Called shaconage, or "blue" by the Cherokee Indians, the fog-tinted Great Smoky Mountains are home to America's most-visited national park, which bears the same name. Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the park covers more than half a million acres (211,000 hectares) in the southern Appalachians and is comprised of some of the oldest mountains on Earth. Established in 1934, the park's diverse flora and fauna have earned it the designation of an International Biosphere Reserve.
"It's an extreme hotspot for biological diversity," said Jeanie Hilten, director of Discover Life in America, a nonprofit organization working with the U.S. National Park Service to conduct a biodiversity inventory of every living species in the park. "This is a treasure trove of knowledge."
Only about 12 to 14 percent of the estimated 100,000 species in the park have been identified—among them more than 600 organisms completely new to science. The natural richness of the Smokies combines with a deep human history that includes the Cherokees—whose ancestors originated there—and Scotch-Irish pioneers, who began settling there in the late 1700s. Cultural remnants are preserved at various sites throughout the park, contributing to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adds Hilten: "It gives people a sense of a special place."