Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Life Zones

The Smokies' various ecological communities are most often identified by forest types called, "life zones." Elevation, soil conditions, moisture or dryness, and exposure to wind and sun all play roles in determining the location of life zones. Botanists usually identify the forests by the kinds of trees that predominate. 

Cove Hardwood Forest

The Smokies' various ecological communities are most often identified by forest types called, "life zones." Elevation, soil conditions, moisture or dryness, and exposure to wind and sun all play roles in determining the location of life zones. Botanists usually identify the forests by the kinds of trees that predominate. 

Cove Hardwood Forest

Below 4,500 feet, deciduous trees cover sheltered slopes and extend into low-elevation coves and valleys. Trees of record or near-record size are common. Typical trees include yellow buckeye, basswood, yellow poplar, mountain silverbell, white ash, sugar maple, yellow birch and black cherry. Rhododendrons and lady's slippers are common flowering plants. You can see cove hardwood forests on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail at the Chimney Tops picnic area, Albright Grove near the Cosby entrance, and along the Ramsey Cascades and Porters Flat trails near the Greenbrier entrance. 

Pine and Oak Forest

Oak and pine trees predominate to about 3,000 feet, on slopes and ridges that are dry compared to other parts of the park. Hickories, yellow poplar and flowering dogwood are also found here. This kind of forest also contains thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendrons. You will find pine and oak forests around Cades Cove and the Laurel Falls Nature Trail. 

Hemlock Forest

Eastern hemlock forests grow along streams and on slopes and ridges up to about 5,000 feet. Maple, birch, cherry and yellow poplar are also found here. Rosebay rhododendrons proliferate along streams, while Catawba rhododendrons survive in heath balds and on exposed ridge tops. Hemlock forests are located along trails from Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail toward Grotto Falls, and Newfound Gap Road to Alum Cave Bluffs. 

Northern Hardwood Forest

Yellow birch and American beech dominate this forest, occurring mostly above 4,500 feet. Maple, buckeye and cherry trees are also in the mix. Shrubs include Catawba and rosebay rhododendrons, hydrangea, thornless black-berry and hobblebush. Many flowering plants grow here such as creeping bluets, trilliums, long-spurred violets and trout lily. You can see northern hardwood forests at Newfound Gap and along Clingmans Dome Road.

Spruce-Fir Forest

Above 4,500 feet, you'll find red spruce and the few remaining Fraser firs (70 percent were killed in an insect infestation). Above 6,000 feet, yellow birch, pin cherry, American mountain ash and mountain maple occasionally appear. Plants here include dingleberry, blackberries, blueberries, Carolina and Catawba rhododendrons, and ferns such as hay-scented, lady and the common polypody. Spruce-fir forests grow along the Appalachian Trail and the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail along Clingmans Dome Road.