It should come as no surprise that an ancient mountain range cloaked in a thick forest and shrouded in mist has secrets.
Many of those are lost to time. Each year, the mountains reclaim that which was forgotten or abandoned when the park drove away those who’d lived in the mountains.
The National Park Service has done a good job of protecting the larger pieces of history: the cabins, the mills and even the mountain retreats built for the wealthy.
It would take a lifetime of research to uncover all of the Great Smoky Mountain secrets. Such a thing is not even really possible. But here are some of our favorite secrets and little known facts that have been revealed to us over the years.
5. The Smokies is a salamander paradise
OK. After that build up, I can understand if you were expecting something a little more … mystical.
But, when we think of wildlife in the Smokies, we think of deer and bear and elk, not lizard-like amphibians dwelling in the mountain streams.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), on any given day, the most populous vertebrate in the park isn’t human visitors or even deer. It’s salamanders.
The wide variety of salamanders include the bright colored black-chinned red salamanders as well as an evolutionary divergent class of lungless salamanders known as Plethodontidae.
Look, I may be an old-fashioned guy, but in my house, salamanders have lungs and breathe air. They do not “breathe” through the walls of tiny blood vessels in their skin and the linings of their mouths and throats. That’s just wrong.
The Eastern Hellbender, which can reach as much as 29 inches in length and give me nightmares, is the largest of all Smoky Mountain salamanders.
Also known as snot otters, they live under rocks in mountain streams. The NPS encourages visitors not to move rocks in streams for fear of damaging the salamanders’ habitat, which has been rapidly shrinking.
It makes me think of Norman Maclean’s famous poem, “A River Runs through It.”
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.
On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by the waters.”
4. There’s a monument dedicated to the Rockefellers in the park
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 for the land of the park. The Smokies were the first national park to purchase land from a private individual.
Three years after Rockefeller’s death, 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.
“For the permanent enjoyment of the people, this park was given one half by the people and states of North Carolina and Tennessee and by the people of the United States of America and one half in memory of Laura Spellman Rockefeller by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial founded by her husband John D. Rockefeller.”
That’s right. The richest man in American history paid for half of the national park.
3. An artist 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.
2. Some species have disappeared from the park
While several species such as elk, river otters and the peregrine falcon have been reintroduced to the Smokies, several species are still gone from the mountains.
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.
Also missing is the red wolf, 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 a 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 and, of course, salamanders the size of a small dog.
1. 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 and the Carolina northern flying squirrel.
Other endangered creatures include the red-cockaded woodpecker and the rusty patched bumble bee.
Endangered plants include the spreading avens – which apparently isn’t spreading as much as it should – and the rock gnome lichen.
Did you learn anything new? Let us know in the comments.