Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Natural History
Smokies Forest Types
The Great Smoky Mountains have a very diversified ecology. No place this size, in a temperate climate, can match the Smokies variety of plant and animal species. The various ecological communities are called life zones or forest types and there are five distinct life zones in the Smokies. The factors that determine which life zone an area is in include: elevation, rainfall, dryness, soil type, exposure to sun and wind factors. The Sugarlands Visitor's Center has an excellent museum which shows in detail exhibits of the five life zones or forest types in the Smokies.
Cove Hardwood Forest
The Cove Hardwood Forest exists below an elevation of 4,500 feet. The deciduous trees (ones who loose their leaves in winter) cover sheltered mountain slopes and extend into the coves and valleys of the lower elevations. Trees typical to this type of forest are: yellow poplar, basswood, white ash, yellow buckeye, yellow birch and sugar maple. The most common flowering plants in this zone are lady's slippers and rhododendrons. A typical Cove Hardwood Forest can be seen on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail that starts at the Chimney Tops picnic area on New Found Gap Road.
Pine and Oak Forest
The Pine and Oak Forest exists at an elevation of 3,000 feet on the drier mountain slopes and ridges. Trees typical to this type of forest are: yellow poplar, hickory, and flowering dogwood. The most common flowering plants are mountain laurel and rhododendron. A typical Pine and Oak Forest can be seen on the Laurel Falls Nature Trail.
Eastern Hemlock Forest
The Eastern Hemlock Forest grow along streams and on mountain slopes and ridges up to an elevation of 5,000 feet. Trees typical to this type of forest are: yellow poplar, maple, cherry and birch. The most common flowering plants are the rhododendrons. The Rosebay rhododendron grows along the streams and creekbeds, while the Catawba rhododendron prefers the drier balds and exposed ridges. A typical Hemlock Forest can be seen along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Northern Hardwood Forest
The Northern Hardwood Forest grows mostly above elevations of 4,500 feet. Trees typical to this type of forest are: yellow birch, american beech, maple and buckeyes. Rhododendrons are also very numerous. The most common flowering plants are: trilliums, violets, trout lillies and bluets. You can see a typical Northern Hardwood Forest along the Clingman's Dome Road.
The Spruce-Fir type forest is found above an elevation of 4,500 feet. Fraser firs and Red spruce predominate. Above 6,000 feet, yellow birch, american mountain ash and mountain maple occassionally appear among the conifers. The most common plants are blueberries, rhododendron and ferns of many varieties. You can see a typical Spruce-Fir Forest on the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail along Clingman's Dome Road.