Most Americans are traveling far less than in years past, due to one of
the worst economic downturns in decades. Many are looking close to home
for a place to spend their summer vacation, and that will likely mean
record crowds at state and national parks.
people would probably guess that one of the nation's iconic western
parks - Yellowstone, Yosemite or Grand Canyon - would be the most
crowded. But in fact, a park located in the eastern United States sees
as many visitors annually as those three better-known western ones
It's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
(Click to view photo slideshow of the park.)
Park is easy to get to, and people come
Ranger Bob Miller says this park hosts well over 9 million visitors every year, far more than any other national park.
comparison, Grand Canyon National Park is second with about 4.5
million. Yosemite and Yellowstone have about 3 million each."
The reason for that, he explains, is the park's location, near the densely populated eastern seaboard.
"A hundred million people could drive here in a day," he adds.
it's such a popular destination, the soothing sounds of nature in the
Smokies blend with the far-less-soothing sounds of traffic. With so
many people trying to find a slice of nature to enjoy, you wonder how a
park like Smoky Mountains survives all the attention.
But Miller says it isn't the park that suffers the most, it's the
visitors' experience in the park. He points to an area called Cade's
"[It] is an 11-mile [17-km], one-way loop road through
an historic district. Real scenic, lots of wildlife to see - bears and
deer and turkey - and it's just a real popular destination. It isn't
unusual for you to be stuck in traffic for three hours on that 11-mile
Worse than the traffic, though, is the impact the
region's growing population is having on the park's air quality. The
Smokies are named for the blue mist that always seems to hover around
the peaks and valleys. But because it sits downwind of some of the
nation's most heavily industrialized areas, Miller says the Smokies are
far smokier than they should be.
"[There are] ozone levels that
are high enough to damage about 30 species of plants in the park. We
also have acid deposition that's as acidic as vinegar in some cases,
where rain and fog can descend at pH [acidity levels] under four."
In contrast, pure rain has a pH of about six.
Attracting a new generation of park visitors
despite all these people problems, Miller says as Great Smoky Mountains
National Park celebrates its 75th year, the Park Service is focused on
keeping people coming.
"If you look historically at the last
75 years or so, the average visitor has been a white, middle-class
family that grew up with the family camping trip, have fond memories of
that and pass it along to their kids. But increasingly, the demographic
of America is changing."
This new average citizen is less interested in nature, less interested, in fact, in being outdoors at all.
know, kids, instead of being out playing out-of-doors, are spending a
lot more time online on Facebook and on all kinds of electronic media.
They're not activities that really get you in touch with nature,"
Miller points out, adding, "And a lot of families don't have the time
to spend taking their kids out and getting involved with nature."
rather than waiting for the visitors to come to the park, the Park
Service is taking the park to the visitors. Rangers are presenting
nature programs at local schools, and they're also experimenting with
online tools, like podcasts and a Virtual Visitors Center.
Natural beauty still the biggest draw
fact that so many people visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in
spite of the crowds and the noise and the pollution, is perhaps the
best possible testament to the park's enduring beauty. As Ranger Bob
Miller points out, it has 200,000 hectares of forest, 1,300 kilometers
of walking trails, 1,100 kilometers of fishable streams, and a wealth
of plant and animal life few other parks can rival.
have about 200 species of birds, a lot of which are neo-tropical. We've
also got 60 species of mammals, ranging from lesser shrews, which are
the weight of a dime and less than an inch [2 centimeters] long, to
800- or 900-pound [350- or 400-kilo] elk. We have something in the
range of 1,600 bears in this park, which is somewhere in the range of
two per square mile [one per square km]." There are also 1,600 species
of plants, including well over 100 tree varieties.
enough reason, park visitors seem to believe, to endure a little
traffic to enjoy a whole lot of spectacular natural beauty.