These are busy times of recovery at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The half-million-acre park — the most-visited of the 59 national parks — straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border through the rolling green mountains of Southern Appalachia. Last year set a record with more than 11.3 million recreational visits to the Smokies, more than twice as many visitors as Grand Canyon National Park, the second most visited.
The free admission and the fact that the park is less than a day’s drive from almost anywhere in the eastern USA certainly help its popularity. But its natural beauty, history and biodiversity also play big roles. The haze that gives the mountains their name comes from organic compounds given off by plants and trees on the thickly forested slopes — a broad variety that includes chestnut oak, pitch pine and mockernut hickory.
The park and the nearby tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are recovering from a devastating wildfire that last November burned 17,000 acres in and around the Smokies. The Chimney Tops 2 fire — which started near the top of the Chimney Tops trail in the park — burned more than 2,400 structures in the Gatlinburg area, causing more than $1 billion in damage. Fourteen people died.
Experts predicted that the ecosystem of the Smokies would bounce back quickly and they were correct, as scorched ground has given way to green meadows and new life. Most of the park’s trails and all of its roads and facilities have reopened.
The people of the region have bounced back as well. Assistance has flowed in, including more than $10 million from the My People Fund set up by country entertainer Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge was spared.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are open for business even as residents continue to rebuild.
“I continue to be inspired by the number of people enjoying the park, but more importantly, I am moved by their unwavering support and care of this special place,” Great Smoky Mountains park superintendent Cassius Cash says. “This support is more critical than ever since we have entered into our second century of service and recovery following the Chimney Tops fire. The response of the Smoky Mountains community, both near and far, has been remarkable.”
The park offers more than 100 waterfalls and cascades, over 2,000 miles of flowing brooks and streams, 800 miles of hiking trails and roughly 1,500 black bears. Many visitors are surprised to learn that this is also the salamander capital of North America, home to 30 species.
In spring, rhododendron and flame azaleas are among the 1,500 kinds of flowering plants found here. Spring explodes with dogwoods and mountain laurel. In fall, the flaming reds, orange and yellows of changing leaves draw another wave of visitors.
A visit to the park should include a stop at Cades Cove, the valley where the first settlers of the region built their cabins; Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest spot; and Cataloochee Valley, where elk have been reintroduced and roam free.
Ten developed campgrounds are available. Permits must be obtained for backcountry camping.
The famed Appalachian Trail winds through the park for about 71 miles, passing such beauty spots as Charlies Bunion, Rocky Top and Mount Cammerer.
A big event occurs Aug. 21, when much of the park will be in the path of the total solar eclipse.
About the park:
Size: 522,427 acres
Visitors: 11,312,786 in 2016
History: As the primal forests of the region were rapidly being clearcut by loggers, a movement arose among both locals and visitors to establish a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains. Congress authorized the park in 1926, and land for it was gradually pieced together through purchases and donations. More than 1,200 residents had to leave their land once the park opened.
When visiting: The park has three main entrances, at Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C. For visitor information: visit nps.gov/grsm.
Of note: Due to fire and storm damage on the Tennessee side of the park, some trails are closed. Find up-to-date information at nps.gov/grsm.
Steve Ahillen, USA TODAY Network