Great Smoky Mountains, NC-TN

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

Although Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes some of the highest elevations east of the Mississippi, it lies entirely within the Mississippi River drainage. On the map above the Atlantic-Mississippi drainage divide (sometimes called the Eastern Continental Divide) is the pale blue line passing just south of Asheville.

The crest of the range is over 5,000 feet continuously for 36 miles. The highest elevation, Clingman's Dome (6643 feet, 2024 meters), is just over 2000 meters, but elevations were not high enough for Pleistocene glaciation.

Generalized geology of the region. From lower right to upper left are the Piedmont accretionary terranes, the Brevard Zone suture, the metamorphic core of the southern Appalachians and the foreland fold-thrust belt of the Valley and Ridge Province. Red lines are faults. Symbols are as follows:           

O Ordovician
C Cambrian
Cq Cambrian quartzite (Chilhowee Group)
lPz' Lower Paleozoic rocks with Paleozoic metamorphic overprint
Z Precambrian Z (Ocoee Supergroup)
Z' Precambrian Z (Ocoee Supergroup) rocks with Paleozoic metamorphic overprint
Ym' Precambrian Y (Grenvillian) schists with Paleozoic metamorphic overprint
Ygn Precambrian Y (Grenvillian) gneiss
Ygn' Precambrian Y (Grenvillian) gneiss with Paleozoic metamorphic overprint
BZ Cataclastic rocks of the Brevard Zone
m1 Felsic paragneiss and schist; protolith probably Paleozoic or Precambrian Z
m3 Migmatite; protolith probably Paleozoic or Precambrian Z
m4 Granitic gneiss; protolith probably Paleozoic or Precambrian Z
Pzg Middle Paleozoic granitic rocks
mi Mafic intrusive rocks
um Ultramafic rocks

Although the region is wonderfully geologically diverse, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is mostly about the landscape. The rocks are mostly Ocoee and Chilhowee continental slope sedimentary rocks and only one of the tectonic windows in the region lies within the park.

U.S. 441

Left and below: views along the southern flanks of the range.
South entrance to the park.

Below: views on the way to the summit.

The persistent haze in the valleys gives the mountains their name. If this doesn't seem terribly unusual, bear in mind that in pre-industrial times visibility of 100 miles was normal and that places with persistent haze were out of the ordinary.
Newfound Gap (5046 ft, 1538 m)
The range from near Gatlinburg. Tragically, a fire destroyed much of the town in 2016.
Pigeon Forge. You have got to see it to believe it. The tourist strip runs forever. It's so long you can find a motel at one end of the strip and anotherof the same chain at the other end.

U. S. 129

Views of the Great Smokies from the northwest.
U.S. 129 parallels the canyon of the Tennessee River through the range. Once the highway enters the mountains it stops being so modern.
During the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority was set up to build dams along the Tennessee River to create jobs and generate electricity. This is Chilhowee Lake. This reservoir actually dates from the 1950's. The dam was built by ALCOA to generate power for aluminum refining.
Below: U.S. 129 does not follow the river most of the way but climbs well above it. Viewpoints are few and the road is extremely winding.
Left and below: Calderwood Dam and lake.
Although this road is sometimes called "Tail of the Dragon and rated as one of the great motorways in the U.S. if not the world, I wasn't impressed. With few viewpoints, it's mostly a boring collection of switchbacks in deep woods. It's more tedious than dangerous unless you speed.
Cheoah Dam on the North Carolina side of the mountains.
Left and below: Santeelah Lake.
Left and below: along U.S. 129
Left and below: after one last hairpin, U.S. 129 joins U.S. 19, a modern divided highway that runs southwest parallel to the mountain crest.
Left: Azaleas

Below: For some reason poppies are widely planted along the roadsides.

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Created 15 November 2005, Last Update 06 June 2020