Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the great wild areas of the eastern United States and the most visited national park in the United States. From a roadside lookout or from a clearing in a trail, in every visible direction you can see the mountains march toward a vast horizon of wilderness.
Some of the tallest mountains in the East are here, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet. The highest in the park, Clingmans Dome, was reputedly the original inspiration for the folk song "On Top of Old Smoky." It rises 6,643 feet above sea level and 4,503 feet above the valley floor. These are also some of the oldest mountains in the world, far older than the Rockies, the Alps, or the Andes. Geologists say the building of what are now the Great Smokies began about a billion years ago.
Today, the park hosts around 9 million visitors each year, more than twice as many as the second-most-visited national park, the Grand Canyon. Even so, with more than 814 square miles of protected land, if you get out of your car you can soon be in a remote cove where your closest neighbors are deer, bobcats, and black bears.
Due to a fortuitous combination of moderate climate and diverse geography, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most biologically rich spots on Earth. Bears are the most famous animal in the park, but elk are also making the Smokies their home for the first time in 150 years. The Park Service also attempted to reintroduce red wolves to the park, but due to high pup mortality the effort was discontinued in the late 1990s; however, visitors occasionally report seeing what they believe is a wolf. But it is not just large mammals that make it special. The Smokies have been called the "salamander capital of the world," with at least 30 different salamander species. It is also one of the few places on Earth where, for a few evenings in June, you can see synchronous fireflies flashing in perfect unison.
The park offers extraordinary opportunities for other outdoor activities: it has world-class hiking, on more than 850 miles of trails, ranging from easy half-hour nature walks to weeklong backpacking treks. Although backcountry hiking has its wonders, some of the most interesting sights in the park can be seen from the comfort of your car or motorcycle. You can explore old farms and mountain homesteads, or watch cornmeal ground at a working gristmill.