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<em>Smoky Mountain Magic</em>

Smoky Mountain Magic

SMOKY MOUNTAIN MAGIC--Horace Kephart's fictional adventure set in the Deep Creek watershed, Cherokee Indian Reservation, and Bryson City in the summer of 1925. Written in 1929 and never before published. The original manuscript was passed down for 3 generations recently surfaced during the park's 75th anniversary celebration. "What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady, all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth?" asks reviewer Gary Carden. Kephart is featured in Ken Burn's PBS series on our national parks. He is the author of "Our Southern Highlanders", "Cherokees of the Smokies", and "Camping and Woodcraft". Available in hardcover and softcover. Read More >


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Trees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Trees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall in Great Smoky Mountains by John Northrup, Duck Hawk Ridge, Alum Cave Trail

Fall in Great Smoky Mountains by John Northrup, Duck Hawk Ridge, Alum Cave Trail


One hundred native tree species make their home in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—more than in all of northern Europe. Nearly all forest types of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states are found here. In terms of forest types encountered, walking from mountain base to peak in the Smokies is often compared to walking the length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Fall Foliage by Maryanne Garvey Wells

Fall Foliage by Maryanne Garvey Wells

Forest Types in the Smokies

Tree species that favor similar moisture levels, elevations, and exposure tend to grow together and are referred to collectively as “forest types.” Forest types are named for the dominant species at the climax stage, which is when forest succession has run its course and the environment is basically stable. The special climate created by these dominant trees nourishes a combination of plants and animals unique to the particular forest type.

The cove hardwood forest occurs in sheltered areas up to 4,500 feet in elevation. In the Smokies, this forest type contains a high number of extremely large trees. Common species in the cove hardwood forest include sugar maple, yellow birch, tuliptree, and other broad-leaved trees.

The northern hardwood forest also contains broad- leaved trees, but grows at higher elevations, generally above 4,500 feet. Found on north facing slopes and gradually dominating as elevation increases, it is often nearly surrounded by spruce-fir forest.

The chief components of the northern hardwood are yellow birch, American beech, and maple trees. Trees of the northern hardwood forest closely parallel those that grow at lower elevations in the northern states.

At elevations mainly above 4,500 feet, Fraser fir and red spruce mark the spruce-fir forest type. The spruce-fir follows the crest of the Smokies for about 25 miles as the crow flies. About 74% of the spruce- fir forest in the Southeast is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Along the streams and up the lower slopes to about 4,000 feet grows hemlock forest. Often times this forest type has a dense understory of rhododendron. The hemlock trees often attain heights of over 100 feet. The pine and oak forest covers dry exposed slopes and ridges at low to middle elevations, often in rocky terrain. Four kinds of oaks and as many pines dominate this forest type.

The Balds

Two significant plant communities bear mentioning along with the forest types: the grassy and heath balds. Although it is known that balds date back at least to the early 1800s, their exact origin is debatable. Located at mid to high elevations in the park, heath balds can be found on the eastern end of the park, while grassy balds are mostly in the western end. Associated with both types of balds are distinct plant and animal communities, including some rare shade-intolerant plant varieties on the grassy balds.

Virgin Forests

Along with sheer diversity, size is a hallmark of the trees in the park. About 95% of the park is forested, and almost 25% of that area is virgin forest. The virgin areas hold a remarkable number of large trees—some up to eight feet in diameter. The Park’s trees are also the subject of much research. Trends in the forests of the Smokies are carefully observed and analyzed for their implications worldwide.

History of Abundance

During the Pleistocene era, which occurred between three million and 10,000 years ago, glaciers covered the northern part of the continent. Even though the glaciers never reached the Smokies, their presence to the north caused a drop in temperature, and native species were forced to “move” downslope to survive. Canadian-zone flora and fauna, no longer able to survive in the ice-covered north, found suitable habitat in the Smokies.

During the succeeding warming trend, many of these species were able to survive by moving high atop the mountains. In time, the combination of pre-ice age inhabitants and those that moved south ahead of the glaciers formed a living patchwork of flora among the varying environments of the mountains.

In the 1800s humans entered the picture on a large scale. Settlers, and then loggers took their toll on the area’s timber. In the 1920s and 1930s, concerned citizens stepped in to protect what was left of the area. They succeeded in preserving the largest block of virgin temperate deciduous forest in the East.

Present conditions in the mountains continue to support the growth of a staggering variety of flora. Abundant rainfall—more than anywhere else in the country except the Pacific Northwest—and the height and aspect of the mountains create environments suitable to a range of trees and other plants. In all, some 1,600 varieties of flowering plants and at least 4,000 non-flowering varieties benefit from this nurturing environment.

Forest Threats

Although the forests of the Smokies are generally thriving, there is cause for concern. The American chestnut, a hardwood valued for lumber and a regular wildlife food source, fell victim to an imported blight in the 1920s.
More recently, the Fraser fir population has suffered devastating damage from a non-native insect pest, the balsam woolly adelgid, and the hemlocks have been attacked by the Asian hemlock woolly adelgid. The flowering dogwoods are being infected by a non-native fungus called dogwood anthracnose, and most of the high-elevation beech have been killed by a combination of non-natives–beech scale and beech bark disease.

Ash trees are threatened by an insect called the emerald ash borer which has been documented in the vicinity of the park.
A broader issue is the damage airborne pollutants are causing to plant life. Researchers have identified 30 species of trees and other flowering plants that show growth problems linked to ozone pollution. Park scientists will continue to evaluate these and other threats to the forests.

Fall Colors

September and October offer impressive scenes of autumn color, but the best time is usually October 15-November 10. The peak day or week is always debatable, because the best color is sometimes not fully appreciated until it has passed. By late- September, definite sweeping bands of mixed color can be seen at 4,500-6,600 feet. The first hint of change in the scene are splotches of reds (red maple, pin cherry, mountain ash) and yellows (yellow birch, yellow buckeye, American beech) that contrast with the green background of spruce, fir, and hemlock. At the lower elevations, species like sourwood, dogwood, and blackgum begin to change in September. Peak color occurs in late October or early November where the sugar and red maples turn. Oak trees often continue to show pleasing leaf color well into November.