The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the largest backcountry in the Eastern United States, yet for backpackers hoping to take in a slice of that wilderness with an overnight trip, finding a park ranger to help with logistics can be elusive.
Even seasoned backpackers tackling new terrain in the Smokies are bound to have questions. Where’s the closest water source? What’s the elevation gain? How likely is snow in April?
Yet the so-called Backcountry Information Desk is staffed for only three to four hours a day, and by volunteers at that.
“That phone is constantly busy,” said Melissa Cobern, backcountry manangement specialist with the Smokies. “That’s where we get a lot of complaints, where people have to call and call and call to try to get through.”
Cobern said the Smokies needs to beef up the backcountry desk with fulltime rangers, whose sole job is to help backpackers plan their routes.
It’s not that the volunteers don’t know their stuff. Most are members of the 900 Miler Club, an elite group who have hiked all 900 miles of the park’s trails.
“You are going to get good information when you get on the phone with them,” Cobern said.
But there just aren’t enough of them to keep the desk staffed all day long or handle the volume of calls, not when you consider each call takes 10 to 30 minutes.
The park hopes to hire rangers to staff at the backcountry information desk, as well as hire more rangers to patrol the backcountry. But to do so will take more money, and that has prompted the park to consider charging backpackers for overnight camping.
A meeting to hear from the public on the plan will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s main entrance outside Cherokee.
Unlike front country campgrounds with picnic tables, bathrooms and running water, backcountry sites are usually miles from nowhere, scattered across the park’s vast half a million acres and some embedded so deeply in the wilderness it takes three days to reach them from the closest trailhead.
Backpackers in the park have to camp at one of 100 designated backcountry sites, intended to limit impacts on the wilderness.
“The rest of the park is so dense and so steep, you can’t just throw down anywhere. The park would be a mess if people did that,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies.
The backcountry sites have no amenities other than a fire ring and cables to hang food out of reach of bears.
The Smokies is hardly plowing new ground. All the big parks out West — Glacier, Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Denali and so on — charge a fee for backcountry camping.
But the plan to charge for backpacking here could hurt “the common man,” said Tom Massie, a fisherman who frequents the Smokies.
“In these tough economic times there are families that can’t afford to go to Myrtle Beach or a big vacation somewhere else, so they take their vacations fishing or camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Massie said. “The park systems have already been bought and paid for by the citizens of this country, particularly this park. What we are doing is making people pay to use their own national park.”
Whether to charge, and, if so, how much, is one thing the Smokies rangers want to hear from the public.
The park has floated a few options to jumpstart discussion. At the high end: $5 per person per night plus a $10 reservation fee covering the entire group no matter how large or how many nights. At the low end: just $4 per person per night with no reservation fee.
Unless the fee plan goes through, the park isn’t willing to reallocate existing rangers to backcountry assignments.
“Front country has always gotten more attention than the backcountry,” Miller said of the Smokies.
While the Smokies is the most visited national park in the county with around 9 million visitors, only a small fraction come to backpack.
In 2010, there were 33,000 backpackers and a total of 79,480 backcountry nights — meaning each of the 33,000 backpackers averaged 2.5 nights in the woods.
Overnight backpacking is down from 20 years ago, but has started to climb back up in the past five. There were 92,000 backcountry nights in 1994. It dropped to a low of 70,00 backcountry nights in 2006, and is now back up to 79,480.
All the park’s backcountry sites have limits on how many people are supposed to camp at them a given night, ensuring the wilderness experience backpackers are expecting and limiting human impact.
About one-third of the park’s more popular backcountry sites already require reservations to prevent overcrowding. Those are currently taken over the phone, and can be equally frustrating for backpackers trying to get through.
The rest of the park’s backcountry sites require simple self-registration. Backpackers pause at a registration box found at each trailhead, fill out a slip and drop it in the slot before being on their way.
There’s no way for park rangers or other backpackers to know how many people ahead of them or behind them might also have plans to camp at that site.
“A lot of those self registration sites aren’t that popular, but you could certainly end up in the situation where there are a lot of people at that site and there would be more people than you find comfortable,” Miller said.
A more formal reservation system would solve that problem. But it could also complicate matters for the last-minute backpackers, those who live in nearby communities and want to make an overnight jaunt to their favorite trout stream.
Under the new system, they would either have to go online before leaving the house and print out their permit, or get in the habit of planning trips in advance so the permit can be mailed to them.
Their only other option is make a trip to a staffed visitor center that can issue backcountry permits, which would be out of the way for backpackers heading into outlying areas like Cataloochee or Fontana.
Along with beefing up the backcountry information desk, Cobern said the park equally needs more backcountry presence and ranger enforcement.
While backpackers are supposed to get reservations for the more popular sites, some don’t with little threat of being caught.
This frustrates those who have actual reservations, who arrive at the site to find there isn’t enough room, Cobern said.
The most serious problem, however, is there aren’t enough bear cables for everyone to hoist their food off the ground, and that leads to bear problems, Miller said.