5 Secrets of the Smoky Mountains That May Surprise You

Eastern Hellbender

The Eastern Hellbender, which can be found in the Smoky Mountains, can reach as much as 29 inches in length (photo by ondreicka/stock.adobe.com)

Tennessee local lists favorite little-known facts about the Smokies

I always say that it’s no surprise an ancient mountain range cloaked in a thick forest and shrouded in mist has secrets. Each year, the mountains reclaim that which was forgotten or abandoned when the park drove away those who’d lived in the mountains. Of course, the National Park Service has done a good job of protecting the larger pieces of history. Still, I think it would take a lifetime to uncover every secret the mountains have. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite secrets and little-known facts that I enjoy telling visitors:

Red-backed Salamander
The Smoky Mountains are home to several species of salamanders, like this Southern Red-backed Salamander (photo by Cavan-Images/stock.adobe.com)

1. The Smokies is a salamander paradise

After that build-up, I can understand if you were expecting something a little more … mystical. But, when I think of wildlife in the Smokies, I think of deer and bear and elk, not lizard-like amphibians dwelling in the mountain streams. But did you know that on any given day, the most populous vertebrate in the park isn’t human visitors or even deer? According to the National Park Service, it’s salamanders. The wide variety of salamanders includes the bright-colored black-chinned red salamanders as well as an evolutionary divergent class of lungless salamanders known as Plethodontidae.

And here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: the Eastern Hellbender, which can reach as much as 29 inches in length, is the largest of all Smoky Mountain salamanders. Also known as snot otters, they live under rocks in mountain streams. Also, I’d like to note that the NPS encourages visitors not to move rocks in streams for fear of damaging the salamander habitat, which has been unfortunately shrinking.

newfound gap overlook
An overlook at Newfound Gap along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina (photo by eurobanks/stock.adobe.com)

2. There’s a monument dedicated to the Rockefellers

Do you like the National Park? You can thank Rockefeller. Sure, the man may have been a robber baron, but John D. Rockefeller played a large role in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rockefeller donated $5 million – in memory of his wife Laura – towards the purchase of the land in the park. The Smokies was the first national park to purchase land from a private individual. And three years after Rockefeller’s passing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the mountains in 1940 to dedicate the park at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. A large monument commemorates Laura’s memory and Rockefeller’s gift.

3. Artists helped save the park from logging

While you’re thanking Rockefeller for the National Park, also be sure to thank an artist. Private citizens, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, and yes, an insanely rich robber baron, ponied up the money for the park. But it was the work of artists such as Japanese immigrant George Masa and super librarian/author Horace Kephart who helped drum up public opinion to save the park from logging companies that were cutting down forests like locusts. Masa’s photos helped convey the natural beauty of the Smokies as something worth preserving around the world while Kephart, a devoted outdoorsman, wrote eloquently in favor of the park.

bull elk with a calf
Elk have been reintroduced to the park (photo by Harry Collins/stock.adobe.com)

4. Some species have disappeared, and others have been reintroduced

While several species such as elk, river otters and the peregrine falcon have been reintroduced to the Smokies, several species are still gone. The Carolina parakeet, a brightly-colored parakeet that ate farm crops, is among the missing species. The fox squirrel, a large, red-coated squirrel that thrived when fires often burned through the mountains, is also missing. Additionally, the red wolf is missing, a critically endangered species worldwide. The park service tried to reintroduce the animal to the park in 1991 at Cades Cove. However, the pack didn’t establish, and the effort was dropped in 1999.

Eastern pumas or cougars also once lived in the mountains. Every once in a while you’ll hear reports of a panther sighting or footprint, but to my knowledge, there hasn’t been that type of big cat in the mountains for generations. Like their red wolf brothers, once there were grey wolves in the Smokies as well. Now, there are no wolves in the park, but there are coyotes.

5. The Smokies are home to several endangered species

While several animals have been reintroduced to the park, the Smokies are home to several endangered and threatened species. Among them are the Indiana bat, Carolina northern flying squirrel and Gray bat. There are also endangered plants, like the rock gnome lichen.

Did you learn anything new? Do you know of any little-known facts about the Great Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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13 thoughts on “5 Secrets of the Smoky Mountains That May Surprise You”

  1. I used to work day shift and got up before daylight. One morning in my remote cabin, I heard the most bone chilling scream at 6:30 am. Then silence. It was like a woman but with a side of not quite human. If you look up panther scream on YouTube you will hear what it sounds like. Panthers are still here. Just smarter than the ones looking for them.

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  2. Love the smokies. Used to visit them every year but we are on our 80s now and can’t. Miss them a Marti

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  3. My husband and I has then to the Great Smoky Mountains many times in our lives. For me it is the most beautiful place on Earth. When we think about traveling now in our latter years, we always think of going back one last time To Paradise here on this Earth.

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  4. Love the smokies. My husband and I started taking our 4 children now a daughter lives in Townsand and a grandson named after cade Cove. .My husband passed away 2 yrs ago. I just turned 79 Don’t go as much. My happy place

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  5. I walked up to the tower in the early 1970’s as a young adult. I had on sandles & blistered the bottom of my feet, very painful. Wear good walking or hiking shoes with socks.

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  6. I was born and raised in the mountains. I live on the prairie now but still own my homeplace. I miss it every day. You can take the girl out of the country but not the country out of the girl! I love it there.

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  7. From a retired Portuguese-Irish-American commoner: 2 things: I’ve been there several times since the 70’s and have never been to Cades Cove. My take, if there’s hundreds of thousands of acres there has to be other areas that are as good or better than a tourist trap. Speaking of that, what about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It’s almost become a farce. The latest thing is R.N.’s (not Nurses) running up and down the main streets with old Japanese cars and no mufflers. I rode the Tram in Oct. 2019. You could hear and follow them from the top! We can do better. That’s for Police and City Leaders.
    I honestly thought after the fire there’d be many needed improvements. Yes, but it was a walking bridge? Nice idea, when your up there listen for the RN folks. You might even find a nice parking space for your sleigh. I still love the Park but I know we can do better.
    Merry Christmas but not at the expense of your devoted fans.

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  8. One of the most beautiful places on this earth and dear to this Tennessee girl’s heart is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
    In my memories, when I was a student at the University of Tennessee, the Smokies was where my peace and solitude lived. The rushing of waters transforms you; you can almost believe you are in another world!
    We must help to preserve the wild life there, as it is a big part of that slice of heaven on earth. Thank you all for the memories……

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  9. I live in the Great Smoky Mountains in a little town called Bryson City when I was growing up my mom and I often heard a panther’s scream at night and my mom would never let my oldest sister and I out after dark or any of my other sister’sand they are still around now for I have heard them and I am 67 now .

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