance is the majestic tulip tree, which is sometimes called the yellow poplar. Also known as the tulip poplar, this tree often develops a very wide trunk with branches that begin high above the forest floor. Next to this massive tree you might find a yellow buckeye, red maple, basswood, sweet gum, black birch, flowering dogwood, white ash or black cherry. Overall, the Smoky Mountain region has nearly 150 kinds of trees and shrubs, so the botanical diversity here is really quite large.