Too many people? Great Smoky Mountains National Park hits record visitation in 2019

KAREN CHÁVEZ | THE CITIZEN-TIMES

Updated 6:14 p.m. EST Feb. 13, 2020

Tobias Miller has had his nose to the ground at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the past 18 years, building, fixing and maintaining the vast network of forest trails that lure people from around the world.

But sometimes, his nose gets too close. That’s when he spots — or rather sniffs — the lumps of human waste, sometimes hidden under a log, sometimes left out in the open along with a field of what he calls “white flowers,” aka toilet paper.

It’s one of the many impacts that Miller, a supervisory facilities operations specialist who manages the park’s roads and trails, has seen growing along with the record-breaking hordes of visitors.

The Smokies, a half-million acres of rugged, mountainous wilderness on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, had 12.5 million visitors in 2019, a nearly 10% increase from the 11.4 million people who visited in 2018.

The news comes along with the release of President Donald Trump’s proposed 2021 budget Feb. 10, which dramatically slashes the Department of Interior budget by 16%, and the National Park Service budget by nearly 18% from $3.4 billion to $2.8 billion, continuing a declining trend.

The upward trend in Smokies visitation has been continuing for at least the past decade. According to park records, there were 9.5 million visitors in 2010, and visitation has increased 30% since then.

That increase can be felt and seen in the traffic jams — sometimes exacerbated by bear or elk sightings — on popular roads like Cades Cove and Newfound Gap, on trails like Laurel Falls near Gatlinburg and Alum Cave heading to Mount LeConte, in campgrounds completely filled in summer, excessive trash, and trail erosion. As well as the unsanitary use of trail-sides as restrooms.

“It’s a challenge on the high-use trails. There was no original design at trailheads for bathroom facilities. Alum Cave (where a vault toilet was recently installed) is great, but in the wintertime when we don’t have staff, it’s not open,” Miller said.

“But people hike all year-round, so they still have to go to the bathroom. At Laurel Falls Trail there are no bathrooms. Families come from Gatlinburg, they eat and drink at the pancake house and drive to the trailhead and have nowhere to use the bathroom. A lot of those social trails that leave the main trail are made by people going to do their business.”

He said, “in a perfect world,” people should be practicing Leave No Trace, a set of seven outdoor ethics principles that include digging a cathole to bury waste at least 200 feet from a water source, trail or campsite and carry toilet paper out in a Ziploc baggie. But most people in the frontcountry, as opposed to remote, backcountry trails, don’t hike with a trowel or want to carry their own waste.

“It’s an occupational trail hazard for trail workers,” Miller said.

It is one of the many issues that park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the park will be trying to address as the crush of visitors continues.

While the National Park Service has not officially released its visitation numbers yet, the Smokies once again appears to be the most visited national park in the country.

Monthly visitation records were set during January, March, April, May, June, and December. In April, May, and September, approximately 1 million people visited each month, which are typically slower times of year. Before 2015, park visitation had not exceeded 1 million visitors per month until the summer and fall months.

Preliminary numbers show that the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs through Asheville along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Smokies entrance in Cherokee, had 15 million visitors last year, a 2% increase.

It is neck and neck with Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, which had 15.2 million visitors, as the most visited unit of the National Park Service.

What’s so special about the Smokies?

The Great Smokies attracted more visitors than any of the “big name” Western parks in 2019, more than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world, home to nearly 20,000 species of plants, fungi, and wildlife, according to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

People come to see everything from spring wildflowers, mushrooms and lichen, trout and other aquatic species, as well as the massive elk and black bears.

The Smokies have more than 800 miles of hiking trails, including some of the most rugged and highest-elevation sections of the Appalachian Trail, endless Smoky Mountain views, waterfalls and streams, campgrounds and picnic areas, as well as a peek into pre-park life with historic cabins, mills, barns and even cemeteries.

And, unlike Western national parks, entrance to the Smokies is free.

Soehn said the increase in visitors can be attributed to many factors.

One is the opening in November 2018 of 16 more miles of the Foothills Parkway, a scenic drive from Walland to Wears Valley, Tennessee, bringing it to 33 miles. She said the traffic on Foothills increased from nearly 624,000 visitors in 2017 to 1.5 million in 2019, a 60% increase.

She said numbers for how many people were driving only the new section were not possible to extrapolate, however.

Another interesting number was the increase of people in the park’s interior entrances, she said.

Visitation coming through the Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, entrances was up 4%, while those entering through Oconaluftee in Cherokee, North Carolina, increased by 7%. Taken all together, they account for two-thirds of the park’s total visitation, Soehn said.

“We’ve been on a general trend of increasing visitation across the National Park Service, which is typically aligned with strong economies and good gas prices, if you look at the long historical trend data,” she said. “We are still in that period of growth in the Smokies, and had relatively good weather last year and the camping stayed relatively stable across the park.

“We’re one of the parks that are relatively easy to access due to our vast network of roads and trails, and we’re close to so many cities in the Eastern U.S.”

The Great Smokies is so popular, it had record visitation even though the government shutdown the first few weeks of the year. People were still allowed to enter the park and hike the trails, even though restrooms and visitor centers were closed, Soehn said.

The park’s nonprofit partners, Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association, did help with funding to open the visitor centers the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Soehn said the times of greatest congestion in the park are between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in June and July and during foliage season in October. At those times, people can expect a drive on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road to take between three and five hours.

Cades Cove, an area filled with overlooks, wayside exhibits, and historic buildings, gets 2 million visitors a year.

Another area prone to clogging is Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest peak in the Smokies and along the Appalachian Trail.

“It’s not uncommon during July and October for people to come at least a half-mile down the road to find parking on the road shoulder. The parking lot is generally filled by 10 a.m. during peak months,” Soehn said.

That leads to other trouble, including cars sliding down shoulder embankments and needing tow trucks, which causes more traffic backups.

But the iconic curved ramp leading to the summit lookout, the stunning views and the many trails that lead from the summit area are too good for people to pass up.

However, the high traffic volume might have also led to one of the Great Smokies’ most deadly years.

In 2019 there were 16 fatalities in the park, Soehn said. Nine of them were related to vehicle or motorcycle crashes. The only year with more deaths was 1986 with 17.

What long-time hikers say

Danielle “Danny” Bernstein, of Asheville, is a hiking and travel guide author who also leads hikes for the Carolina Mountain Club and started the Classic Hikes of the Smokies series, a fundraiser for Friends of the Smokies, which picks up in March.

She has noticed a palpable difference in the number of people moving through the park, but says it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The more people outdoors the better. There is a reason why people come to the Smokies. The trails are well maintained, the signs are correct, it’s beautiful, it’s easy to negotiate and the visitor centers are very helpful,” Bernstein said.

She believes people need to learn to disperse and take full advantage of the half-million acres and 16 park entrances, rather than just the three main ones — Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove.

She suggests starting much earlier in the day before the 10 a.m. crush, and using entrances such as Bryson City’s Deep Creek and Road to Nowhere entrances.

“You don’t have to go very far to find nobody. Take the Deep Creek past second or third bridge, and nobody’s there. My favorite hike is the 5-mile loop around the waterfalls there,” she said.

Bill and Sharon Van Horn, of Franklin, members of the Nantahala Hiking Club, hike throughout Western North Carolina, including the Smokies. Over the past couple of decades, the retired couple say, they have noticed the toll of increasing visitors in the park.

“The national park is in a delicate situation. They want visitation, but they need to protect the resource for future generations. It’s sort of like a no-win situation,” Bill Van Horn said.

He said one time on a hike to Mount LeConte, they couldn’t find a parking spot at the Alum Cave trailhead, and so had to park along the road.

“It was a little precarious because we were leaning toward the drainage ditch,” he said.

“Some parks out West, cars are not allowed past a certain point and they have shuttle buses to address noise and air pollution problems, and the ability to expand the size of the parking area, and still accommodate a large number of visitors. But most people like their personal car,” Van Horn said.

How many visitors are too many?

The ever-increasing visitation also coincides with the sharply declining budget and a shrinking ranger staff, which if Trump’s budget is passed, could lead to further staff cuts, nearly 1,000 across the National Park Service.

Phil Francis, a former Smokies superintendent, who is now retired from the NPS and is chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said the cuts would put extra strain on the already over-worked park staff.

“National parks are already suffering due to decreased annual appropriations in the past decade. Despite high visitation, staffing numbers continue to decline, placing our treasured natural and cultural resources at risk. Without appropriate levels of funding, it is impossible to effectively manage high visitation and ensure the protection of our parks,” Francis said.

He called the proposed Department of Interior and NPS cuts “ill-informed, irresponsible,” but said there is some good news.

“The president’s budget has not been approved by the Congress in many years. We’ll look to the Congress to provide the adequate funding.”

The Smokies now has about 259 “full-time equivalents,” which is a rough estimate of employees using an equation taken from the 200 year-round employees and about 140 seasonal employees, including those who work in visitor education, resource management, maintenance and law enforcement. This is down 19% over the past decade, when the park had 319 FTEs.

So many people in the park is a strain on resources – the Smokies has about 100 search and rescues a year. It is one of the highest in the Southeast, often needing the assistance of hundreds of extra professional and volunteer personnel to assist in the dense, rugged vegetation.

A search and rescue in July 2019 for Kevin Lynch, a missing man with dementia, drew 200 S&R personnel from five states, and they found the man safely four days later. A weeklong search in 2018 did not end as well, when a mother of three from Ohio, Sue Clements, was found dead down an embankment near Clingmans Dome.

And the park can’t keep up with the so-called deferred maintenance or backlog of upkeep to the infrastructure, including its Depression-era roads and trails, buildings, wastewater systems and even replacing rangers’ badly outdated handheld radios and communication system.

Soehn said the current maintenance backlog is $236 million, of which 80% is associated with the road systems. The park has 238 miles of paved roads and 146 miles of gravel roads.

The remainder of the maintenance needs are varied, including tunnel repair in Cades Cove, repair to 18 buildings including park headquarters and historic structures like churches, mills, barns, cabins, and the Sugarlands Visitor Center, and wastewater and water treatment facilities repairs accounts for 4% of the backlog, Soehn said.

“It’s a challenge for us to be able to provide services to a growing number of visitors across the park. We benefit by having one of the largest volunteer cadres in the National Park Service,” she said.

Last year the park had 3,800 people volunteer their time to provide information to visitors, at high-traffic areas like Laurel Falls Trail and Abrams Falls, giving safety information to help prevent waterfall accidents; help at the main elk-viewing areas at Oconaluftee and Cataloochee; assist ranger staff by providing roadside services like people locking keys in their cars or help with a flat tire; performing check-in and check-out services at campgrounds; science inventory work; and trash patrol.

The park also relies on funding from Friends of the Smokies, which donated $3 million to the Smokies last year for a wide range of projects. The long needs list includes $650,000 for upgrades to the emergency communication system, $7,500 for SAR and swiftwater rescue training, $70,000 to suppress the hemlock wooly adelgid infestation, $4,200 for bear management project, $19,800 for air quality and meteorological monitoring, $68,000 for Parks as Classrooms and $275,000 for the Trails Forever rehabilitation of park trails, among many others.

“We see (the record-high visitation) as an opportunity. The park is free to visit, but it is not free to maintain,” said Friends of the Smokies North Carolina Director Anna Zanetti.

“So we have this opportunity to suggest to people they donate to the Friends. A $35 membership goes a long way to help protect the park. The park’s needs are going to be increasing as visitation increases,” she said.

Has the park reached its carrying capacity?

A little-known Congressional mandate that all national park sites – there are 418 – create plans for carrying capacity, has been largely ignored.

The 1978 National Parks and Recreation Act required park superintendents to “identify visitor carrying capacities for managing public use. Superintendents will also identify ways to monitor for and address unacceptable impacts on park resources and visitor experiences.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a federal watchdog group, studied the top 100 park units and found that only six parks have developed some sort of carrying capacity plan. The Smokies is not one of them.

“We do not currently have a carrying capacity plan,” Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said by email. “However, we have recently made the commitment to embark in a broad, high level planning initiative (in 2020) that will be aimed at studying how to best manage high visitation levels that at times exceed the capacity of our infrastructure (roads, parking, restrooms, etc.) and staffing to support it without impacting natural and cultural resources, while providing a quality visitor experience.”

“The planning process is still being developed,” Cash added, “but it will definitely rely heavily on public discussion and feedback over the next 12 to 18 months on alternatives for addressing the increasing trend in visitation. We feel this approach will meet the spirit of the statute passed by Congress.”

Jeff Ruch, Pacific Director for PEER, said Everglades in Florida has put limits on certain boats, Muir Woods National Monument in California has capped parking lots and the number of people on popular trails at certain times, and Glacier National Park in Montana is considering a reservation system to increase the use of shuttle vans and limit cars.

“The National Park Service has stopped planning. It’s sort of more boosterism than planning, the way you would for other institutions,” Ruch said.

Soehn said the park is planning to do community outreach in late May and June with facilitated meetings in local communities such as Cherokee and Bryson City.

“We need to talk about potential solutions for congestion and management at those iconic locations. At the same time, we are going to try to collect better data at congested spots across the park, so we can better determine how many people are currently able to find a parking space and how many more people we might be able to accommodate if we manage it differently,” Soehn said. “We’re at step 1.”

The Smokies might be looking to other parks that have implemented carrying capacity plans or are trying different methods for managing crowds, like Zion National Park in Utah.

The remote, high-elevation park drew 4.5 million visitors last year, mostly to hike its unique slot canyons and sandstone cliffs. The park also made headlines for the backup of people sometimes waiting hours to get on a hiking trail.

Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said the park’s visitation has increased 68% since 2010. Staff is now working on a visitor use plan to maximize visitor access while providing a high-quality visitor experience.

The intense usage is seen not just in long lines, he said, but in impacts to the soil and vegetation and facility maintenance.

The park has a $35 entrance fee for a passenger car for seven days, but visitors must ride a shuttle bus for the scenic drive in Zion Canyon, and they are trying out other ideas.

“We’ve piloted our reservation system for campgrounds, which has greatly reduced frustration with lines and not knowing for sure whether folks will find a campsite or not. We’re testing these things as we go along,” Bradybaugh said.

“We’re working with a number of partners – Utah Tourism, county governments, and local universities to work on things like a smartphone app to help visitors gauge how busy places are in the park or how much parking is available at any given time. We’re not there yet but we’re trying to refine those.”

Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.