The Great Smoky National Park has an estimated 187,000 acres of old growth forest, the largest old growth stand in the Eastern United States. The range has 1,600 species of flowering plants that include over 100 native species of tree and 100 species of native shrubs. There are also over 450 species of non-vascular plants and 2,000 species of fungi. The forest is divided into three zones–the cove hardwood forests, the northern hardwood forests, and the spruce-fir or boreal forest. Living within all the awe inspiring flora are 66 species of mammals, over 240 species of birds, 43 species of amphibians, 60 species of fish and 40 species of reptiles.
The Cove Hardwood Forest:
Cove hardwood forests are native to Southern Appalachia and are among the most diverse forest types in North America. Over 130 species of trees are found in this section of the Great Smokies. These species include: yellow birch, basswood, buckeye, tuliptree, silverbell, sugar maple, magnolia, hickory and hemlock. Walking through these forests you can see the dozens of shrubs and vines like the redbud, dogwood, rhododendron and hydrangea.
The Northern Hardwood Forest:
These forests of the Smokies makes up the highest broad-leaved forest in the eastern United States. The northern hardwood canopies are dominated by yellow birch and beech. You can also find basswood, striped maple and buckeye here. A unique feature of the northern hardwoods is the beech gap, or beech orchard. The beech gaps are high mountain gaps that have been taken over by beech trees that are often twisted by the high winds.
The Spruce-Fir Forest:
Also called the “boreal” or “Canadian” forest, these spruce-fir forests are a relict of the Ice Ages. The forests managed to survive the harsh mountain tops, at heights above 5,500 feet. The spruce-fir forest consists of two conifer species: red spruce and Fraser Fir. Setting this forest apart from other similar ones in northern latitudes is the dense broad-leaved lower level of the forest. You can find rhododendron, mountain ash, pin cherry, thornless blackberry and hobblebush.
The Great Smokies have a wonderful collection of wildflowers that add color and beauty to the area! You can find bee balm, Solomon’s seal, Dutchman’s breeches, various trilliums, the Dragon’s Advocate and even orchids! The mountains light up with flame azaleas that contrast with the native rhododendron.
The black bear has come to represent wildlife in the Smokies, as the range has the densest black bear population east of the Mississippi River. But the bear has many other friends that call the mountains home! Other mammals include the white-tailed deer, the bobcat, coyote, red and gray fox, and wild boars. The bobcat is the range’s only remaining wild cat species, though mountain lion sightings are still reported. The European Boars that were introduced as game animals in the early 20th century now thrive in Southern Appalachia. The Smokies are home to over two dozen species of rodents that include the endangered northern flying squirrel and 10 species of bats.
There is a diverse bird population in the Smokies due to the multiple forest types. The area is excellent for bird watching where one can see many species such as the Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Wild Turkey, and Tufted Titmouse at lower elevations. Northern Raven, Winter Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Dark-eyed Junco and Canada warblers are found in the higher and cooler climates. Bigger birds or raptors such as the Bald and Golden Eagle have been spotted all over the park as well. Many species of owls, hawks and falcons can also be seen throughout the range.
While watching for wildlife, one must also be aware of the smaller creatures that roam the ground. The Timber rattlesnake and copperhead are the two poisonous snake species in the Smokies and can be found at all elevations. Other less threatening reptiles include the eastern box turtle, the fence lizard, the black rat snake and the northern water snake. The Great Smokies are also home to one of the world’s most diverse salamander populations. Five of the world’s nine families of salamanders are found in the range.