Great Smoky Mountains National Park experienced the second busiest year on record in 2020. In spite of a 46-day, full park closure this spring and partial closures through August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the park had 12,095,720 visits. This marks the second time in park history that visitation exceeded 12 million visits.
“I’m proud of our staff and partners who worked diligently to develop COVID-safe protocols that enabled us to safely provide access to the park during a time when people were desperate to spend time in this special place for healing and refuge,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “But, this increase in use didn’t come without a cost. Visitors experienced even more congestion, the busiest places in the park became even busier, and visitors often left behind litter and damaged roadsides from out-of-bounds parking.”
Between June and December, when most park roads were open, the park had one million more visits than experienced during this same time period in 2019 and 2.3 million more visits than the ten-year average for this time period. The park set individual monthly visitation records for each month August through December. Roads, trails, frontcountry campgrounds, and backcountry campsites were all busier than normal. Following the reopening of all frontcountry campgrounds in September, use increased more than 33% for the remainder of the year over the same time period in 2019. In the backcountry, camping increased 47% for the same time period between June and December in 2019.
This surge in use follows a 20-year trend of increasing visitation in the Smokies. Over the last year, park managers have been working with local communities and visitors to discuss challenges with extremely high visitation. Visitors are more consistently reporting extreme traffic congestion, busy restrooms, litter, and over-full parking areas throughout the year. Park managers remind the public about the added importance of practicing Leave No Trace principles during periods of high visitation. Litter and food scraps are not only unsightly, but also draw wildlife close to park roadways, resulting in hazardous situations for motorists and iconic animals like black bears. To learn more about how to #recreateresponsibly, please visit the National Park Service’s website at https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/recreate-responsibly.htm.
The park hosted eight virtual workshops in 2020 with 200 participants to discuss ideas for providing better access, experiences, and stewardship of the park. Through the workshops and an online comment opportunity, the park collected more than 2,000 ideas about ideal park experiences and potential management actions to address challenges at some of the park’s busiest locations. Park managers are currently assessing the information collected and plan to implement a pilot project based on the ideas gathered to address use and congestion for at least one park destination in 2021. For more information about the park’s planning process to address visitor experiences and congestion, please visit https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/ves.htm.