Smokies Aim to Remain Most-Visited Park
With April marking the start of the 2009 camping season in Tennessee, park officials say they expect a busy year as families seek affordable vacations close to home, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
At Tennessee state parks, early indications are that plenty of people are willing to cough up $18 or $20 per night for a camping spot.
"From the parks I've seen, the campgrounds have been full on weekends," said Murray Crow, regional manager for Tennessee State Parks. "If anything, we've had people complain about not being able to find a good campsite."
A dress rehearsal for this camping season came last year when area gas prices skyrocketed to as much as $5 per gallon. Even then, people continued to visit public parks and campgrounds at levels only slightly below the norm.
Last year, the number of sites sold at state park campgrounds was down overall, but weekends were full, indicating that people were making as many visits, but shortening their stays.
Local parks such as Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, Big Ridge State Park and Norris Dam State Park all launch their spring season with wildflower programs. As the spring turns to summer, activities such as bluegrass concerts, craft demonstrations and guided interpretive hikes will be added to the schedule.
The fact that these activities are free make park vacations especially appealing in tough economic times, said Crow.
"This year, we're expecting to exceed our campsites and cabin sales over last year due to the lower fuel cost," Crow said.
9 Million Visited Smokies in 2008
Tennessee's 53 state parks combined for more than 30 million visitors over the last fiscal year.
Last year saw a 4% drop in visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But with 9,044,010 visitors, the Smokies still ranked as the most visited park in the U.S.
Camping in developed campgrounds dropped 12%, but that has been the trend at parks everywhere over the past eight years, so gas prices may not be solely to blame.
Smokies officials say it's too early to tell how the recession will affect visitation this year.
Easter weekend marked the unofficial start of the park's busy season. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held later this month is second only to the fall leaf color change in bringing nature lovers to the Smokies, and because 2009 marks the park's 75th anniversary, the park will be in the public eye throughout the year.
The Smokies also will receive positive exposure from Ken Burns' six-part series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," scheduled to be shown this fall. In making the film, Burns visited all 58 national parks in the U.S. Most are mentioned only in passing, but Burns devotes 45 minutes to the Smokies in the 12-hour documentary.
The park also expects to receive a significant share of federal stimulus money in 2009 that will go toward infrastructure projects such as repaving campground and picnic areas and improving handicapped accessibility at rest rooms throughout the park.
One indication of people's willingness to take advantage of inexpensive, outdoor-related tourism during tough economic times is last January's Wilderness Wildlife Week, which drew a record 25,000 people to Pigeon Forge over eight days.
"In the world of tourism, we see people still traveling," said Lila Wilson, communications manager for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. "They may be taking shorter trips and cutting their stay short a day or two, but they're still traveling. They're just adjusting their vacation behavior as they go."