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GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE, USA -- Encompassing over 800 square miles in the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique in an astounding number of ways. Beginning with the practical, it's the only national park that doesn't charge admission fees (although donations are needed and much appreciated). The park's lack of fees is probably due not so much to generosity as it is logistics. The many routes going in, out and through the park would be cost prohibitive to police. Ironically, it wasn't hardcore conservationists, but motorists wanting to preserve their scenic driving routes in the 20's and 30's, who fought hardest for the formation of the national park.

The Great Smokies National Park is the country's most visited national park, hosting over 9 million guests annually (conveniently enough, it's located within 550 miles of one-third of the American population.) Within the park's borders you'll find 77 historic structures, more than 1500 varieties of flowering plants, 130 species of trees, 200 miles of mountain streams, more types of salamanders than anywhere else in the world, and hundreds of flora and fauna found nowhere else. The Smokies are home to the largest black bear population in North America, averaging about 2 black bears for every acre of park land.

Nature's diversity at its finest is brilliantly on display here, from rugged mountain peaks to lush green forests to gently rolling meadows, and all the life forces that go along with them.

Over 850 miles of hiking trains crises cross the park, ranging from easy to advanced and the legendary Appalachian Trail runs for 70 miles along the park's top ridge. You can do as little as a leisurely half hour walk through the trees to a week long back country backpacking expedition.

If you don't know the area, one of the best ways to explore this park is with a guided hike. A highly recommended option is to enlist the services of husband and wife team Erik and Vesna Plakanis of A Walk in the Woods -- nature experts who have safely guided over 7000 people through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Plakanises are walking encyclopedias of local flora, fauna and history. Erik and Vesna help their guests see the forest for the trees. You'll be amazed at how much you'd miss without their expert eyes spying photo opportunities, interesting plants, animals and historical artifacts. You'll learn about (and taste) wild edible plants along the trails, as well as which ones to avoid, how to spot various animals and learn about all the critters who call this magnificent place home, and become acquainted with the life of the Indians and settlers who used to live within the park's boundaries. A Walk in the Woods offers everything from a 2 1/2 hour stroll to full and half day hiking trips, to overnight backpacking expeditions and women in the wilderness backpacking trips. The guides' enthusiasm, skill, and level of knowledge make the experience far more enjoyable, memorable and educational than striking out on your own with a trail map could ever be.

In addition there are numerous ranger led programs and hikes, including a breathtaking full moon hike that highlights the (usually) cloud draped mountains to full advantage (get your cameras folks).

Wildlife abounds in the park. On my short stay here I saw deer, wild turkey and a great horned owl. Bear and fox are also plentiful. For your safgety and theirs, be sure to follow the rules, keep your distance from the wildlife and never, ever feed the animals.

As stewards of historic resources, the park maintains and preserves a collection of 77 structures in five historic districts. Many of these are along driving tour routes (see the park welcome centers for brochures and maps). Some of the historic sites are accessible via bicycle, others will require a hike, but all give visitors a glimpse back in time to the lives of the people who used to live here.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers many recreational activities, the articles below will give you more details on hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping and fishing.

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