The Great Smoky Mountains

  Bioregion     Geography     Hardiness Zone
Katuah Southern Appalachian Mountains   6a



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What is a Bioregion?
"Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watershed, climate, native plants and animals.... A bioregion refers to both the geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness -- to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place." Peter Berg, bioregional philosopher

A bioregion is a land and water territory whose limits are defined not by political boundaries, but by the geographical limits of human communities and natural ecological systems. The core of the human experience, historically and in a bioregional context, is the relationship of human communities with their matrix of local and regional ecosystems. Bioregions integrate nature and society within the context of specific places.

The Katuah Bioregion
The Katuah bioregion encompasses most of the Southern Appalachian mountains, and includes the cities of Knoxville TN, Asheville NC, Roanoke VA, Greenville SC, and Athens GA. The Piedmont region is between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, and also contains the cities of Norfolk VA, Charlotte NC, Wilmington NC, Columbia SC, and Macon GA. 

Katuah now refers to the Southern Appalachian Bioregion, but before that it was the Cherokee word for their homeland, and before that it was the name of a particular village that the Cherokee regarded as their cultural headwaters (as we might understand it).

The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains, the summit of the Appalachian Highlands, are a wildlands sanctuary preserving some of the world's finest examples of temperate deciduous forest. The name Smoky comes from the smoke-like haze that rises over the mountains nearly every morning due to the warming & evaporating effects of the rising sun.

The area abounds with unspoiled forests similar to those early European pioneers to the New World found upon their arrival. Restored log cabins and barns stand as reminders of those who carved a living from this majestic wilderness. Fertile soils and abundant rain have encouraged the development of a world-renowned variety of flora, including more than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants. In the coves, broadleaf trees predominate. Along the crest—at more than 6,000 feet elevation—are conifer forests like those of central Canada.

Wildflowers and migrating birds delight nature lovers in late April and early May. During June and July rhododendrons bloom in spectacular profusion. The mild summers that are typical of higher altitudes encourage all manner of outdoor recreation activities, including hiking, camping, rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, caving, horseback riding, and much more. The Fall Foliage Season brings people from all over the US to witness nature's artistry at its finest, and it usually peaks in mid-October. For many, this is the finest time of year, with cool, clear days ideal for hiking and exploring. In winter, an unpredictable season, a deep peace descends upon the mountains as human activities retreat indoors into the warmth of home & hearth. Fog rolling over the mountains sometimes blankets the conifers in a delicate coating of frost, and occasional snowstorms turn the Smokies into an endless, rolling sea of white and green.

Some 900 miles of trails thread the whole of the Smokies' natural fabric—its waterfalls, coves, bards, and rushing streams. Each trail invites you into the intimacy and richness of these high mountain lands. The Smokies, a wild landscape rich with traces of its human past, calls people back year after year.

Geological History of the Smokies
The Smoky Mountains are the highest peaks in the Appalachian mountain range, yet they are rounder and lower in elevation than younger mountain chains such as the Rocky Mountains. How this came to be is a classic geological story that began almost one billion years ago.

An ancient sea flooded what is now the eastern United States, submerging the remnants of an old mountain range. The sea slowly deposited layers and layers of sediment onto the ocean floor. Over succeeding eons of time, the intense pressure of thousands of feet of sediment compressed these layers into metamorphic rock. Almost 300 million years ago, the sea added yet another layer of limestone sediment, composed of fossilized marine animals and shells. The stage had been set for the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

Around 250 million years ago, the continuous shifting of the earth's tectonic plates (large sections of the earth's crust) caused the African and North American plates to collide. This slow motion collision caused the older, underlying layer of metamorphic rock to tilt upward and slide over the younger limestone layer, gradually creating a towering mountain range, the Appalachians. The older rocks, known as the Ocoee Series, now compose most of the Great Smoky Mountains. Charlies Bunion, Sawteeth, and Chimney Tops are visible examples of how the rock layers tilted and buckled to form steep cliffs and pinnacles. In areas such as Cades Cove, erosion of the overlying metamorphic rock reveals the limestone layer hidden beneath.

During the ice ages, alternating freezing and thawing of solid rock caused spreading fractures to break off massive boulders. You can see examples of these boulder fields on the Noah "Bud" Ogle Nature Trail, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

The Smokies originally resembled the rugged Himalayas, rather than the gently-rounded mountains we see today. The relentless forces of water and wind have sculpted their present-day appearance over the succeeding geological ages. Water runoff has also carved the alternating pattern of V-shaped valleys and steep ridges that are so prominent in the current landscape.

Sociological History of the Smokies
The first native peoples seemed to have arrived in the Smokies in about A.D. 1000. Anthropologists believe they were a breakaway band of the Iroquois, later to be called Cherokee, who had moved south from Iroquoian lands in New England. At that time, the Cherokee Nation stretched from the Ohio River into South Carolina and consisted of seven clans. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee lived (and continue to live) in the Smokies, the sacred ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee enjoyed a settled, sophisticated life based on agriculture. They raised crops of corn, beans, melons, and tobacco; hunted deer and bear; and gathered plants for food and trade. Their towns of up to 50 log-and-mud huts were grouped around the town square and the Council House, a large, seven-sided (for the seven clans), dome-shaped building. Public meetings and religious ceremonies were held here. They worshiped one god and ruled their villages democratically, with men and women sharing power as well as household duties.

They first encountered Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition through Cherokee territory.

The next part of their story is a heart-wrenching saga of European colonialism, relentless persecution, broken treaties, land grabs, a US President who ignored a Supreme Court ruling, and, finally, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that lead to a forced Death March known as the Trail of Tears in 1838. This violation of Native American's human rights in order to steal their land is a grave moral blot on the history of the United States that ranks in vileness with the legacy of human slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the exploitation of women & children during the early Industrial Revolution. 
(If you can handle a very painful truth about our country's bloody history, then you can learn more by visiting

 To learn more, please visit the following local organizations:

Local Environmental Resources and Organizations
The Canary Coalition

The Dogwood Alliance

Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society

Environmental and Conservation Organization

Guide to NC Environmental Groups

Mountain Clean Air Task Force

Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project

Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition

The Permaculture Activist

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

Western North Carolina Alliance

Western North Carolina Group of the Sierra Club

Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency

Wild WNC



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