Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, the lower section in latitude of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which divides the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park. Plants and animals common in the country's Northeast have found suitable ecological niches in the park's higher elevations, while southern species find homes in the balmier lower reaches.
Site history & management
The park was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. It encompasses 814 square miles (2,108 km²), making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern U.S.It was the first national park whose land was paid for in part with federal funds; previous parks were funded wholly with state money or private funds. It is the most visited national park in the U.S., and on its route from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail also passes through the center of the park.
The park normally has very high humidity and precipitation, averaging from 55 inches (1,400 mm) per year in the valleys to 85 inches (2,200 mm) per year on the peaks. This area receives more annual rainfall than anywhere else in the U.S. outside of the Pacific Northwest and parts of Alaska. Most of the park has a humid continental climate more comparable to locations much farther north, as opposed to the humid subtropical climate in the lowlands.
Elevations in the park range from 876 feet (267 m) at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet (2,025 m) at the summit of Clingmans Dome. Within the park a total of sixteen mountains are greater than 6,000 feet (1,829 m). The wide range of elevation mimics the latitudinal changes found throughout the entire eastern U.S.
The park is almost 95 percent forested, and almost 36 percent of it, 187,000 acres (760 km2), is estimated by the Park Service to be old growth forest with many trees that predate European settlement of the area. It is one of the largest stands of deciduous, temperate, old growth forest in North America. Over 100 species of trees grow in the park. The lower region forests are dominated by deciduous leafy trees. At higher altitudes, deciduous forests give way to coniferous trees like Fraser Fir. In addition, the park has over 1,400 flowering plant species and over 4,000 species of non-flowering plants.
The variety of elevations, the abundant rainfall, and the presence of old growth forests give Great Smoky Mountain Park an unusual richness of biota. About 10,000 species of plants and animals are known to live in the park, and estimates as high as an additional 90,000 undocumented species may also be present. Park officials count more than 200 species of birds, 66 species of mammals, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles and 43 species of amphibians, including many lungless salamanders. The park has a noteworthy black bear population, numbering at least 1,800. An experimental reintroduction of elk (wapiti) into the park began in 2001. During the most recent ice age, the northeast-to-southwest orientation of the Appalachian mountains allowed species to migrate southward along the slopes rather than finding the mountains to be a barrier. As climate warms, many northern species are now retreating upward along the slopes and withdrawing northward, while southern species are expanding.
Biodiversity along elevational gradients respond to climatic change in various ways. A key attribute in choosing Great Smoky is that it provides robust conditions to test ecological theory in the controls of biodiversity movement and change in species composition and associated ecosystem processes.