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Mossy cascade in mountain stream. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, Appalachian, USA | by Jeff Rose Photography
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Mossy cascade in mountain stream. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, Appalachian, USA

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a United States National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park. It is the most visited national park in the United States. On its route from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail also passes through the center of the park. The park was chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. It encompasses 814 square miles (2,110 km2), making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The main park entrances are located along U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) at the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. It was the first national park whose land and other costs were paid for in part with federal funds; previous parks were funded wholly with state money or private funds.

 

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 reach higher than 6,000 feet (1829 m).

The wide range of elevations mimics the latitudinal changes found throughout the entire eastern United States. Indeed, ascending the mountains is comparable to a trip from Tennessee to Canada. 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.

  

The observation tower at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the national park.

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,[8] while southern species are expanding.[9]

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 is more annual rainfall than anywhere in the United States outside the Pacific Northwest and parts of Alaska. It is also generally cooler than the lower elevations below, and 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. 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 blocks of deciduous, temperate, old growth forest in North America.

The variety of elevations, the abundant rainfall, and the presence of old growth forests give the 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 re-introduction of elk (wapiti) into the park began in 2001.

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.

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Taken on January 31, 2010