National Parks Journal: How to ‘Recreate Responsibly’ in the Great Smoky Mountains with NPS’ Dana Soehn

by Jon D. B.
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Amidst record-breaking visitation, Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s Dana Soehn talks cultivating a new generation of responsible visitors for our National Parks Journal.

Growing up next to the Smokies meant countless weekend excursions with family and friends. From spotting black bears while driving the Cades Cove loop and experiencing Rainbow & Abrams Falls at their peaks, to watching the life-changing Firefly Festival or taking Mt. Leconte for all it’s worth, there’s no place on earth like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM).

But if you’ve been in recent years, then you know it’s a whole different ballgame now. Whether entering from Tennessee’s Gatlinburg or Townsend entrances, or North Carolina’s southern Oconaluftee entrance, traffic congests for miles. Things don’t improve much once you enter the park, either.

(Massive crowd gathers at GRSM’s Laurel Falls. Photo courtesy of Dana Soehn, NPS)

“Not only is this rising visitation, but it’s some steep increases we’ve not seen in park history,” says Dana Soehn, one of the park’s leading public affairs representatives. Luckily, the park is doing all they can to control the fallout of modern day’s monumental visitation. But as Dana tells me, it all has to start with cultivating responsible visitors.

GRSM Public Affairs’ Tips for Planning a Responsible Visit:

  • Pre-planning on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s website is key
  • Park staff and rangers are available to help plan trips both over the phone and on-site
  • “Leave No Trace”: No graffiti, no waste (including biodegradable fruit peels, etc.)
  • “Bring more than your cellphone,” and from scenic drives to hikes, be sure to plan each excursion accordingly.

“In 2021, we had record visitation with 14.1 million visits. The park is busier than ever before,” Dana begins of GRSM’s unparalleled traffic. “That’s a 57% increase in visitation over the last decade. Our record before 2021 was in 2019, and we had 1.5 million more visits in 2021 over our last record year.”

That’s a whole lot of people. But the Smokies has been America’s most visited national park for decades, which gives park officials like Soehn a leg up on dealing with the challenges this brings.

“The park was created in 1934, and we are approaching 100 years old! So what does this next century of stewardship look like in a park that now receives this level of visitation?” she asks. “We’re challenged right now to try and create that next century of stewards. And that’s what we’re laser-focused on is trying to reach the visitors who are coming and help them take part in caring for the park as a part of their visit.”

As Dana notes, “It’s inspiring that so many people want to come to the park! So many feel so connected to this very special place.” But above all, “We want them to show that care while they’re visiting.”

Dana Soehn: ‘Pre-Planning Is Key’ for Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2022

“Sometimes people, maybe our first time visitors, don’t know how their actions in the park can add to our resource challenges. So we’re seeing more traffic congestion. We’re seeing more crowded trailheads. And often, we’re seeing resource damage because people will park out of bounds and cause damage because they’re so determined to do that hike at an iconic location,” Dana cites.

Instead, a little bit of pre-planning through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s full suite of 150 different trail choices can go a long way, she offers. “Thinking about better timing for hiking to some of those 10-or-so iconic trails that people consider ‘must-dos’ in the Smokies can go a long way. So pre-planning is key.”

To do so, GRSM’s Recreate Responsibly page holds prime advice on planning a fruitful trip for both yourself and the park.

‘Leave No Trace’ & Beyond: GRSM’s Guides for Cultivating Responsible Visitors

“We’re also seeing more litter. We’re seeing more litter of things that people may not consider an issue. For instance, biodegradable things like banana and orange peels. Any kind of food or small paper scraps. Those things are not only unsightly, but they present some very real challenges for us in managing safe wildlife viewing for our visitors,” Soehn continues.

(Park staff gathers waste left behind by GRSM visitors. Photo courtesy of Dana Soehn, NPS)

“And then we’re also seeing, just in general, more graffiti, and a lack of awareness of what it takes to share a space responsibly.”

That responsibility boils down to protecting Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the next generation, Dana says. That next generation includes not only future park visitors, but the ecosystem itself. The more responsible GRSM visitors are, the better the survival-to-thriving odds are for the park’s precious wildlife, habitat, and everything in-between.

To accomplish this, Dana and the GRSM team are pushing a handful of key visitation guides for cultivating responsible visitors:

Each link above will take you to GRSM’s thorough advice on how to make the best of your Smokies trip while doing so safely and responsibly. Which, as any Outsider will tell you, leads to the most enjoyable and fulfilling experience in any national park.

GRSM Experts are Available By Phone or On-Site to Help Plan Park Visits

“A lot of the mishaps that people find themselves in are related to just not taking that few extra minutes to really prepare themselves for a park visit. Whether that’s a scenic drive, or a hiking experience. We have a lot resources available digitally on our website,” Dana cites of the guidelines above.

(2021 visitors enjoying GRSM’s ‘Vehicle Free Day’ in Cades Cove. Photo courtesy of Dana Soehn, NPS)

But if planning online isn’t your style, don’t fret. “We also have real live people who are willing to talk to you on the phone and help them do some trip planning,” she says. These same experts, ranging from park staff to rangers, are available on-site, too, in visitor centers and GRSM’s backcountry office.

“We want people to utilize these resources to plan a trip experience that’s right for everyone in their group. We can help people understand what certain trail lengths mean. What the topography will be like. Changes in elevation and weather, and the preparations that visitors need,” Dana offers.

So before planning your next Great Smoky Mountains National Park adventure, prepare to Recreate Responsibly in one of the best parks our planet has to offer. And keep an eye on Outsider for more from GRSM’s experts via our National Parks Journal soon.

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