Great Smoky Mountains National Park prepares for busy year

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Staff at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are preparing for what could be their busiest year yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic never really stopped visitors from heading to the GSMNP, only when the park was physically closed for a couple of months.

Even then, visitation numbers were close to the average number of people they see every year, according to Jessie Snow, Executive Assistant of Public Affairs for the park, said.

That’s about 12 million visitors.

However, so far for 2021, the park has already seen past visitation records broken.

According to Snow, in January, about 526,000 visitors came to the park; and about 502,000 came in February.

In Jan. 2020, the park had about 439,000 visitors; in in Feb. 2020, about 427,000 people came to visit.

“Visitation’s not going down, and we’re looking at how we can make sure that the visitors still have a great experience when they can and experience the park,” Snow said.

She said that while they can’t predict how many people will come to the mountains this year, they can prepare in case the trend continues.

Snow said the park management team has been looking at visitation closely, and created what is called a ‘visitor experience stewardship plan,’ which looks into congestion problem solving, and the impacts on both visitors, resources and wildlife due to increased visitation.

They’re doing so through pilot programs to see what fix works best.

“One of them is the Cades Cove vehicle-free Wednesdays. And so we did have that pilot last year, and it’s going to continue this summer,” Snow said.

That starts May 5.

Snow said more staff will be around the park over the summer, helping with the pilot programs and reminding visitors to treat the wildlife properly, such as staying at least 50 feet back when bears or any other animals come out.

With the busy season ahead, Snow said visitors should be prepared as well.

She said map out where you’re going to park and what trails you’d like to visit.

Snow said the best times for the least congestion are early in the morning and on the weekdays.

Weekends and midday are the most congested, Snow said.

COVID-19 precautions continue

With the possible continued increase of visitors heading to the park, visitors can expect COVID-19 precautions to continue.

Snow said the park is federal land, so they are following guidelines from the federal government.

Those include limited capacity inside buildings, social distancing, and masks to be worn inside buildings and outside if social distancing isn’t possible.

Synchronous Firefly event is back

Friday, the lottery for the GSMNP synchronous firefly event opened up, after the in-person event was canceled last year due to COVID-19.

To follow the COVID-19 guidelines, fewer visitors will be allowed to attend, however, Snow said it’s comparable to years past.

The other safety precaution park staff created for the event is taking away the shuttle system, so visitors are driving up to Elkmont in their own vehicle.

Snow said staff will guide visitors up to the Elmont parking through every curve for safety.

“Our staff has spent a lot of time looking at how we can make sure the public stays safe, and keeping that resource safe, so we have high hopes that it will go well this year,” Snow said.

100 vehicles will be allowed each day, for the eight days of the event.

Snow said seven people can be inside each car.

Once parked, guests can get out and enjoy the view.

“People are able to get out of their vehicles, which would be the best way to view these fireflies, and then of course, we’re just asking people to conscious, to maintain that social distance from people outside of their party,” Snow said.

If social distancing isn’t possible, visitors will be asked to wear a mask.

While visitors are enjoying the show, otherwise known as the naturally occurring phenomenon of Photinus carolinus, a firefly species that flashes synchronously while they mate, Snow said they need to take extra precautions in order to keep the fireflies safe.

“Always stay on trails or hardened surfaces. This helps lessen the chance that you’ll fall or trip, but also it helps make sure those fireflies aren’t being trampled,” Snow said.

She said the females actually stay on the ground the whole time during the mating, and if people leave the trail, they could trample on the momma fireflies.

Snow said they also want visitors to make sure they cover their flashlights with red cellophane.

“That light can be disruptive to their mating cycles, and we want to make sure we don’t disrupt it, so they’re here for generations to come,” Snow said.

To sign up for the lottery, click here, or visit www.recreation.gov and search for “Great Smoky Mountains Firefly Viewing Lottery

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