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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Plants and Wildlife

Forest Types in the Great Smoky Mountains

Five forest types dominate the Great Smoky Mountains. Together these forests sport more than 130 species of trees, and 4,000 other plant species. They represent all the major forest types along eastern North America. As elevation increases within the park, temperature decreases and precipitation increases. Each 1,000 feet of elevation gained is the equivalent of moving 250 miles north. The additional precipitation classifies small sections of the Park as a rainforest. All five types can be seen at once from Campbell Overlook, two miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road (US 441). The spruce-fir forest caps the Park"s highest elevations. Most areas above 4,500 feet support some elements of this forest. It is best developed above 5,500 feet. In terms of climate the spruce-fir forest relates to areas such as Maine, and Quebec, Canada. The main components of the spruce-fir forest are red spruce and Fraser fir. Other important species include yellow birch, mountain-ash, hobblebush, and blackberries. The balsam woolly adelgid killed 95 percent of the Fraser firs over the past decade. Introduced from Europe, this tragedy threatens the fate of the entire forest type. The Park sprays to control the insect, but this is a labor-consuming process that needs to saturate each tree. Environmental pressures, including acidic deposition and ozone present further threats. A northern hardwood forest dominates the middle to upper elevations from 3,500- 5,000 feet. It mixes with many species from other forest types, but is characterized by sugar maple, American beech, and yellow birch. These forests resemble those throughout much of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and southern Ontario. The northern hardwood forest, specifically sugar maples, produces the most brilliant fall color. Drier ridges in and around the Park hold a pine-oak forest. Despite plentiful amounts of rain, these excessively drained slopes dry out often, and fire is a regular part of these forest communities. In late 1996, the Park began controlled burning to prevent unintentional fires from threatening lives and property. This also ensures natural regeneration of species requiring fire for propagation. Major species include red, scarlet, black and chestnut oaks, along with table mountain, pitch, and white pines. Some areas also have hickories. A hemlock forest often grows along streambanks. Water temperatures remain cold year- round, and this cools and dampens the air. Hemlocks survive better in these conditions than any other species. Hemlocks dominate streamsides throughout the Appalachians. An insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid is moving south and west. It threatens every hemlock in the eastern United States. The cove hardwood forest lines the valleys throughout the Park. It is the Smokies" most diverse ecosystem. Important species include: tulip poplar, American basswood, red maple, sweet gum, yellow buckeye, black birch, and dogwood. This lush, diverse forest enjoys warm temperatures, a long growing season, and plentiful rainfall.

The Smokies are a premier wildlife viewing area. Early in the morning and late in the evening make the viewing. Cades Cove and Cataloochee have large open spaces, providing excellent opportunities for viewing. Still, wildlife sightings are common throughout the Park. Bears are the most sought after. Mammals. A total of 65 mammals live in the Park. Some, such as the coyote and bobcat are reclusive, while deer are very common and obvious. Besides deer, people most often see red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, skunks, and bats. Deer are common throughout the Park. An exotic, the wild European boar, causes widespread damage. Like other intrusive exotic species, the Park seeks means to control the boar population. Mammals native to the area, but no longer living here include: bison, gray wolves, and fish. Reintroduction efforts brought back the red wolf and river otter; however, red wolf reintroduction efforts were not successful. In February 2001, the Park reintroduced elk back to the area as an experimental release effort. For more information on elk, click here. Birds. More than 230 species use the Park, and over 110 species breed within Park boundaries. Birds are most active early in the morning, starting about 45 minutes before sunrise. Good birding spots include the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Cades Cove, and Oconaluftee. Some common species include: juncos, mourning doves, chimney swifts, eastern phoebes, barn swallows, blue jays, indigo buntings, cardinals, towhees, sparrows, chickadees, and warblers. Birds of prey include turkey vultures, hawks, and eagles. Reptiles include snakes, turtles and lizards. The only two poisonous species are the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead. Neither have a lethal poison, and death from a snake bite in the Smokies is extremely rare. Other common reptiles include the eastern box turtle, common snapping turtle, and southeastern five-lined skink. Amphibians thrive in the Great Smokies. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are all common Park residents. The Smokies" 30 species of salamanders make them the salamander capital of the world. Notable species include Jordans Salamander, one subspecies of which is found only in the Smokies, and the Hellbender, which can grow up to a whopping two and one-half feet long.