The Great Smoky Mountains – the most visited national park in the United States – turns 88 on June 15. What better way to say “Happy Birthday Smokies” then to visit, learn the history of these mountains, and experience all they have to offer.

beautiful smoky mountains

It took decades from conception to completion but finally on June 15, 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) was officially established. The U.S. government first approved the creation of a park in 1926, according to NPS.gov. In 2021, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw its busiest year to date, with 14,137,812 visits. That’s more than 1.5 million visits over the record set in 2019 and exceeds the number of visitors in 2020 by more than 2 million.

Happy Birthday Smokies – From The Beginning

The story goes: Ann Davis suggested a National Park in the Smokies when she and her husband returned from a trip visiting several Western national parks in 1923. This started discussion of the idea with leaders in the area, especially around Knoxville. Her husband, Willis Davis, began talking about the park idea with anyone who would listen. Ann Davis entered politics and in 1924 was elected the first female from Knox County to serve in the Tennessee State House of Representatives.

The successful work of the Davises and many others led to a national park that spreads across more than 800 square miles of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to amazing wildlife, breathtaking views, and some of the oldest mountains in the world.

The ultimate decision to establish a national park meant that the scenery, resources and some of the native architecture “would be protected for all people to enjoy into the infinite future.” Here, nature is allowed to run its course.

Facts About The GSMNP

It’s the only national park in the United States that was created using private funds. Local landowners and John D. Rockefeller donated money, with Rockefeller donating about $5 million dollars, creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“Unlike many national parks in the western United States, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t have an entrance fee. Before the park was established, North Carolina and Tennessee jointly built Newfound Gap Road to connect Gatlinburg to Cherokee. The government approached the states, and North Carolina immediately deeded the road over, while Tennessee deeded it over with an eternal land deed restriction: no toll or license fee will ever be created.”

Park It Forward

A recent development is a proposal to add a fee to the park to help maintain as visitors continue to increase. Public comment on the idea to create a fee system called “Park it Forward” was taken during May and results are expected this year. The plan proposes Parking Tags: Implement a modest parking fee with public input on price and duration. Tags would not be required for commuters or those on a scenic drive; Frontcountry Fees: Increase fees for campgrounds and picnic pavilions; and Backcountry Fees: Increase fees for backcountry permits. Read more about the proposal here.

Some grist mills are still working! In the pioneer days, people relied heavily on grist mills to grind cornmeal and flour. A popular destination in Pigeon Forge is The Old Mill, an operating grist mill where you can watch the wheel spin on the creek and purchase meal ground by the grist mill. Another is in Cades Cove, named the John P. Cable.

Wildflowers

More of wildflowers are native to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than any other national park

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Just imagine singing “Happy Birthday Smokies” from over 6000 feet in the air!

More than 90 historic structures—houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills—have been preserved or rehabilitated in the park.

Hiking

Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is centered around the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, which is a component of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area is also part of the greater Appalachian Mountain Range. The park is rich with natural beauty and features elevations ranging from 876 feet near Abrams Falls to about 6,600 feet at the peak of Clingmans Dome.

We love to go hiking here – there are trails for beginners and overnight experts. Hiking in the Smoky Mountains is one of the most popular activities in the park, where more than 150 hiking trails snaking their way through the park for over 800 miles within park limits. The trails also feature a 70-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail.

With so many miles of trail available, it’s sometimes difficult deciding where to begin. Check out our best places to hike blog post for some ideas. There also is a post on hiking trails for seniors.

Wildlife

Black Bear

Bears are some of the most popular animals in the Smokies – though fyi, they actually aren’t all black; they can be blue-gray or blue-black, brown, cinnamon or ever sometimes, though rarely, white. Experts say approximately 1,500 of these animals live in and around the Smoky Mountains.

For when and where to look for bear, plus bear safety, check out this blog post.

There are plenty of other animals to see in the Park too.

Mammals And More

There are some 65 other mammal species documented in the park including the white-tailed deer, groundhog, chipmunk, and some squirrel and bat species. More than 200 species of birds are regularly sighted in the park, 85 of those migrate from the neotropics. Some 120 species nest here, according to NPS.

“Surrounded by warm lowlands, the cool, moist, climate of the park’s highest elevations creates islands of habitat suitable for animals commonly found in more northern areas, allowing them to live far south of their present primary ranges. Northern species such as the northern flying squirrel, red squirrel, and rock vole thrive at high elevations, while the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Canada Warbler, Common Raven, and other birds reach their southernmost breeding point in the park” – NPS.

And fish – so many fish. More than 700 miles of streams, boast more than 50 native fish species, including the brook trout, the Smoky Madtom, Yellowfin Madtom, Spotfin Chub, and Duskytail Darter.

Another curious critter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the salamander. “Climatic and geologic factors have combined to spur the development of 30 salamander species in five families, making this one of the most diverse areas on earth for this order.” Lungless salamanders have undergone an extraordinary level of evolutionary diversification in the park – 24 species inhabit the park, making it the center of diversity for the family.

Preserving The Park

According to the National Park Service, “prior to park establishment in 1934, several animals native to the Smoky Mountains were eradicated by hunting, trapping, changing land uses, and other causes. Extirpated species include bison, elk, mountain lion, gray wolf, red wolf, fisher, river otter, Peregrine Falcon, and several species of fish. A primary goal of the National Park Service is to preserve the flora and fauna of the Smokies in a condition similar to that which existed prior to the arrival of modern, technological humans. In accordance with this mission, the National Park Service has helped reintroduce the river otter, elk, and Peregrine Falcon to the Smokies. Learn more about species now missing from the park.”

Momma and baby bear

While you’re out looking, how about a game of Wildlife Bingo!

It’s a great activity while you’re visiting the Smoky Mountains and it helps everyone in your group keep an eye out for all of the beauty and surprises the region has to offer.

Perfect for kids, and great for romantic getaways, wildlife bingo is a lot of laughs.

Wildlife Bingo can help get you and your loved ones raring to go each day. You may just be surprised at what you see along the way!  Best of all, Wildlife Bingo is easy to play. Check out the link above for rules and how to make your bingo cards!

Must See In The Smokies

One sure way to say “Happy Birthday Smokies”, is to enjoy it in person! Some of our favorite places and things to do include visiting Cades Cove, going on a waterfall hike, taking a scenic drive and visiting the Skypark for spectacular views just above town.

Beautiful Cades Cove is a popular destination in the Park – known for its stunning views, hiking trails, 11-mile walking and biking loop and the wildlife often playing and hanging out there.

Read about the Cades Coves trails here.

Baskin’s Creek – The Hidden Waterfall

 

scenic drive
Several Scenic Drives are worth the gas

 

sky bridge
The Skybridge at the Skypark above Gatlinburg

Rent A Cabin

Stay in a cabin the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s nothing better than having a base camp to explore from during your trip.

Or maybe you’re planning your next visit and want to coordinate around fun events in the Smoky Mountains region. When it comes to GatlinburgPigeon Forge, and the Smoky Mountains, we’ve got your covered.

If there’s one bad part of our travels to the region it’s this: There’s always so much to do!

From the hottest deals to new restaurants, cabin rentals, and the newest attractions there’s always something new to learn about when it comes to Smoky Mountain travel.

You don’t have to plan your next trip alone.  We have so many guides to help!  Give our Reservations staff a call at 800-204-5169 or check out our website to find the best cabin for your family’s trip to the mountains. No matter your group size or budget, American Patriot Getaways has a cabin for you!

Grande Mountain Lodge, a 5 bedroom rental cabin in Pigeon Forge, TN

So, Happy Birthday Smokies!

And you make sure to follow us on Instagram and Facebook to keep up with everything the area has to offer.

Click here now to find out all about the latest local deals to plan a great getaway.

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