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:
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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.
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.
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.