Visitors Damaging the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Be Part of the Solution

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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has recently seen damage to the park’s condition due to inconsiderate travelers, but there are things you as a visitor to minimize your environmental impact.

As the fall season approaches, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is expecting visitors from across the country to see the fall foliage change from green to vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow. Large crowds wouldn’t be new for the national park because even with repeated closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the park set monthly visitation records in the summer months of 2020. 1

Annual visitation to the national park has increased by 32% since 2009. Last year the park saw more than 12.5 million visitors, making it the most visited national park in the country. 1

With the record-breaking crowds comes damage to the national park’s environment. Recently, the park has seen trash piling up and scattered everywhere, roads backed up for miles, overflowing parks lots, roadside soil erosion, long lines at the restrooms and vegetation trampling. 1

Environmental Impacts

 All of these incidents cause a chain of events in terms of its environmental impact. Leaving large amounts of litter on the ground not only contributes to the spread of illness as the trash attracts disease-carrying animals, but it can also cause fires to spread quicker when someone unwittingly starts a spark. Littering is also harmful to wildlife because chemicals in the trash could be toxic to animals, they could fatally cut themselves on broken glass, and they could even suffocate after getting stuck in plastic bags or other containers. It doesn’t just have an effect on land, because the national park also contains several bodies of water where trash can cause pollution and harm the aquatic life as well.

As traffic increases with the large number of cars present at the park, air pollution also increases since vehicles are a major contributor to the release of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other pollutants into the air. Human vegetation trampling impacts the natural habitats of the animals that live there and also leads to the loss of vegetation and other plant communities. The fertile land present in the national park is also lost as a result of soil erosion and leads to increased pollution and sedimentation in rivers and streams.

According to Asheville Citizen Times, park officials have even started to reach out to the public to see if they have any suggestions on how to improve park conditions. 1

For travelers to not only enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but other national parks for years to come, here are a few tips that can help make your trip as ecofriendly as possible.

6 Ecofriendly Tips

Use Reusable Water Bottles

Not only are reusable water bottles better for the environment, but they also save you money in the process because you don’t have to keep paying for bottled water. According to ARAMARK Parks and Destination, plastic water bottles count for 20% of national parks’ tras,h so this small change will make a big difference.

 The 3R’s of Waste Management

It is also important to incorporate the 3R’s of waste management: reduce, reuse and recycle.  When you are traveling, the first step is to make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of waste you use. The second R may also help with this. For example, instead of using plastic bags use a reusable tote bag that will cut down on your trash. When you are done, be sure to recycle items such as paper, bottles, plastic, metals and glass. While it may seem easier to throw your garbage on the ground, take the time to look for marked recycling bins as this alone has several benefits.

Utilize Shuttle Services

Look to see if the park you are planning to visit provides transportation before your trip and plan to utilize the shuttles if they are offered. Not only does this allow travelers to avoid traffic jams, but if more people opt to use a shuttle service, the amount of harmful pollutants released into the air will decrease.

Only Use Marked Hiking Trails

Hiking is a popular activity at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park since there are 850 miles of trails for travelers to explore that overlook scenic views such as Arch Rock and Alum Cave Bluffs. By staying on the marked trails, hikers will be doing their part to cut down on the amount of vegetation trampling and avoid doing any more damage to natural habitats.

Use Air Dryers in Restrooms

When the trash is already overflowing, more paper towels are often just piled on, which results in a lot ending up on the floor. Especially with endless amounts of long lines, it is difficult to maintain cleanliness. If more visitors use air dryers instead, it will decrease the amount of waste that ultimately ends up on the ground.

If you are planning to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in time for fall foliage or any other national park in the near future, consider incorporating a few of these tips into your visit to do your part in protecting our environment.

Go with a Group

Planning your excursion to the Smoky Mountains with a group can greatly reduce your environmental impact as well. Groups usually share a shuttle or tour bus, reducing the transportation burden and road congestion, are normally led by a guide, which will help keep everyone on designated trails, and often include collective dining services that will reduce individual waste.

  1. Karen Chavez, “Great Smoky Mountains seeks public input on overcrowding, park damage,” Asheville Citizen Times, accessed October 12, 2020,

by Megan O’Brien

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