Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Great Smoky’s geography means great trails

Spruce Flat Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains’ geography consists of several mountains with valleys tucked between them and the ridgelines leading to their peaks. The result is a number of great, diverse hiking trails to explore.

For many Americans, it is synonymous with the Appalachians though only a small part. Among the oldest mountains in the world, the Appalachians stretch from Alabama northeast to Canada and so are much diverse geographically and culturally. The Southern Appalachians contain two ranges – Blue Ridge, which is to the northeast, and Unakas, which is to the Southwest. The widest part of the Unakas Range is the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Great Smoky Mountains also are almost the Appalachian’s tallest, containing 16 peaks above 5000 feet. The higher elevations receive an average of 85 inches of precipitation annually.

At 6625 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the national park and anywhere along the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail, as well as the third highest east of the Mississippi River. From its summit on a clear day, hikers can see for more than 100 miles across Tennessee to the north and North Carolina to the south and east. The Clingmans Dome Trail runs 1-mile round trip from the visitor center to the summit, which sports an observation tower on top.

That water drains off the Great Smoky’s peaks in more than 2100 miles of streams and rivers. All of it eventually reaches the Tennessee River, which flows into the Mississippi River.

The waterflow has left an array of beautiful scenery – waterfalls, gurgling streams, deep valleys beneath high rocky peaks, gaps between the mountains where roads and trails run, and more.

Among the park’s prettiest stretches of water is a half-mile run of Big Creek in North Carolina. Take the Big Creek Trail on a 4-mile round trip to where the stream spills between two large boulders to form the Midnight Hole, then a half-mile later come to where Mouse Creek empties into Big Creek via a 35-foot waterfalls.

Because of the elevation changes and the high precipitation, the Great Smoky Mountains holds five distinct ecosystems that support an incredible amount of biological diversity. More than 1500 flowering and 4000 non-flowering plants can be found there. Rare old-growth hemlock trees can be found in several spots, most notably the Alum Cave Trail.

The highest single-drop waterfall in the national park is Rainbow Falls at 80 feet. The Rainbow Falls Trail runs 5.4-miles round trip to the sight.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.