Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains. The Appalachian Mountain Range is one of the oldest natural land formations on the planet earth. Over 200 million years ago two large continents collided forming what is now one of the most sought after vacation destinations in the country. If you are looking to get away from it all, the Smoky Mountains boast some of the most stunning landscapes, towering ridges, beautiful historical sites and an abundance of amazing wildlife that are sure to give you the vacation adventure of a life time.
Because of the Appalachians Geographical location and their north-east, south-east lineage they were able to escape the last ice age 10,000 years ago making them a perfect habitat for many species of animal, reptile, and amphibians. From black bears to elk to fox to owls to snakes and flying squirrels, the Smoky Mountains have a wide and diverse population of inhabitants just waiting to be discovered by you.
Now wild animals can be a timid lot so I’m here to give you some insider tips on how and when to spot these shy creatures. Location and Timing are everything.
If you want to see and observe wildlife you must go to where they live. You must seek out locations where animals eat, drink, play, and feel safe. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an 800 square mile protected sanctuary for hundreds of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and reptiles. It is also the largest protected black bear habitat east of the Mason-Dixon- line with an estimated average of two black bears per square mile. During the winter months black bears are hidden away, sleeping deeply in their warm, comfy dens. Once awake, black bears spend most of their time looking for food. You would too if you weighed over 300lbs, slept for over three months straight and gave birth while you were sound asleep. They like to forage for nuts and berries so keep your eyes open and your cameras trained on those bushy, berry-covered hillsides and you might get lucky enough to spot one of the parks magnificent black omnivores. But please remember that feeding the bears is illegal, dangerous, and drastically shortens their life span by removing their fear of humans. Does that cute little cub really need your snack? His momma won’t be so cute, cuddly, or happy. She doesn’t like strangers giving her children treats any more than you do, so please, treat them with the respect they so fiercely deserve.
Plan your adventure into nature for the early morning or early evening hours when it is cooler. Animals, like humans, tend to avoid being out during the hottest part of the day. They do not have air-conditioning so they seek out the dark, cool, shaded glens, thickets, and areas around streams and creeks with heavy foliage, and cooler temps from the flowing water. They come out in the cooler morning and evening hours to feed in the meadows and drink from the streams, it’s safer and easier for the young of the larger critters like the black bear, deer, and elk.
Elk are being reintroduced into the National Park after being hunted out of existence in the east in the late 1700s. By the 1900s the elk population in North America had dropped so low that it was feared the elk was headed for extinction. In 2001-2002 elk were brought back to the Cataloochee Valley in hopes of restarting a natural population once again. These majestic creatures have no fear of humans and can often be seen lazily grazing in Cataloochee’s fields or in the fields next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. Mid-late afternoons are the best viewing times.
While there may only be a limited amount of elk for viewing, deer are quite abundant and very popular with visitors. Check out grassy areas and meadows in the early mornings and around dusk. Streams are another good place to catch a quick sighting of a doe and fawn. Rain will also bring out herds of deer to graze and play in the misty and foggy valley glades. What an unforgettable and mesmerizing sight.
Large groups of wild turkeys are an everyday common sight and can be found at all elevations of the park so keep your head up, your eyes open and your cameras turned on.
Cades Cove is home to a large herd of wild boar and while they are not native to the Smoky Mountains, they have truly flourished in this rich environment. These hairy pigs are usually dark grey, brown, or black. They come equipped with large heads, short legs, and large tusks ( the males being larger). Weighing in at 110-200lbs these “ piggies” are not typically dangerous, but they will fight violently to defend their young, so again I remind you, be safe, give nature its space.
One of the most endangered animals in the Smoky Mountains are the beautiful and elusive Red Wolves. There are only 350 of these gentle creatures left in the world and only 25 live inside the National Park. They are shy and nocturnal hunters and generally do not pose a threat to humans. Adult wolves can weigh between 45-80lbs and can range in color from red, grey, yellow, or black. They are not pack wolves, preferring instead to travel in couples or small families. They mostly eat raccoons, ground hogs and other small rodents. If you get a chance to see one of these amazing creatures make sure to have your camera on and ready, chances are you won’t get a second look.
The Bobcat is a solitary nocturnal hunter, capable of adapting to various habitats including wooded areas, semi-desert, urban-edge, forest edge, and even swamplands. Its original home range is well populated and their numbers are very high. At twice the size of a domestic cat, the grey-brown coat, round whiskered face, and black tufted ears, give the impression of a very large ‘kitty’. But it’s the famous black-tipped, stubby tail for which they were named. The main diet of the bobcat is rabbit, hare, ground hog and other small rodents, but they will hunt anything from insects to small deer.
There are no confirmed Eastern Cougars living in the National Park today. Sightings are always being reported, but to date none of these sightings have proven true. Large solitary animals, weighing in at 140lbs and reaching 7 feet nose to tail, is it any wonder why they got such a bad reputation . No tracks, scat, or other sign have been found in over 30 years, leading scientists to believe that the bobcat is the only wild feline living in this area today.
Red Fox are one of the parks favorite mischief makers. The size of a domestic dog, these shy creatures can sometimes be seen running through fields and jumping over logs. Getting a chance to watch a mother and her “kits” frolic and play in the early morning hours is a treat not easily forgotten. Their bright rust color and big bushy tail make them easy to identify. Although they typically hunt small game for food, they will sneak into campsites and steal human food if it is not properly stored. This is not healthy for them, so lock up the goods please!!
Coyotes look like medium-sized dogs with thick, dark fur, white under bellies and huge bushy tails. Weighing in at 45lbs they are very fast and agile. Clearing an eight foot fence, log or boulder is nothing to them. They tend to hunt in packs to help bring down larger prey, but will hunt small rodents when alone. Typically afraid of humans they pose no threat, but concern should be taken for the family pets.
To them outside pets are free snacks.
Remember my warning: Be safe, Give Nature Space. Well for this cute little critter, it couldn’t be more true. Skunks are adorable. They look like black and white Kitties and although they really can’t hurt you unless you corner them, their defense is one to think twice about. Their spray is very foul smelling and can reach up to ten feet. While the spray causes no lingering damage, it is very hard to remove and the smell can make some people quite ill.
Weighing in at 8-14lbs, the “Masked Bandit” (Raccoon) is an amazingly intelligent mammal, living up to seven years. Feeding mostly on small fish, frogs and crayfish, these cute creatures can be seen washing all manner of food in streams and creeks. Help keep these little guys wild by locking up food and trash at campsites. They are very clever and can open most latches.
Over 65 species of mammals make their home in the Smoky Mountains. Some animals are large like the 700lbs elk and the 300lbs black bear and some are tiny like the shrew that barely weighs as much as a dime. There is a wide diversity for all to enjoy.
Welcome bird watchers. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 240 different species of birds for your viewing pleasure. Millions of our feathered friends pass through this region filling the treetops and rivers with their beautiful melodies and songs every year. The number of birds and the diversity change with each season. March brings the first migrations of song birds to the low lands, while in the higher elevations snow still covers the ground.
Open fields provide the perfect habitat for Red-tailed hawk, Kestrel, Wild Turkey, Bobwhite, Bluebird, Field Sparrow, Meadowlark and more. In the summer months the list grows to include the Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Yellow Warbler, and Orchard Oriole. Common Loons and Wood Ducks are a widely occurring presence on the streams, lakes, and ponds. Flitting happily between trees you might catch sight of such strikingly lovely feathered friends as: Starlings, Swifts, Thrushes, and Woodpeckers.
Keep your eyes open and your camera focused because while it is common knowledge that many species of owls make their homes here, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and even the majestic bald eagle have been seen soaring in these tall mountain peaks.
AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES
Sometimes called the “Salamander Capital of the World” the National Park has over 30 distinct species of salamanders squirming and crawling through the mud, water, rocks, and underbrush, earning them the well deserved title. The wetter, boggier parts of the park are a great place to observe amphibians and reptiles. A rather large variety of frogs, toads, snakes and turtles make their home on the forest floor. They may be hard to spot at first, but a little sneaking around and some good detective work and you just might find what you are looking for. Be aware that although it may seem harmless, moving rocks and logs can dislodge insects, amphibians and small animals that may be using them for nesting, shelter, and protection. Some attach their eggs to the rocks and logs and they are crushed and lost forever when they are disturbed.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park shelters a multitude of rivers, lakes, and ponds within its 800 square mile boundaries. With over 2000 miles of streams the park is home to more than 50 native fish species. The wide, slow moving rivers and streams have created over time the perfect ecosystem ideal for a diverse aquatic environment. Trout, Bass (large and small mouth), Brook Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Sturgeon are all common species fish. The Smoky Madtom, and the Spotfin Chub are some of the more endangered species.
WARNING: Be Safe, Give Nature its Space!!
I know I keep repeating this, but every year hundreds of injuries occur because some people just can’t follow plain common sense. These animals are amazingly beautiful, but this is not a zoo and these are not tame petting zoo cuties. While black bears are smaller and less dangerous than their grizzly counter-parts, they are still bears. Bears that have learned to associate humans with food are not only annoying, but can become very deadly. Do you want to tell one NO!! If you are camping in the park, make sure all food is kept far out of animal reach. This is for your safety and theirs. It’s not just bears that can be dangerous, even a cute little bunny can kick and bite if cornered, why do you think they call them “thumpers”? Raccoons, coyotes, foxes, bats, and skunks are all popular carriers of rabies and any animals acting strangely should be reported to park officials immediately.
Due to conservation efforts, the park also has regulations regarding human proximity to the Elk. If you willing get to close you will be arrested and fined. Elk top out at over 700lbs and pack a wicked set of antlers, you won’t win!! Be safe, give them space.
The Smoky Mountains are a prime vacation destination location, with rental cabins to meet all budgets and needs. From the basic amenities to cabins with dishwashers, hot tubs, and media centers. In the Great Smoky Mountains there is something for everyone, so come on out and experience the adventure of a life time.