Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Most Visited Protected Zone on Earth

Name: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (United States of America).
Location: in The Appalachian Mountains, between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Area: 514,681 acres.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Eastern Coast of the United States is flanked by a large mountain range which goes from the lowlands of Alabama to the Canadian boundary. The Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains define this way two well-delimited basins: the Atlantic Basin, occupied by a coastal overcrowded plain, and the Mississippi Basin, on which are located one of the richest agricultural lowlands on Earth.

The Appalachian Mountains were first seen in the colonial era, like an impressive obstacle that made difficult the displacement to the West. They were also a meeting point for privileged hunters, trappers, always looking to find the finest furs. The forest treasures which are enclosed by these mountains, changed this conception at the beginning of the 20th century, starting a quick exploitation of its forests.

As a response to these abusive logging operations which threatened the existence of the mountains, in 1926 the authorities officially declared the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in the central section of The Appalachian Mountains, between two states: Tennessee and North Carolina.

Foggy Mountains

The Appalachians are old, three times older than the Rocky Mountains, of more softened contours. In Great Smoky, situated as we said in the middle part of The Appalachians, mountains don't reach an excessive height, being the highest point in Clingmans Dome (6,642 feet high), in the protected space's heart. 17 peaks more reach the 5,904 feet high mark -for instance, Gregory Bald, Thunderhead, Kephart, Charlies Bunion or Guyot-, mostly located on a backbone that establishes the separation between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Most of superficial rocks of The Appalachians are metamorphic rocks, severely deformed, which originated in the Hercynian orogeny in Late Paleozoic. Under these have been discovered layers of sedimentary rocks, which can reach a thickness of 12 miles in depth and that talk about a very likely marine past.

The particular situation of these mountains allows them to get the Atlantic humid air masses, which precipitate there, pouring their large amounts of water. This way, annual precipitations are in the range between 70-90 inches, which added to the soft temperature conditions, provoke an important development of the forests. The fogs are relatively frequent, forming in occasions columns that rise towards the sky and reminds people of the smoke of a large cigar.

The diverse elevations and erosions that these mountains have suffered since their formation, forced the fluvial network to adapt to different structures, redefining its courses. The traces from old river networks can be perceived in the landscape nowadays, resulting in a characteristic relief known as "Appalachian". The frequent precipitations induce the presence of 22 large rivers, 33 important tributaries and 10 impressive waterfalls, as well as innumerable mountain streams and smaller waterfalls. The union of older courses with newer ones creates a complex and highly developed hydrographic system, which causes a fragmented orography where spines, buttresses and winding valleys are the most notable actors.

A Meadowland Island

The geographical situation of Great Smoky between the coastal plains and Great Plains allowed the subsistence of multiple plants and animals from colder climates in the mountains, after the Quaternary Glaciations. An example of these circumstances is the presence of the red spruce from Canada and the one of the hemlock, an endemic fir species in the area.

Great Smoky encloses vast deciduous formations, empowered by the favorable climate conditions. There are 10 oak tree species in the park, as well as magnificent beech forests. The tulip trees and the rhododendrons add that touch of color to the forests. The mountain laurel forms small jungles, difficult to cross, known colloquially as "wool heads" for its particular look.

Regarding conifers, Great Smoky encloses the largest red spruce forest in the world. In the area of the Raven Fork Stream, perhaps the wildest of the entire park, with closed trails to the vehicles for the last 25 years, this species mixes up with the Fraser fir, a species with an imposing size. From the six species of pines that can be found in the area, the most important is Pinus pungens, exclusive from the southern section of the Appalachian Mountains. Also, narrow-leaf pines and pitch create extensive forest masses in the Rich Mountain, Cades Cove, Elkmont and Greenbier areas.

The great fauna treasure in Great Smoky are the amphibians and, more particularly, the salamanders, existing 27 different species of this animal in the park. Among them, is included one of the world's largest species, which can reach up to 30 inches long and it is known as hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.) At least 50 species of mammals live in the park, from which half are rodents. Important mammals to mention are the black bear, the puma, the racoon and the red fox. Regarding birds, we can see 200 different species, highlighting the peregrine falcon and the small beak of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The unmatched faunistic overview from the American East, is completed with 38 species of reptiles -7 tortoises and turtles, 8 lizards and 23 snakes- and more than 70 species of fish.

Almost a century later since its declaration, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is visited each year by more than 10 million people, being the most visited National Park not only in America but also in the entire world.

Balds in the Mountain

The Great Smoky Mountains present in specific areas, the so-called "natural balds", which allow the existence of rich pastures and, as a consequence, of hoofed animals. These unpopulated woodlands (balds) have a major environmental importance, and they are occupied by animals, lovers of the sun and endemic moisture of the park.

According to a Cherokee legend, for a very long time a monster that lived in these mountains stole from them their children, eating them later in the deep woods. The Great Manitou, tired of so much cruelty, threw a bunch of rays which ended with the undesirable creature and as a result, the balds that sprinkle the mountains were formed.

The biologists, foreign to the Indian Tradition, have been searching the origin of the balds in ground hollows without natural drainage that, as a consequence of the precipitations, bear high humidity levels. These particular conditions prevent the trees from rooting and favor moss growth, therefore these formations keep a close similarity with the peatlands.

Source: Wikipedia

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