Welcome to America’s Most Popular National Park

Great Smoky is teetering the line between use and overuse. Here’s what needs to happen to protect the United States’ most beloved park—and all of our public lands.

Anna King, of Greenville, South Carolina, remembers the synchronous fireflies of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “One firefly goes off, sparking the others around them, and it’s like a blanket of flickering lights coming toward you,” she says. “It dies down for a few seconds, and then they do it again. It seems as if there are millions of them.”

Campsites at the Elkmont Campground are reserved within minutes of opening for a slot between the end of May and the beginning of June to catch the natural lightshow.

This momentary glimpse of thousands of bulbs flickering in real time is one of the many attractions that draw East Coasters, people from across the country, and some from all over the world, to the national park that remains a treasure of the South.

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Great Smoky covers 522,427 acres of Appalachian rolling hills, rivers, and valleys across Tennessee and North Carolina. With 11.3 million visits last year, it is the most visited of the 59 parks, with Grand Canyon coming in second at 4.6 million and Yosemite at 3.8 million.

What’s its appeal?

It could be the impressive ecological makeup of the landscape. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges on earth—some of the flowering vegetation, like Appalachian avens, part of the rose family, can only be found within the park. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site, Great Smoky boasts 3,500 plant species—130 of which are trees—and numerous endangered plants and animals. The park is renowned for having the largest remnant of the Arcto-Tertiary Geoflora era that continues to flourish and evolve and includes the largest block of virgin red spruce left on the planet.

Meander along quarter-mile paths called Quiet Walkways and experience the world as it once was.

While Westerners may overlook the park for its lack of rocky peaks, elevations span from 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to over 6,600 feet at Clingman’s Dome, one of 16 mountains over 6,000 feet in the park. Centuries of bio-diverse history remains alive within its boundaries, with late Ice Age flora still evolving.

“People often say that coming to the Smokies is like taking a trip from Georgia to Maine because we have all of this great diversity of forest types and types of life,” Dana Soehn of the park’s public affairs department says.

One-thousand developed campsites and over 100 backcountry sites are laced together by 850 miles of trail. Seventy miles of the Appalachian Trail run alongside 730 miles of fish-bearing streams and can be accessed via 384 miles of road. The National Park Service (NPS) invites visitors to wander through backcountry trails and not find a soul, a rarity in the densely populated East. They can meander along quarter-mile paths called Quiet Walkways and experience the world as it once was.

For Soehn, the human element of the park makes it just as appealing. “Here at the park, which was created from the passion of people who came together for a national park in the East, we try to preserve the continuum of the human story,” she says. “We protect over 100 historic structures from the late 1700s that allow visitors to learn about Appalachian settlers and Cherokee Indians with reunions and decoration days.”

By the mid-18th century, towns in the area were booming with expansion and economic growth from tourism. The Appalachian Mountains became a favorite tourist spot in the 1920s with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe heading to the space for clean, fresh air. Doctors were even prescribing the surrounding mountains to patients who suffered from respiratory issues.

Daniel Peirce, a history professor in Asheville, writes that “Asheville’s numbers increased by 79 percent between 1920 and 1928.” The growth fueled a desire to attract national publicity by highlighting the beauty of Appalachia via creation of the park. Led by the hard work of one Japanese immigrant and landscape photographer, George Masa, the people of North Carolina and Tennessee fundraised for the park through community action, businesses, and bonds. After 15 years of legislative battles, fundraising, and advocacy, the area was designated a national park in 1940. This notion of public lands for and by the people lives on in the flourishing of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Today, park accessibility for many residents of the Southeast contributes to the vast popularity of the Smokies. Over half of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive. Repeated trips become traditions and families come back year after year. As a child, I remember the sweltering heat of the 4th of July: red, bare shoulders and swimsuits in the cool, clear water of the Roaring Fork River. We’d travel from South Carolina to Tennessee to celebrate with family members of North Georgia–a group made up of a range of ages and outdoor abilities. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an area to recreate and commune, a space to gather, a place to fill with family memories and nostalgia mirroring the longevity of the surrounding landscape.

“Just because you draw a line and put a boundary around a place, doesn’t mean you can protect it from all threats.”

For Soehn, this is the appeal of the park: “The Smokies offer something for everyone in the group, from backcountry experiences to shorter trails that people of all levels can enjoy.” The range of the park extends from a few-mile hike to a waterfall, to an eight-mile motor nature trail. As one of the few operating parks without an offseason, each month brings a new round of curious visitors to witness wildflowers, fall foliage, or snow-covered mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers an interesting study in the ways visitation, usage, and environmental impact overlap and affect each other on public land. As we continue to “love our parks to death,” do the park’s high visitation statistics present a cautionary tale or an exemplary form of park use?

In a climate of skepticism around the purpose of federal lands, Great Smoky generates $700 million a year and provides 10,000 or more jobs in surrounding communities, all without charging an entrance fee. While overall visitation–be it stop-offs or actual backcountry trips–added up to 11.3 million visitors in 2016, the park saw 190,574 tent campers, 111,680 RV campers, and 109,349 backcountry campers. In other words, the visitation numbers are slightly skewed: 11.3 million interact with the park to some capacity, but significantly fewer are camping within it. Any interaction is a win for the public lands advocates focused on creating park stewards, but the less traffic the backcountry sees, the less damage the park suffers from.

While the landscape is accustomed to an ever-changing evolutionary ecosystem, recent man-made factors affect air and water quality.

And yet use, no matter at what capacity—along with other environmental factors—remains a prominent issue. Great Smoky is a crucial breeding ground for biodiversity. While the landscape is accustomed to an ever-changing evolutionary ecosystem, recent man-made factors affect air and water quality. The NPS is only just beginning to track the impact of over 11 million visits a year, let alone address the associated problems.

When it comes to environmental concerns, boundaries are always tricky. “Just because you draw a line and put a boundary around a place, doesn’t mean you can protect it from all threats,” Soehn says. Invasive bugs and plant species, like the hemlock woolly adelgid and kudzu vines, are devouring the park’s hemlocks, fraser firs, and ash trees.

While the park can monitor its own pollution, the surrounding communities, with lessening EPA standards, affect the water, air, and species within the park.

Take air quality for instance: The park’s “smoky” name doesn’t stem from smog, but smog is a growing problem as power plants and nearby industrial complexes’ emissions are picked up by the wind, blown to the southern Appalachians, and trapped within the mountain range. Lower air quality creates the smog that distorts views and contaminates the plants and water.

The park could lose up 16.7 percent of its mammalian diversity in the next few decades.

According the EPA, a 1 percent temperature increase (with an expected 2 to 3 percent by 2100) and 10 percent precipitation growth (up to 30 percent in summer months) in Tennessee could continue to worsen the smog, while a water temp increase could harm much of the plant life. Within this doubling of carbon, the park could lose up 16.7 percent of its mammalian diversity in the next few decades.

Air quality and emissions are directly related to water issues within the park. Its streams consistently encounter coal mine run-off that contaminates the water and hurts the fish. The trout, a coldwater species and an important fish for the Southeast, could diminish from reduced streamflow and hotter water temperatures. Without clean water, the vibrant and diverse animal and plant species also suffer and diminish.

Growing wildfires across the nation are also affecting Great Smoky. The recent Chimney Rock fire spread through the air, heavy with smoke particles, and burned south-facing ridges. Thankfully, most animals were able to flee, less than 1,000 acres were intensely burned, and the seed bank is still intact within burned areas, meaning that the vegetation and communities will largely recover.

But Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not sitting idly by as thousands of years of biodiversity disintegrate from human activity and overuse.

“We have the longest running monitor systems in place for air quality and water quality to help us get data that we can share with our community to promote changes, help manufacturers make cleaner productions, and to provide data to help people make better decisions,” Sohen says. The task now is to convince businesses that these changes benefit their work, community, and environment. Many of the water issues require strong stream protections that prevent the unlawful dumping of mining waste in streams and preserve no-fishing reserves in threatened waters.

As far as air quality, trends show wary progress. While in 2013 the air quality was the best it had been in two decades, this was largely thanks to the Clean Air Act that cut sulfur dioxide emissions by about 35 percent. Jim Renfro of the NPS reported in April 2015 that air quality trends were looking up, with a 95 percent decrease of surrounding TVA emissions, a 36 percent decrease in ozone pollution, and haziness on the worst days down by 130 percent. But if efforts to enforce the Clean Air Act falter, the responsibility to protect this beloved space will fall largely onto the park and its surrounding communities.  

The park is the most researched out of all the parks, issuing over 100 research permits per year.

While all national parks face climate change and invasive issues from plants and human activity, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not slowing down its programs to preserve its ecological diversity. The park is the most researched out of all the parks, issuing over 100 research permits per year. Researchers are currently attempting to identify nearly 20,000 species within its boundaries. On Discover Life in America, you can find the Smokies Species Tally, a breakdown of almost 1,000 species, including algae, arachnids, crustaceans, and fungi, discovered in the area and new to science. This project, also called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, is the largest continued natural history inventory in the States—and one of the largest in the world.

The NPS created a Species Mapper that takes the known location of plants and animals and tracks its potential locations through ongoing monitoring. The observation tools allow the park to keep a close eye on various species, predict their habitats, and work toward the best conservation tactics for all diverse forms of life. This inventory and monitoring program in the park was the first of its kind and a model of scientific research for other parks. Other programs within Great Smoky work to restore wetlands, encourage hiking for the health of residents in the Southeast, train teachers on climate change, and teach students about the impact of environmental issues.

The future of our parks lies in both their accessibility and actionable research. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s accessibility could be its biggest asset in selling the greater American public on the value and necessity of our public lands. Organizations like Friends of the Smokies, Great Smoky Mountains Association, and the National Parks Conservation Association are working to share their love of the park and preserve its unique ecological landscape. With such a large percentage of the U.S. population in close proximity to the Smokies, the park could function as Ground Zero for climate change awareness and parks engagement. With 11.3 million people funneling in and out each year, Great Smoky may open ears and eyes to environmental awareness.

Higher visitation comes with higher costs and a potential for overuse that is still largely unknown. The perfect balance between making parks usable and accessible while still conserving the natural landscape has yet to be struck. If all the parks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park commit to high levels of research, air quality enforcements, and climate change education, there is hope to find this balance.

In the end, what makes or breaks a park for the common visitor is the close-quarters experience of nature: the shimmering, speckled trout coursing through the clear water, the thousands of wildflowers in bloom from spring precipitation, and the chance to see the sparking of fireflies in late May across the dark sky.

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