Great Smoky Mountains National Park shatters previous annual record by 1.5 million visits

When the pandemic hit, Americans spent their time outdoors, especially in sanctuaries like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 2021, the park shattered its annual record for the number of visitors by 1.5 million.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, already the busiest national park in the country, had its busiest year on record with 14,137,812 visits.

“In the last decade, park visitation has increased by 57%,” Acting Superintendent Alan Sumeriski said in a news release. “While increasing visitation presents complex challenges, we are honored to care for a park that is special to so many people. We remain committed to developing innovative solutions to provide the necessary support for visitor services and resource protection.” 

The record was set in 2019 but 2020 was close behind even though the park was closed for 46 days at the start of the pandemic.

One trend officials have noted is that the park is busier throughout the year. The Smokies have long been a summertime family destination, but in 2021, visitors set eight monthly records in winter and spring months.

Sarah Herron, director of marketing and communications with Friends of the Smokies, said supporters talk about the park as a place to go to escape the doldrums of pandemic, to feel safe, to heal and to find comfort.

"One of the reasons they make a donation is to give back to the place that's given them so much during such an unprecedented time," Herron said.

Herron said that in addition to the $4 million the group raises each year through its license plates and events, it's launching a new $9 million endowment to help preserve historic structures in the park.

Called Forever Places, the effort hopes to maintain historic structures like churches and cabins throughout the park, many of which are open to the public and have seen extra wear and tear with increased visitation, she said.

In 2022, there are 70 special projects and programs the group is hoping to fund, including everything from visitor amenities like campground improvements and rehabilitating popular trails to supporting wildlife management and other conservation programs.

This year's extra visitors forced park officials to experiment with some of the most popular spots. A pilot program this past year forced visitors to get a reservation to park at Laurel Falls, a waterfall accessible by a paved trail.

The park also banned vehicles from the Cades Cove Loop on Wednesdays to allow hikers and bicyclists to enjoy the road. The program was popular and park officials said it will continue in 2022.

Camping is up in the park as well. Frontcountry camping increased 40% in 2021 while backcountry camping increased 20%, according to the park. Overall, visitors booked nearly half a million overnight stays. 

As park officials noted in the new release, serving more visitors costs more money. The Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association are providing more than $4 million in aid this year, the release said. The park is also slated to receive project-specific, short-term funds to help with the maintenance backlog in campgrounds, wastewater systems, roads and trails.

And, of course, more visitors bring more trash, which can harm animal species and cost taxpayer money to clean up. Park officials ask everyone to follow Leave No Trace principles.

Spokesperson Dana Soehn said the 2021 park budget was $20.3 million, a figure that's varied from $19 million to $20 million over the last decade with some dips below $19 million, including in 2012 and 2013.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the Southern Appalachian Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The diversity of animal and plant life sets the park apart from others.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Sarah Riley, Derek Lacey

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Published January 25, 2022