With over nine million visitors annually, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of the USA’s National Parks and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a vast 2,114 km2 (816 sq mi) and sits on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Despite its popularity, many visitors choose to explore by car, so it’s easy to find peace and tranquillity on some of the 1,287.5 km (800 mi) of hiking trails that cross the park.
Almost 95% of the park is covered with forest: there are over 100 native species of trees, from deciduous at lower altitudes to coniferous higher up. There is a wide variation in elevations in the park from 267 to 2,025 m (~876 to 6,643 ft), and 16 mountains higher than 1,829 m (~6,000 ft). Along with a very high degree of rainfall, these factors provide conditions for a rich and staggering variety of plant and wildlife.
Over 17,000 species of plants, animals and invertebrates have been identified within the park and scientists estimate that there are a further 30-80,000 species as yet unrecorded. The American Black Bear is the most famous symbol of the area, with a resident population of around 1,500. Populations of river otter, elk and peregrine falcon, eradicated by the effects of human invasion into the area, have been successfully reintroduced since the park was established and gained protected status in 1934.
Besides hiking and those who come to simply view the Great Smoky Mountains, fishing is one of the main draws for visitors. However, drought in recent years has affected the once healthy population of native fish and restrictions are now in place. Horseback riding and cycling are available for those who don’t want to explore on foot.