GATLINBURG, Tenn – The ancient blue-green mountains with breathtaking vistas and distinctive mists are home to salamanders and black bears, 19th century log cabins, rippling streams, waterfalls and more than 800 miles of trails, including a large section of the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail.
It's little wonder the Great Smoky Mountains attracts more than 9 million visitors a year, twice as many as any other national park in the United States.
"No matter what your interest is, everybody that visits here can make a personal connection in one way or another," said Ann Froschauer, who works with key park support groups, the Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountain Association.
"That's why we have folks who come back year after year. They bring their kids and their grandkids. Because something here touched them."
The 520,000-acre preserve straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, named by the Cherokee Indians as "The Land of Blue Smoke" for its signature natural mist, marks its 75th birthday on June 15.
Featured events on the anniversary weekend include a Knoxville Symphony concert with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander playing piano among the old cabins and barns in pastoral Cades Cove near Townsend. There also will be a groundbreaking for a $2.5 million Oconaluftee visitor center in Cherokee, N.C., that will highlight Cherokee Indian and Appalachian culture.
A Sept. 2 ceremony at Newfound Gap will mark President Franklin D. Roosevelt's original dedication of the park "to the free people of America" in 1940. President Barack Obama has been invited.
Dozens of related activities are occurring throughout the year in surrounding communities - museum exhibitions, parades, family reunions and a Dolly Parton-penned musical about the Smokies at her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, with CD profits benefiting the park.
"Our anniversary has been a reason for so many people to pause and think back," Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said. "It has been a time of reflection (and) a jumping off point."
Don Shoulders of Goodlettsville, Tenn., remembers the first time he saw the Smokies in 1936.
The Depression-era farmboy was barely 17 when he signed up with hundreds of other young men in FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps. As many as 4,000 at a time would work in the Smokies, laying the foundation for the park by erecting stone bridges and buildings, cutting trails and planting trees.
"It is the first time I heard of the Smokies," the 90-year-old Shoulders said. CCC examiners in Nashville warned him about ridge-running in the mountains. "They said one leg would be that much shorter than the other when you come out," he laughed.
After a long trip by train and truck, Shoulders and his comrades arrived at the former logging camp of Tremont in the middle of the night.
"We had some boys that were just so homesick they was a-crying. I felt like I had done the wrong thing ... until I woke up the next morning, and I said, 'I am in a new world!'"
Shoulders would spend three years in Tremont, earning $30 a month - $25 of which was sent home. He dug trails and performed other necessary work, including as latrine orderly. He ate well, gained weight - 127 pounds when he arrived, 150 pounds when he left - and developed an enduring fondness for the Smokies.
When he finally returned 27 years later, he said the park had been transformed, the forest restored. "It was a different place. It really changed." He's been back with his family every year since.
In his 1940 dedication, Roosevelt said Americans had "used up or destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bountiful."
In the Smokies, he said, "are trees ... that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them.
"In this park, we shall conserve these trees, ... the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people."
In fact, the Smokies had been heavily logged by timber companies, muddying the streams and leaving only about a quarter of the old-growth forest intact. Boar from nearby game preserves moved in, nonnative rainbow trout were stocked in streams and a blight soon killed off the massive American Chestnut trees that once covered 40 percent of the forest.
Park managers continue to battle these issues, while new pests threaten hemlocks and dogwoods and decimate the firs in the park's Nova Scotia-like higher elevations.
Still, Supervisory Ranger Kent Cave said, "It is a testament to the regenerative powers of Mother Nature that the forest has regrown. It looks, I am sure, similar to the way it did when Native Americans used the land or the first European settlers came."
The park is designated an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site with one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, supporting fireflies that blink in unison, 2-foot-long salamanders, 300-pound black bears, a small herd of reintroduced elk and growing numbers of native brook trout.
A continuing inventory by scientists and volunteers of the park's 100,000 estimated species of plants and animals has discovered thousands previously unseen in the park and hundreds unknown to science. The project has become a model for parks around the country.
Twenty national parks were created before the Smokies, mostly in Western states beginning with Yellowstone in 1872.
The Smokies was the first in the southern Appalachians and the first to require purchasing land from individual owners. Congress authorized the park in 1926, but it would take eight years to raise the money to buy some 6,000 tracts.
The states of North Carolina and Tennessee contributed $2 million each, the John D. Rockefeller family gave $5 million, the federal government gave $3 million and a public "Pennies for the Park" campaign raised $1 million from schoolchildren and civic groups around the country.
With that background, the park's charter stipulates that no entrance fee will ever be charged.
Glenn Cardwell, who traces his family's roots in the Smokies to the early 1800s, was born in the park in the Greenbrier community in 1930. It was the year his father sold the family farm to the government, though they continued to live in the park as renters until 1948.
"I grew up watching people move," he said. "They would stop and say goodbye to us. There was a lot of sadness associated with it. But I was so young I didn't pay much attention to it."
Thousands of mountain families once lived in the park - 1,200 people lived in Cataloochee and 700 in Cades Cove, the largest communities.
Hundreds of homes were sold off, torn down or burned in the early years before the Park Service decided to save the cultural history of the park. More than 80 old buildings remain today.
Many who once lived in the Smokies - the last original resident died in 1999 - moved far away. But family reunions in the park are common, typically held on Sundays from May though October.
For Caldwell, now mayor of tiny Pittman Center just outside the park and a retired park ranger, the result was worth the pain.
"I took my father back to Greenbrier Cove, where he grew up and had lived, on his 85th birthday," he said. "I said, 'Aren't you glad, Papa, you lived long enough to see the land restored to nature?'
"He said, 'Yeah, I was bitter at the park movement when they came, but I am glad the government did take it over because it is now available anytime I want it, and it will help others to get a look into the past.'"
At the park's Little Greenbrier School and primitive Baptist church, you will find Robin Goddard, 64, a retired school teacher who portrays a teacher of an earlier vintage every Tuesday for 500 to 700 visitors. Think, "Little House on the Prairie."
She grew up outside the park but knew every one of the 17 students who last attended the school in 1935.
A park volunteer since 1969, Goddard is one of nearly 2,800 people who donate their services to the Smokies annually, the largest volunteer contingent of any park in the country.
"The park is a natural treasure that has priceless gifts in it," she said. "It is like a sanctuary where you can go and be at peace from a busy world.
"I want to take care of it for future generations," she said. "I give back to it what it gives to me. It gives me a purpose in my life. I love the park. I tell everybody."