A Little About the Great Smoky Mountains

From my nature journal ….

When I drive the long winding road through the Cherokee National Forest, my ears begin to pop. The dense green forest and cool, thin high altitude air, signals that we have entered someplace high and close to touching the sky.

My heart beats faster and I anticipate the rounding of each curve as we enter the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Driving through town we check in at our hotel and settle in.

The mist in the Smoky Mountains in Cherokee, North Carolina.
The mist in the Smoky Mountains in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Standing in the parking lot of the hotel or middle of the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, the mountains surround you. A thick mist rises from the trees on the hillsides.

The Great Smoky Mountains are a sub-range of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachias run parallel to the Atlantic Ocean from Canada’s Newfoundland to northern Alabama. The Smokies are the sacred ancestral home of the Cherokees.

The southern border of Pennsylvania is the imaginary dividing line between the southern and the northern Appalachias.  In Pennsylvania, the Appalachias are long narrow ranges called the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies Mountains. It feels odd that this mountain range continues clear up to where I live in Pennsylvania.

But for now, I am in the Smoky Mountains where the elevation changes from 875 feet to 6,643 feet above sea level.

Oconaluftee River in Smoky Mountains National Park
Oconaluftee River in Smoky Mountains National Park

The Smoky Mountains are extremely rugged and steep. No glaciers reached the mountains and there are no natural glaciated lakes in the region. But, there are plenty of springs, streams and rivers.

The misty air feels good on my face. And even though we are many miles from the ocean, there is something that reminds me of the vastness and peaceful of the sea. The cawing of crows standing in for seagulls.

View from Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountains
View from Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountains

The moist air is due to the more than 90 inches of precipitation a year that falls in the mountains. That amount is more than the Pacific Northwest of North America. Seattle, Washington receives 37 inches of precipitation a year. And as, you climb higher up the mountains, precipitation increases reaching a peak of 90 inches at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the national park.

Water circulates through the leaves of plants and is released as mist or vapor. The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical. These terpenes make the smoke-like haze or mist that gives the Smokies their name.

sign in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
sign in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In fact the Cherokee, name for the Smokies is “Shaconage – the place of blue smoke”. The mist of the Smokies used to be blue, but after the U.S. allowed timber companies to clear-cut the forest (even on Cherokee land without their permission), the blue-ness has disappeared. I once the blue-ness returns then the health of the Smokies will have been restored.

Shaconage - The Place of Blue Smoke
Shaconage - The Place of Blue Smoke

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