Record Year for Visits to the Smoky Mountains National Park

2018 Breaks Record for Visitors to GSMNP

2018 was a banner year for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A record 11,421,200 visitors flowed through the entrances of the most visited National Park in the United States. This was an increase of 82,307 more than 2017. While the 0.73% increase in growth of visitors isn’t nearly  a record for the Park, the total visits represent the highest total of any National Park in the history of the United States.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Layers of mountains from the Morton Overlook
Layers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the Morton Overlook on Newfound Gap Road

Part of the reason for the increase in visitors is attributed to the new section of the Foothills Parkway opening. The 16 mile section including the “missing link” (1.65 mile section) between Walland and Wears Valley opened in 2018 more than 52 years after construction first began. The 16 mile section put the Foothills Parkway portion completed at 39 miles in total. Finally eclipsing the half way mark of the total 72 mile planned route.

Future construction on the Foothills Parkway, although not likely to occur anytime soon, will likely increase visitors to the National Park. This will have an additional benefit of softening traffic on roads such as the Little River Gorge Road.

January 2019 Sets Record for Highest Visitors in January

Not only did the Great Smoky Mountains National Park break records for 2018, it is continuing to set them for 2019. In recently released data, the Smokies received a huge 54.81% increase in January visitors from 2018 to 2019. The record 496,743 January 2019 visitors represented the highest January or February in the history of National Parks within the United States.

January 2019 shattered the previous January record of 382,161 from 2017. January 2018 had 320,864 visitors, showing an additional 175,879 people visiting the Smokies in January 2019. All of this occurred despite the government shutdown that occurred from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019. Supposedly, the shutdown was expected to stifle visitors to the Smokies.

The January 2019 figures certainly puts the year on pace to eclipse the record breaking 2018 year. Another yearly record for 2019, should it occur, would mark the fifth consecutive year for the most visitors to the Smoky Mountains National Park.

January 2019 Visitors GSMNP

Consistent Growth in Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park number of annual visitors has increased each year from 2012 to 2018. During that time it grew from 9,685,829 visitors in 2012 to the over 11.4 million visitors in 2018. Representing a 17.92% increase in America’s most visited National Park. The number of visitors to the Smokies is quite impressive when comparing it to the other National Parks in the United States.

In 2018 the number of visitors to the Smoky Mountains National Park exceeded the second  and third most visited National Parks combined! In 2018 Grand Canyon National Park had 6,380,495 visitors and Rocky Mountain National Park posted 4,590,493 visitors.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park set the record for the number of visitors to National Parks in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. It certainly helps to have the National Park being within a day’s drive of half the population in the United States and being one of the few National Parks without an entrance fee.

Layers of mountains within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky Mountains National Park Historical Visitor Data

Looking back at the historical data for the number of visitors to the Smokies one can identify years and eras where the economy had a downturn. For example, in 2008 during the recession the number of visitors dropped to 9,044,010 from 9,372,253 in 2007. Visitors to the Smoky Mountains National Park quickly rebounded in 2009 to 9,491,437. Representing a 4.95% increase year over year. The same is true with the Dot-com bubble burst (2000) and the downturn in markets following 9/11.

During the dot-com bubble era, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park experienced a growth in visitors each year from 1995 to 1999. For the year 2000 visitors were slightly down in comparison to 1999. A fairly precipitous drop in visitors occurred in 2001. Visitors in 2000 numbered 10,175,812 while 2011 the number dropped 9.61% to 9,197,697 visitors.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Annual Park Recreation Visitation Graph

Eras of Decrease in Visitors to the Smokies

Since visitor data has been tracked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the instances of consecutive decreases in the number of visitors is limited. Since its inception in 1931 the number of visitors decreasing in two or more consecutive years to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park only occurred in:

  • 1942-1943 (World War II Era)
  • 1968-1969 (Years of turmoil from Tet Offensive in Vietnam, RFK and MLK assassinations, Civil Rights Act and riots)
  • 1978-1979 (High gas prices and shortages)
  • 1981-1982 (High interest rate environment)
  • 1988-1990 (Following 1987 stock market crash)
  • 2000-2001 (Dot-com bubble burst)
  • 2010-2011 (Repercussions from 2008 collapse)

Over a course of 87 years of data, there has only been one time the number of visitors decreased three years in a row (from 1988 to 1990).

July is consistently the most visited month to the Smoky Mountains National Park.

Looking at historical data July has consistently been the most visited month for the Smoky Mountains National Park. Surprisingly, even as the Park has experienced record years of late, the number of total visitors in July has decreased. Dating back to even the mid 1980’s the number of visitors in July eclipsed the more recent era of the new millennium post 2000.

For instance, in 1986 July visitors to the Smokies numbered 1,761,918. This marked the highest on record. In 2014 to 2018 the number of visitors in July to the Park hovered around 1.4 million. The period of 1997 to 2000 had each July producing between 1,672,297 visitors and 1,743,996 visitors. More visitors are coming in what was once the “off-season” to the Smoky Mountains National Park.

GSMNP Visitation by Month

June and October closely behind as most visited month

While July represented the most visited month annually in nearly all years dating back to 1979, June and October weren’t far behind. October 2016 surpassed July visitors by a little over 2,000. Meanwhile, June figures consistently range about 50,000 to 150,000 visitors lower than July.

In a reversal of common statistics, September 2018 visitors (1,369,637) outnumbered October 2018 visitors (1,263,665). The visitors in September 2018 set a record for the month in the Smokies. Previously, there had been 9 months where September surpassed one million monthly visitors. Increases in visitors in September and winter months have helped establish the Smokies as an all year destination.

Fall in the Smoky Mountains. The Summit on Bluff Mountain
The Summit on Bluff Mountain’s Misty Bluff Trail on an autumn day.

Transition into a year round destination

The Smoky Mountain National Park in its past had been more of a seasonal destination. Still, roads such as Clingmans Dome Road and others are closed for the winter. But the number of visitors to the area have increased substantially during the winter months in what used to be considered the “off-season”. It was common to see restaurants, lodging, and other businesses outside the National Park close during what was once considered the “off-season”. While there are certainly months that don’t see as many visitors as the peak summer season and fall leaf season, the Smokies are certainly becoming more of an all year destination.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Winter Stream in Greebriar
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Winter Stream in Greenbrier

January visitors hovered in the 130,000 to 175,000 range in the early 1980’s. Since then, the visitors in January have steadily increased post 2014 to numbers in the 300,000 range. January 2019 experienced a boom to just under 500,000 visitors. February experienced similar results from the early 1980’s in comparison to post 2014. The month of March once hovered slightly above January and February in number of visitors.

March experienced tremendous growth in visitors. This is partially attributed to the Smokies becoming more of a spring break destination for families with kids. The periods in which spring break occurs for various school systems across the eastern United States seems to be spread out in both March and April. This enabled the Smoky Mountains National Park to experience a growth in visitors. The time of the visits are more evenly spread out between March and April. In previous eras April had significantly more visitors than March. In recent times the difference has narrowed substantially.

What this means for overnight cabin rentals

There is a clear correlation between the visitors to the Smoky Mountains National Park and cabin rental bookings. With the increase in January 2019 visitors to the Park cabin owners likely experienced increased rental revenues in comparison to past Januarys. Not only did 2018 represent the highest number of visitors to the Park, but areas outside of the Park collected record high sales and lodging tax revenues. Most importantly, the Smokies are being seen as a year round destination.

The influx in visitors during what was once the off-season is the primary driver for overall visitor increases. The occupancy of overnight rental cabins notably increased during winter months. People surmise the visitor increase during the winter months can be attributed to Winterfest, winter lights, and other attractions being added to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Other sluggish periods of the year experienced increases also.

Poolin' Around kitchen. Luxury cabin rental in Pigeon Forge
Kitchen inside Poolin’ Around. A luxury cabin rental in Pigeon Forge

For example, car shows in Pigeon Forge have expanded substantially leading to more visitors. Trade shows, conventions, and events such as the  National Quartet Convention occur in what was once the “off-season”. Pigeon Forge’s Leconte Center is established as one of the premier convention centers in the Southeastern United States.

The result is simple. Increased visitors to the Park equals increased occupancy and revenue to cabin owners. Lower visitor totals rarely occurr in the National Park. Only seven times in history the visitors to the National Park decreased in consecutive years. Cabin owners in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge realize less volatility in comparison to other vacation rental destinations. The year round destination creates an optimal environment for overnight vacation rental investments.

Elk mug at the dining table of Poolin' Around. A luxury cabin rental in Pigeon Forge
Elk mug at the dining table of “Poolin Around”

Visitor data about the Smoky Mountains National Park obtained from The United States National Park Service Department of Interior website.

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