Archived Outdoors

Parkway visitation grows in 2023

Parkway visitation grows in 2023 File photo

In 2023, the Blue Ridge Parkway saw its highest visitation since 2007, according to preliminary figures from the National Park Service, representing a 6.1% increase over 2022.

While Virginia entrances saw the most year-over-year growth, the westernmost portion of the Parkway led the way in North Carolina. However, overall visitation in the western region is down compared to 2021.

According to preliminary figures from the National Park Service, 16.67 million people made a recreational visit to the Parkway in 2023, up from 15.71 million in 2022. Virginia visitation increased 753,000 to 5.14 million, a 17.1% increase, while the North Carolina portion picked up a more modest 203,000 visits for a total of 13.47 million, a 1.5% increase from 2022.

The lackluster increase in North Carolina was due to lower use near the Virginia border and along the stretch between Linville and Asheville. However, the southernmost entrances in Haywood County and westward posted double-digit percentage increases.

The U.S. 23/74 entrance at Balsam Gap saw the biggest change, with the 114,000 people using it in 2023 representing a 14% increase over 2022. The N.C. 215 entrance near the Middle Prong Wilderness and the U.S. 441 entrance near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw a similar boost, growing by 13.6% and 13.8%, respectively. The U.S. 19 entrance at Soco Gap saw a slightly smaller 12.2% increase but largest absolute number, with 202,000 recreational visitors accessing the Parkway there. Use at the U.S. 276 entrance grew 6.3%.

These same entrances saw double-digit percentage decreases in 2022. The higher numbers recorded in 2023 brought visitation back toward the highs of 2021 but not all the way there. Altogether, nearly 680,000 people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway south of U.S. 276 — more than the 608,000 in 2022 but substantially lower than the 709,000 of 2021.

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This uptick in use comes as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park recorded lower visitation to its North Carolina entrances in 2023. The park, which logged 13.22 million visits in 2023, saw North Carolina visitation fall 5.1% even as overall visitation rose 2.2%.

Additionally, both parks saw a substantial decrease in overnight visits. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, overnight stays fell 10.4% to land at 146,000, while the Smokies saw a 4.4% decline for a total of 494,000 overnight stays this year. In the Smokies, backcountry overnights saw the largest decrease, falling 12.6% from 2022 levels to clock in at 85,000.

— Holly Kays, Outdoors Editor

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