Smokies see near-record 12 million visitors in 2020 despite pandemic

Local Coronavirus Coverage

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Not even a pandemic shut down could keep visitors from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Visitors came in droves surpassing 12 millions visits, the second time the park has hit that milestone, despite closing for 46 days throughout the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “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.”   

In all, 12,095,720 visits were made to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park set an attendance record in 2019 with 12,547,743 visits.

Once reopened in September, campground 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. 

With more visitors came increases in congestion and litter issues.

“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,” a release from the park states.

The National Park Service has created a set of tips for all park visitors to protect themselves and wildlife. You can view the list at www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/recreate-responsibly.htm.  

Smokies park managers are currently assessing information collected from eight virtual workshops and plan to implement a pilot project based on the ideas gathered to address use and congestion.

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