The hillsides, valleys and peaks of the Smoky Mountains are covered with color in the late spring and early summer.  As you drive across the mountains on Newfound Gap Road you will notice that the brilliant swatches of white and pink seem to be almost endless.  The main source of these colors are the vast quantities of rhododendrons that cover the landscape.

The Rhododendron in the Smoky Mountains fall to two types:  Rosebay and Catawba.  Certainly there are several forms of Azalea that fall into the same category but that is for another discussion.  The Rosebay rhododendron is the source for the whitish flashes of color that you find in the lower elevations of the park, up to about 5,000 feet.  The Catawba rhododendron is the source of the pinkish swatches of color that cover the high elevations.  Throughout most of the year, both types of rhododendrons are dark green with oily looking leaves.  Rhododendrons don’t like lots of sun and tend to be in the shady areas of the park and along the streams and creeks.  All of a sudden in late June and early July, the buds on these plants burst forth and there is color everywhere.  People flock to the Smokies at these times to take in the color and to photograph these majestic plants.

Where can you see the rhododendrons the best:

  • Roan Mountain – This is by far the best place to see lots of Catawba rhododendrons.  There is a rhododendron garden at the top of Roan Mountain that comes alive when the Catawbas are blooming.  You walk through a sea of pink that seems to stretch from one side of the horizon to the other.
  • Newfound Gap Road – As you travel along Newfound Gap Road from Sugarlands to Oconaluftee (or vice-versa) you will watch the rhododendrons change from white to pink to white as you start up the mountain and then come back down.

One thing to remember about rhododendrons is that each bush does not bloom every year.  So a clump that you were particularly taken with last year may not bloom at all this year.  Search out clumps of them in the park and take some pictures, use them as a backdrop for your family portraits or maybe even plop down and have a picnic at the side of a stream near a rhododendron in full bloom.  Let the whites and the pinks roll over you.  Get set for summer with the rhododendrons in bloom.

Blue Valley Experimental Forest

The Blue Valley Experimental Forest was established in 1964.  The purpose behind this forest was to study the habitat and growth of the white pine that dominates the some of the mountain sides in the southern Appalachians.  Part of the reason this exact piece of land was chosen was due to the amount of decomposed granite that existed in the ground and what affects it might have on the white pine forests.  The Blue Valley Experimental Forest is still a haven for researcher wanting to do research and experiments in pristine forest land.

Blue Valley Experimental Forest MapThe white pine can be seen throughout the southern Appalachian mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains.  This hardwood tree is a native tree to the area that loves both the altitude and the climate of these mountain ecosystems.  The white pine has adapted over time to people moving into the area, heavy logging in some areas and changes to the precipitation and resources in the ground as well.

One of the reasons for choosing the Blue Valley Experimental Forest area was the amount of decomposed granite in the land itself. This decomposed granite has changed the chemical makeup of the land and it is termed as ‘infertile.’  In this area, the trees are suffering due to the harsh chemical content of the soil.  Researchers are seeing what can be done to save this forest, they are studying the effects of the decomposed granite and this ongoing research is bringing them closer to understanding the way that this hardy, hardwood tree has survived and flourished in other areas in the Appalachians.

Currently, the researchers of the Blue Valley Experimental Forest are studying the effects of single tree selection and cutting and underburning.  Single Tree Selection is the removal of trees that do not fit the structure of the forest.  In other words, trees that are much older, or much younger than the rest of the forest are removed to bolster the rest of the forest.  The theory being that a tree that does not fit the silviculture of the forest might be harming the forest as a whole.  Cutting and underburning is the act of removing parts of the forest and burning out the forest floor to give the trees a better area to grow in.  The Blue Valley Experimental Forest may, in time, prove to be the savior of the white pine forests in the state of North Carolina and in the southern Appalachians themselves.

Wildlife in the Smokies

From tiny bugs to the mighty elk, the animals in the Smokies come in all shapes and all sizes.  The diversity extends to all manner of critters.  The protection that these animals are afforded inside the national park allow you to get closer than you will be able to in most places around the country.

There are rules and regulations concerning your interaction but it comes down to one concept:  You are in the animals house, be a thoughtful visitor.

  • Do not feed the animals.
  • Do not tease or harm the animals.
  • In the case of elk and black bear, you must stay 50 yards or more from these larger mammals.  They are big animals and they can hurt you.  The rule of thumb is: if you are close enough that your proximity changes the behavior of the elk or bear then you are too close.

Black BearBlack Bear – This is the symbolic animal of the Smokies.  Found in all parts of the National Park, this animals provides hours of entertainment for people that have the good fortune to see one.  Be sure to give the bear plenty of room and enjoy them from a distance.  During the springs, if you are out early enough, Cades Cove is the best place to see lots of bears.  During the fall of the year, aiming for early evening in Cades Cove will probably allow you to see the bears feeding out of the trees.

Synchronous Fireflies – One of the most interesting things that you will find in the Smoky Mountains are the synchronous fireflies in the Elkmont area.  For some reason (scientists are not sure why) the fireflies in this area of the national park begin to blink in unison with each other.  There is only one other place on the planet (Thailand) where this phenomenon occurs.

ElkElk – This has been the most successful reintroduction into the Smokies.  The elk were brought back into this area in 2001 and now there are thriving herds of elk in both the Cherokee area and the Cataloochee value.  Elk are the largest mammal (and therefore animal) in the National Park.  During the rut – their mating season – you can spend an entire day listening to these majestic animals as the bulls court the cows.

Whitetail DeerWhitetail Deer – For the hunter or just the lover of wildlife, the chance to see a whitetail deer up close and personal is breathtaking.  In the Smokies, the best place to see deer is in Cades Cove.  The deer use the fields in the cove to graze and it is usual to see tens of them during one trip around the loop road.  During the spring you will even get to see fauns frolicking in the forests, while later in the year you can see the spikes challenging each other in the fields.

Hemlock Trees

The hemlock is one of the iconic trees that you see in the Smokies.  Covering the sides of the Smoky Mountains on both side of the state line, the hemlock forest are evergreens that keep their color and vibrancy throughout the year.  Unfortunately the hemlocks in the Smokies are under an invasion from the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.

Classification:  Plantae – Pinophyta – Pinopsida – Pinales – Pinaceae – Tsuga – Caroliniania

Hemlock GroveThe hemlock is a medium to large sized tree of the evergreen species.  The needles are relatively short and the cones that they produce to pollinate the species are very small (3-4 millimeters).  The hemlock groves in the mountains thrive due to the conditions in the mountains.  The higher elevation and the moist climate are perfect for the hemlock to spread.  Larger hemlocks, because they don’t lose their leaves are the perfect shelter for small animals, both mammals and birds.

During the heyday of the lumber industry in the Smokies the hemlocks were a prized tree. The soft wood of the hemlock was used in pulping for the paper industry.  Before this point the bark of the hemlock was used in the tanning process for leather and the needles were used to brew a tea that helped with indigestion.

The hemlock ranges from the top of the mountain peaks in the Smokies to the lowest elevations.  Mostly, when you find one hemlock tree in the park you will see lots of others as they tend to form small groves.

At the time of this writing, the hemlock grove sin the Smokies are under attack by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.  This nonnative insect is a sap-sucking bug that keeps the tree from getting nutrients to the leaves. As the leaves die, the tree starts to take on a grey-cast.  Once the leaves die, the tree stops being able to photosynthesize the sunlight that it uses to live and the tree dies.  The national Park Service is working to save the hemlock grove and exterminate the Adelgid that is causes the harm to this magnificent trees.


Classification:  Plantae – Angiosperms – Eudictos – Asterids – Apiales – Araliaceae – Aralioideae – Panax

GinsengIt is funny the plants that they have found in the Smokies over the years.  The climate, the elevation the forest canopy and other factors have produced a biosphere that includes some very unusual plants and animals. One of the plants that’s grows in the shady areas of the National Park is Ginseng.  Ginseng.  Just like the ingredient that you see in the energy drinks in the convenience store.

Ginseng is normally found in Asia, specifically in China.  In fact China gave the name to this wonder herb.  The term Ginseng means man-root.  This is in reference to the way that the Ginseng plant looks when you pull it out of the ground.  The tuber grows in two pieces underground that looks like a man’s legs.  In Asian cultures, the root was boiled as a tea or maybe ingested whole.  In the Greek the term for the genus of the ginseng plant is Panax.  Panax means all-heal.  In other words, ginseng has been known as a heal-all herb for a long time.

In the Smokies, due to the fact that the ecosystems are very similar to the mountain regions were ginseng grows in China, it is possible that early prehistoric people that came to North America across the Bering Strait.  These plants, coming to a new area found purchase in the shady land and lush undergrowth of the mountains that the Cherokee would come to call the Smoky Mountains.  In fact the Cherokee used this herb in medicines and remedies.  And though the European settlers that came to the area and certainly knew about the herb from the Native Americans that they met, they did not embrace the Ginseng root.

Then you have the resurgence of the use of Ginseng in the 20th and 21st centuries.  With the popularization of the ginseng and guarana, Ginseng in the Southern Appalachians became a going concern.  There are certainly people that harvest Ginseng as a crop in the privately owned parts of the Smokies but remember that it is illegal to harvest any plant, including Ginseng from the National Park.  People that try to take any plant from the GSMNP.  People who break this regulation – law – are subject to imprisonment and a fine.

At some farmers markets around the area you will find Ginseng root being sold.  It is still known as a cure all, it is a home remedy though some of the effects of this plant are known and have been studied by science, little is definitely known about this strange herb that grows in the shade of the canopies in the Smoky Mountains.

Non-Native Animals in the Smokies

Though the Park Service does try its hardest to keep animals and plants that are not native to the Smokies from harming the ecosystem for the GSMNP, over the years there have been several animals and insects that have been introduced into the environment.

Wild Boar in the SmokiesWild Boar – In the early part of the 20th century, a group of domesticated pigs got lose from a game preserve in North Carolina.  Over the next few years, the pigs made their way into the National Park and began to breed.  The boars are now wild, the domesticated pigs having breed with lowland boars on their way from the lowlands in North Carolina to the mountains.  The wild boar in the Smokies are now one of the most destructive mammals in the park.  They root around trees destroying wildlife and even eat some of the smaller animals in the park including many of the species of amphibians that call the park home.

The Department of the Interior has hunts at times to help eliminate the boar from the park.  Unfortunately these animals breed as fast as they are removed and the Park Service has had a hard time getting rid of this invasive species.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – One of the worst nonnative insect species in the Smokies is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.  This is a sap-sucking insect that slowly kills the hemlock as they keep nutrients from getting to the leaves of the hemlock.  As the leaves die, photosynthesis stops and the trees go grey and then die.  The Park Rangers are experimenting with insecticides and other predatory insects to help get rid of this tree killing bug.

Rainbow TroutRainbow Trout – Brought in as a game fish for the tourist to the area, the aggressive rainbow trout took over the areas of the park that the brook trout (the only native trout) had formerly lived in.  And while the rainbow trout is the trout that people think of when they come to the Smokies, they are a nonnative species that has hurt the ecosystem of the brook trout. There is not a plan to remove the rainbow trout but there are plans to not only bolster the brook trout but to remove some of the rainbow trout from some of the streams in the national park.

Non-Native Plants in the GSMNP

Much like the non-native animals that have made their homes in the Smokies, there are many non-native plants that are now trying to thrive and in some cases take over forest lands in and around the GSMNP.  The trouble with these types of plants is that they are coming into a system that has been protected since the creation of the park.  All of a sudden there are non-native plants invading the area that are not only fighting for nutrients from the soil, water and other resources but they are changing the makeup of the lower levels of the food chain.

Princess TreeThe Princess Tree (Paulowina Tomentosa) is one of those non-native plants.  You will see this fast growing tree in many modern landscaping designs.  It is popular not only because of the beautiful flowers that it produces but also because of the fast growing nature of the tree itself.  It is possible that this plant was transported into the park on the clothes of visitors or by birds and other animals bringing seeds into the GSMNP.  Though this plant is not immediately hostile to other plants, it is a fast growing tree that is taking over areas that have traditional just been full of plants that have been in the Southern Appalachians for thousands of years.

KKudzuudzu (Pueraria Lobata) is one of the biggest non-native plants in the southern United States.  If you have driving through any part of the deep south and noticed the bright green vines growing on everything from other trees to power lines along the road, you have seen kudzu.  Kudzu has long been a problem in the south and it is inching ever northward.  It grows very quickly and covers everything that it can climb.  People laugh that you can lose a car to the kudzu but it is true that cars that sit derelict in yards can be consumed by this ever growing vine.  Though it is edible and goats have even been used to combat it in some areas, herbicide is usually used suppress kudzu.  It has not made a huge impact in the GSMNP yet but it is headed that way and needs to be kept out at all cost.

Firewood Ban
If you are camping in the Smokies, you will notice when you sign in for your camping spot that there is a firewood ban in the Smokies.  You cannot bring outside firewood into the Smokies.  You can buy firewood at the campground stores or you can use wood that has fallen naturally in the park but bringing in any outside firewood is prohibited.  This is for two reasons:  1)  Insects come in on firewood and these non-native species can wreak havoc on the environment & 2) The firewood might have seeds or spores on it that could bring in a non-native plant species that could cause problems for the ecosystem.

Synchronous Fireflies

Classification:  Animalia – Anthropoda – insect – Coleoptera – Polyphaga – Elateriformia – Elateroidea – Lampyridae

FirefliesAround June of each year, an insectile phenomenon occurs.  The fireflies in the Elkmont area begin to blink. Now, of course, you expect fireflies to blink but in this part of the Smokies – they blink in synchronization with each other!  This phenomenon occurs in only one other place in the world (Thailand).  Scientist are baffled by this behavior but the people that visit this area love it.

The synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for a maximum of two weeks each year.  Normally this occurs in early June, but it can happen a little earlier or a little later depending on the weather and the hatching of the fireflies themselves.  And while there are fireflies all around the Smokies, the Elkmont area is the only place to see this strange and wonderful behavior.  As you sit beneath the trees of the Elkmont area, night begins to descend.  You start to see fireflies blinking as it gets darker and darker.  As the blinking increases, the fireflies start to synch with each other.  All of a sudden, the area is lit as thousands of fireflies flash their luminescent bodies in time with each other.  It is eerie, chilling and one of the most incredible things I have ever seen.

Firefly StarTrails

So if you are coming to the Smokies in June or around that timeframe and you want to take the family to see something that they will never see anywhere else here are a few tips:

  • The Park Service provides transportation for this event now!  If you are going to be here during the synchronous fireflies contact the park service at 865-436-1200 and make reservations.  You can park your car at Sugarlands and they will take you to Elkmont on trolley donated by Gatlinburg.
  • Bring chairs or a blanket.  You are going to be sitting outside for a while, waiting for the sun to go down.  You will need to have somewhere to sit or you are just going to need to pull up a patch of grass.
  • Bring a flashlight.  At the end of the night it is going to be dark.  On your way ou, a flashlight will help you navigate your way to the trolleys.  Remember though that your flashlight will need to be covered with a piece of cellophane or a colored lens so that the bright light doesn’t interfere with anybody else viewing the fireflies.