Great Smoky Mountains park sets new record with 14.1 million visitors in 2021

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With 14.1 million visitors, 2021 marked the most visitors ever for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as camping increased 40% in "frontcountry" camping areas, and 20% in backcountry areas.
With 14.1 million visitors, 2021 marked the most visitors ever for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as camping increased 40% in "frontcountry" camping areas, and 20% in backcountry areas.

More people than ever visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021, crushing the previous record by 1.5 million and capping off a decade that's seen visitation increase by more than 50%.

In an announcement Jan. 20, the park reported 14.1 million people made their way to the half-million acre, 82-year-old national park which sees more visitors than any national park in the country.

The previous record was set in 2019 with 12.5 million visitors, and 2020 was close behind with 12.09 million, even after being closed for 46 days at the start of the pandemic.

More people are visiting the park throughout the years as well, the announcement says, with with monthly visitation records in eight months in 2021.

Related: Pandemic-proof? Smokies, Parkway visitation and spending stay strong in 2020

“In the last decade, park visitation has increased by 57%,” acting Superintendent Alan Sumeriski said in the release. “While increasing visitation presents complex challenges, we are honored to care for a park that is special to so many people."

The pandemic led many to seek their recreation outdoors, and people flocked to the Smokies.

Sarah Herron, director of marketing and communications with Friends of the Smokies said supporters the group speaks with talk about the park as a place to go during the pandemic, to feel safe, to heal and 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.

In 2021, more people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park than any year before, bouncing back from 2020 with a 57% increase.
In 2021, more people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park than any year before, bouncing back from 2020 with a 57% increase.

That extra visitation led park officials to tweak with some of the most popular spots, including requiring reservations for Laurel Falls and banning vehicles from Cades Cove Loop on Wednesdays to allow hikers and cyclists to enjoy the road.

It was a popular program officials said will continue in 2022.

Roads, trails, campgrounds and backcountry camping were all busier than normal, the park says, with "frontcountry" camping up 40% and backcountry camping up 20%, according to the announcement.

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And while the summer and fall continue to see the highest visitation, numbers in the winter and spring months are rapidly increasing, it says, with January through June, November and December all setting records for monthly visitation in 2021.

In December 2020-February 2021, the park had 600,000 more visitors than the 10-year average for those months, the release says, and for March-May, the park had 1.2 million more visits than the 10-year average.

Rising visitation equals rising costs, and year-round visitation needs present significant staffing challenges, the park says, noting $4 million in aid from the Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park annual budget has fluctuated mainly between $19 million and $20 million over the past decade.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park annual budget has fluctuated mainly between $19 million and $20 million over the past decade.

The park is also set to receive project-specific, short-term funds for the maintenance backlogs at campgrounds, wastewater systems, roads and trails.

"We remain committed to developing innovative solutions to provide the necessary support for visitor services and resource protection," Sumeriski says in the release.

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

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.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw its busiest year ever in 2021, when more than 14.1 million people visited the park, breaking the former record set in 2019.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw its busiest year ever in 2021, when more than 14.1 million people visited the park, breaking the former record set in 2019.

Herron said the funds will cover the cost of a seasonal crew with special skills in historic preservation to repair and maintain historic structures and keep the integrity of the time they were constructed and used.

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

But the increase in visitation has not brought an increase in search and rescues, Soehn said, with an average of about 100 per year.

In 2021, the park saw there were 15 fatalities in the park, she said, four from motor vehicle collisions, four from motorcycle accidents, six cardiac incidents and one drowning.

Part of the funds from Friends of the Smokies goes to fund search and rescue programs as well, Herron said, including preventative efforts that post volunteers at trailheads to help let visitors know what kind of hikes they're setting out on and provide information to make sure they have a safe experience.

Sarah Riley at the Knoxville News Sentinel contributed to this report.

Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Great Smoky Mountains park sets new record for visitors in 2021

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