The ramp or ramps are one of those regional plants that most visitors don’t get a chance to experience.  Part onion, part garlic and full of pungent flavor the ramp is one of those vegetables that you either love or hate.  This part of the wild leek family is celebrated in food and in events that are held throughout the year during the harvest season.

Classification:  Plantae – Angiosperms – Monocots – Aspasagales – Amaryllidaceae – Allioidea – Allium – Tricoccum


RampsThis variant of the wild leek has light-green leaves that tend toward purple at the base.  The bulb of the ramp is like a scallion and like the scallion the leaves and bulb leaves are all edible.  The arrival of the ramp in the spring signified that the harsh winters were over and the people looked to the ramp as a good omen.  In fact, the vitamin content helped get many of the Appalachian settlers over colds and physical problems they had due to the lack of fresh vegetables during the winter.

The name ramp or ramps may come from the Old English word Ramson.  Either way, the people that came to the mountains from their homes in Scotland and Ireland certainly were familiar with wild onions and wild garlic that they had back in their homelands.  This familiarity made the ramp a treat in the spring.


The ramp grows in the dark and moist areas of the National Park.  You will probably see ramp and figure it is a wild onion.  Outside of the GSMNP, people grow the ramp on their property to sell during the traditional harvest time in the spring.


Ramps and EggsEach year in Cosby, TN and Waynesville, NC the ramp gets its own celebration.  The festivals have a lot in common.  Art and craft shows give the people booths to browse through as they become hungry waiting for the ramps to get ready to eat.  The ramp is prepared for consumption and of course you can buy some of this aromatic edible to take with you on the way home.  Get ready to taste Ramps and Eggs – one of the best ways to eat this interesting plant.


Classification:  Animalia – Chordata -0Mammalia – Artiodactyla – Ruminantia – Cervidae – Cervinae – Cervus – Canadensis

The elk is the largest mammal in the Smokies.  For thousands of years the elk roamed the valleys of the Smokies and though they were hunted by the Native Americans for food, they lived in large herds in the Southern Appalachians.  With European Settlers, the herds began to be hunted and the land that the elk called home started to shrink.  By the late 1800s, the elk herds were gone and the whitetail deer began to take their place in the mountain ecosystem.

In 2001, the Park Service decided to reintroduce the elk to the area.  They picked two areas in the National Park – Cataloochee and the Oconaluftee area .  The elk reintroduction were an experimental project that has really taken off and the elk herds in these areas are starting to thrive.  Much like the deer herds, the young and the cows roam in herds while the bulls tend toward a solitary life.

ElkThe elk is a big animal.  Much bigger than the deer that are in Cades Cove, the elk are much more aggressive and therefore much more dangerous.  That being said, they are amazing to watch.  Elk are grazing animals, they are large grazing animals, so eating take s up a majority of their day.  Eating grass and other plants in the National Park.  One of the features that is most prominent in the elk are the antlers.  Only the bulls have antlers and they grow throughout the year and are shed during the later winter.  Each season, as the elk get older they shed their antlers and the next season the antlers grow back bigger and more awe-inspiring.

Where to See Elk in the Smokies:

  • Cataloochee – The Cataloochee valley became the perfect place to release some of the first elk in the National Park.  Enclosed and protected, with large fields of grass and plenty of forest cover for the elk to play in, Cataloochee gives the elk an amazing backdrop.  It is possible to sees dozens of elk roaming through the fields in Cataloochee during the spring and fall.
  • Oconaluftte Area – Oconaluftee is the location of the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center on the Cherokee side of the Smokies.  Elk were released here in late 2001 and the elk have chosen to hang around.  Usually in the afternoons, around dusk, you will see elk come out to graze in the fields around the visitors center.
  • The Rut – During the fall (August to early winter) the elk herds start a mating dance called the rut.  During the rut you will see bull elk sparring and battling for cows and you will get to hear the elk bugle.  The bugling of the elk is one f the items that needs to be on  your ‘to do’ list when you come to the Smokies in the fall.

Otters in the Smokies

Classification – Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Carnivora – Mustelidae – Lutrinae – Lontra – Canadensis

Who doesn’t love an otter?  I am sure that we have all spent time at the zoo watching these delightful creatures cavorting in the water.  There almost human reactions and interactions make them a joy to watch and the easy way they move from land to water is completely captivating.  And though they are hard to find in the wild, if you happen to see them you will be amazed to see that they play and splash in the water in the wild the same way that they do in an artificial habitat.

Behavior and Diet
The North American River Otter is the otter that you will find in the Smokies.  They range throughout the lower elevation of the park and inhabit those areas around the various creeks and rivers.  The river otter lives in a family unit consisting of the mother and her offspring, until the offspring become mature.  The adult male river otter also lives in social groups of other males and there have been sightings of some of these groups numbering more than 15 in the wild.

It is this social structure that produces the playfulness that you see in the river otter.  Their play as young – learning how to swim and hunt – is carried over into adulthood and is evident in the wallows that they make as they slide down into the water to swim and splash with each other.  The wallow is the easiest way to find a group of otters.  If you are roaming through the mountains and you see a wallowed down area near the river bank that is devoid of grass and looks like it would be fun to slide down, you have probably just found one of the play areas of a romp of North American River Otters.

OttersRiver otters eat the small aquatic and amphibious animals that live in and around rivers.  In the Smokies, that means that throughout the year these graceful creatures feast on trout and rock bass, on salamanders and frogs.  Otters hunt in the water for their prey.  They swim through the water and after spying something that looks particularly good to eat, they use their tail to produce a surge of speed.  They catch their meal and then roll over on their back in the water to eat their newest catch.

Reintroduction Program
The river otter had almost been moved out of the Smokies altogether and then in the early 1990s, the Park Service began to reintroduce otters to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  These otters were placed in areas where the rangers knew they would find plenty of food and have the best chance for reproducing and growing their numbers.  Since the first reintroduction, the numbers of river otters in the Smokies of doubled several times.  The park service anticipates that these thriving creatures have rediscovered their home in the southern Appalachians. 


Cataloochee is a lesser known auto tour in the GSMNP.  Much like Cades Cove, it was a valley community in the mountains that was self-sufficient with churches, farms and clusters of mountain homes.  When the park service came in and started to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park they people were forced to leave and the park took over the buildings, making them into living history that you can now drive through to experience a taste of what their lives might have been like.  Now, Cataloochee grows in popularity each year and with the establishment of a herd of elk in the valley, it is no wonder that people are visiting it more and more.

Cataloochee ValleyThe Cataloochee Valley derives its name from the Cherokee word Gadalutsi which most likely referred to the trees that line the ridges surrounding the valley.  The Cherokee used this valley as a hunting ground for elk and deer before the European settlers came to the area.  When the first settlers saw the beautiful valley of Cataloochee they knew that they had found a home in the Smoky Mountains.  From using the fields around the ridges for free range cattle to graze to actually moving into the valley itself to establish communities, Cataloochee became a thriving town in the Smokies complete with churches, a schoolhouse and much more.  The people of Cataloochee were the first to embrace the sound to be founded tourism industry in the mountains. City Folk came to the area to experience the mountains and the town embraced them and their money.

When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, it was decided that Cataloochee would become a part of the National Park.  The people of the valley protested the inclusion and though some of them choose to fight, by the 1940s most of the people had moved out of the valley.  The Department of the Interior gave the people that wanted to stay lifetime leases and all of these have since expired and there are no longer any people living in the valley of Cataloochee.  Cataloochee is now the least known auto tour in the park but though it is not as traveled, it is just as beautiful as Cades Cove.

In 2001, the Park Service began a program of reintroducing elk into the National Park.  The elk herds in the park are doing well but none of them are doing as well as the herd in Cataloochee.  It is possible to see dozens of these majestic creatures as they roam the fields in and around Cataloochee.  During the rut in the fall, the bull elk begin to bugle as they try to court a mate for the season.  There are many people that bring a lawn chair and a picnic lunch so that they can sit in the great outdoors and enjoy the elk of cataloochee.

Cataloochee needs to be on your list of places to visit the next time you are in the Smokies.  Take a day and head into the mountains.  You can reach it by going to I-40 and driving into North Carolina or you can go to Cosby, TN and follow Hwy 32 into the mountains following the signs on a very rustic road.  Either way you are in for a treat once you make it to Cataloochee.

Whitetail Deer

Classification:  Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Artiodactyla – Cervidae – Capreolinae – Odocoileus – Virginianus

Whitetail DeerThe whitetail deer is a common sight along the roads and in the valleys of the Smoky Mountains.  While they might not be as hard to find as the black bear or as large and imposing as the elk, the deer are still fun to see and are in fact so used to people that they will be glad to pose for pictures as they go about their lives.

The deer in the Smokies are the same kind of deer that you might see anywhere in the southeast or across the country.  They are herd animals and the young tend to stay in the herds with the does until they have been alive for a couple of years.  The bucks, after they have left the herd become solitary creatures and though you will see them, you will see them on the edges of the forest most of the time.

Whitetail DeerThese herbivores eat the soft grasses graze throughout the year.  The temperate climate in the Smokies also give them plenty of food in the winter months.  During the mating season you will see spikes and bucks sparring and rattling their antlers on trees as they go through their own mating dance.

Where to see Whitetail Deer in the Smokies:

Cades Cove – If you are wanting to see large numbers of deer, there is no other place for you to go but Cades Cove.  Herds of deer populate the fields. In the spring you will see fauns at play around their mothers and as the deer mature and the seasons change you will notice the deer getting bigger as the put on weight for the leaner winter months.  If you are wanting to get a great picture, slide out of your car, stay low to the ground and walk slowly toward the deer.  If you approach slowly enough you can get close enough to get some amazing pictures of the deer in Cades Cove.

Black Bear

Classification:  Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Carnivora – Ursidae – Ursus – Americanus

The black Bear has long been the emblem of the Smoky Mountains.  These large mammals roam the full elevation of the Smoky Mountains looking for food and places to sleep during the winter months.  They are one of the most sought after animals to spot in the Smokies and people often determine the success of a trip to the mountains by how many bears they see during the National Park visits.

The American Black Bear has made its home in the Smokies for thousands of years.  These omnivorous creatures live off the land, follow the spring growth of plants and insects out of the higher elevations in the early spring and then higher up during the summer months where it is cooler.  In the fall, as the trees burst forth with fruit and nuts, the bears take to the trees in the valleys looking to put on pounds for their hibernation.

Black Bear
Black Bear in Cades Cove

Black bears are quadrupeds that have the ability to stand on their hind legs for short periods of times.  Most black bears in the Smokies average about 300 pounds with larger bears topping out between 500 and 600 pounds.  Though the black bear can be cinnamon colored or even white, the Smoky Mountain black bears are exclusively black.  Female black bears start to have their first litters between the ages of 3-5.  Black bear usually have 2 cubs to a litter and they are born in January or February of the year, during the hibernation period.

And speaking of hibernation… Black bears are no longer considered to be true hibernators.  Black bears reduce their metabolic rate during the winter months when food is scarce and the weather conditions are harsh.  During October and November, the bears start to bed down, choosing caves, logs and other hidden and secluded areas that are protected and well covered for their long winter’s sleep.  As their metabolic rate slows down, their bodies also go through some chemical changes that allow them to recycle their waste products, suppress their appetite and sleep for long periods of time.  During the hibernation period they will occasionally wake up but, for the most part they ‘nap’ through the cold months waiting for the spring thaw.

If one of your goals is to see a Black Bear while you are in the Smoky Mountains, then there are a few options:

  • Cades Cove – Get up early.  Be one of the first cars through the gates and you might get several bear encounters while you are cruising around the loop road.  By early, you need to be there before dawn waiting for the rangers to open the gate.
  • Clingman’s Dome – During summer, head to Clingman’s Dome.  There have been many sightings of black bears during the summer in recent years at this highest point in the Smokies.
  • Watch for Large Crowds – While the sighting of a deer will stop traffic, the sighting of a black bear will bring everything to a halt.  If you are stuck really far back in the traffic jam and you are wondering why the cars aren’t moving – it might be a bear.

Beavers in the Smokies

Classification – Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Rodentia – Castoridae – Castor – Canadensis

The North American Beaver is a large rodent, one of the largest in the Smoky Mountains, that spends most of its time in the water, building dams to change the course of the water systems to establish homes for it and its young.  While they are mostly nocturnal, it is possible to see the North American Beaver around the GSMNP right before dawn and right after sunset.

Behavior and Habitat

Of course, one of the easiest ways to spot a beaver is to look for a beaver dam and for the trees that have been felled by beavers in the park.  The beaver dam is a conglomeration of logs, twigs, mud and sticks that is designed to back the water up and make the water around the beaver lodge deep enough to keep it from freezing during winter.  As the water levels rise, it floods the forest land around the river behind the dam.  This flooded area gives the beaver access to its favorite foods:  leaves, buds and the inner bark of young trees.

The beaver lives in small family groups and they work together to construct their dams.  Beavers, unlike most animals, mate for life and their young – which are known as kits – stay with their parents for around two years.  Beaver dams and the ponds that they form have been shown to have beneficial effects on the other plants and animals that are around them.  For instance, beavers have been shown to have a beneficial effect on many bird species by providing water and areas for waterbirds to find food and the fact that some of the young trees get felled by the beavers means that older trees will have the ability to produce a lush canopy for homes for birds.

North American BeaverIn the Smokies

Though they are hard to find, there are plenty of beavers in the Smokies.  From Cades Cove to Cataloochee you will see the effects on beavers in the National Park and you will possibly get to see them building their dams in and around streams and rivers in the park as well.  When you cross the bridge in Cades Cove – the one that is almost at the halfway point – you will see plenty of trees that have been downed by beavers in the wild.  On both sides of the bridge there are trees that have the tell-tale bite marks from the North American Beaver.

And if you are looking for a little more up close look at the beaver hike the area between the two crossover roads in the Cades Cove.  In the center of this area there is a good sized beaver dam on a small creek that has flooded a good portion of the area.  And while this is not a deep beaver dam it is a very successful one that has opened up this area for a more diverse set of species to inhabit. This is only one of the advantages to having beavers in the park.  Though they are part of the rodent family, they are certainly not rodent in nature.


When you walk trails in the lower elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you are bound to see Chipmunks.  These furry, striped members of the squirrel family have fascinated people for thousands of years with their antics as the frisk about the Smoky Mountains.  The term chipmunk comes  from the Odawa word Ajidamoo which translates to “one who descends trees headlong.” This of course is a reference to the fact that chipmunks are adept enough at climbing that the come down the tree the same way the go up: face first.

Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Rodentia – Sciuridae – Marmotini – Tamias – Striatus

Behavior and Diet
Chipmunks live, primarily, in deciduous wooded areas.  This is especially true of the GSMNP where the chipmunk can range across all the lower elevations of the park.  In the Smokies, no bulb, nut, fruit, seed, green plant, insect or bird egg is safe from these voracious eaters.   During the day, the chipmunk spends almost all of its waking hours foraging for food.  Running from tree to tree and digging in the soft soil looking for food.  The chipmunk will store the food it finds in its cheeks and then eat it at a later time.

Though you will see the chipmunk racing from tree to tree in the National Park, they actually make their homes in burrows in the ground.  These burrows are lined with small rocks and other detritus that the chipmunk finds to make it more difficult for predators to see.  The live alone until mating season.  After mating the female will have litters of 3 to 5 young.  Chipmunks have two mating seasons a year and during the mating season you will hear them chattering to each other throughout the forest.

The chipmunk has many natural predators in the Smokies:  foxes, raccoon, weasels, snakes, hawks and other birds of prey all keep an eye out for the unguarded chipmunk as a quick source of protein.  The chipmunk uses its speed and ability to climb to stay out of the reach of the various enemies that it has in the park.

Where to Find Chipmunks

Again, the best place to find a chipmunk is in the lower elevations of the park.  At dawn and dusk, you will see them scurrying from their burrows looking for food.   But, throughout the day you will find chipmunks out, looking for food.  They always seem to be on a mission and they are skittish creatures. If you happen to see one, stay back and enjoy the show as they scurry from point to point along the trail.  You will also see chipmunks in the picnic areas of the National Park.  And though they would be happy to take food from you, remember that feeding animals in the GSMNP is strictly prohibited and bad for the animals.

Plants in the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is part of the International Biosphere Project.  It houses thousands of species of plants from mosses that only grow at the top of the mountains to trees that tower over the surrounding country side.  It is easy to see why this area was made a national park, the beauty is only compounded by the flora in the mountains.

During the spring and summer, the mountains are covered with colorful flowers and flowering bushes.  Most amazingly the rhododendrons that bloom in late June and early July color the mountains white and pink from the ridges to the valleys.  During the fall, as the leaves change color, the trees become the backdrop for many pictures and photographs.  The Leaf Season in the Smokies is one of the most popular times to take a drive through the Smokies.

Old Growth Forest – You will hear the term Old Growth Forest bandied about by Park Rangers and in hiking guides all the time when you are in the Smokies.  Old Growth Forests are those forests that have remained relatively untouched by man and in the Smokies that means they were untouched by the logging industry as well.  There are quite a few trails that will take you into old growth areas of the National Park.  The variety of trees, debris on the ground and the age of the trees varies greatly in these old growth areas but they are a lot of fun to walk through and enjoy areas that have been around for potentially hundreds of years.

Hemlocks – One of the most unique evergreen trees in the National Park are the hemlock groves that dot the mountains sides.  Beautiful, tall and green from top to bottom, the stands of hemlocks have had trouble in recent years due to the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which is killing these trees by the dozen.

Ramps – This is one of those plants that few people know about but that the people of the mountains celebrate in festivals around the area.  From Waynesville, NC to Cosby, TN, the ramp is the subject of events held annually.  This cross between garlic and wild onion is something to taste.  It grows in the dark and moist areas of the mountains around and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ginseng – You read that correctly, ginseng grows in the Smokies.  This is a subspecies of the Chinese variety but it does still have all the same properties – energy and memory restoration.  Ginseng has long been harvested in the areas around the park and sold to stores and processors.  The ginseng is an herb that has been used by Native American tribes and the European settlers that came later to the area.

Old Growth Forest

One of the natural wonders in the Smoky Mountains are the sections of Old Growth Forest.  Inside the 500,000+ acres of land lays 100,000 acres of old growth forest.

Old Growth Forest in the GSMNP is defined as those areas that were not harvested for lumber during the heavy times of the lumber industry before the National Park was founded.  The lumber industry before the park service came into play was clear cutting the mountains.  They were harvesting the trees as quickly as they could and leaving whole sides of the mountains bare.  This, of course, affected the ecosystem and the environment that the animals lived in.  With the lumber companies leaving, the new trees did spread and fill in those gaps that had been left behind and planting programs made sure that the trees came back as quickly as possible.  Fortunately there were still section of the forest that had been left alone by the lumber industry.

Old Growth ForestThese stands of old growth trees now tower over the trees that are next to them.  You can tell when you enter one of these areas due to the enormity of the trees and state of the forest floor around them.  Due to the fact that these areas have been left alone the ground cover is different in these areas, the canopy has an entirely different look and you can feel the age of the forest when you step into the shadows of these giant trees.

Most of the time to find these old growth areas you are going to have to hike for a while to get into the middle of these old growth areas.  One exception is the Chimney’s picnic area.  If you hike almost a mile up the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, you will find yourself wAndering through a pristine section of old growth forest.  Towering hardwoods with their limbs intertwined to shade the floor of the forest and create a canopy that is unbelievable.  This short hike is the quickest way to get to an old growth forest section of the GSMNP.  Looking for a longer hike that might not be quite as populated:  Ramsey Cascade and the Albright Grove Loop Trail will lead you on a meandering trail through old growth sections that are as beautiful as they are hard to reach.

Next visit to the GSMNP, try to find an old growth forest in the Smokies.  Take a short hike and stand in the middle of trees that have been around for hundreds of years.  Get in the middle of the trees and lie down, looking up through the canopy to the sky.  Think of the changes that have happened around these groves of trees as they have survived through the years.  You are now a part of that old growth history, take a moment, enjoy it.