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Smokies visitation increases in 2023, but N.C. side lags

Smokies visitation increases in 2023, but N.C. side lags File photo

In 2023, visitation to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park grew 2.2% to reach its second-highest number ever — but the number of visits starting in the North Carolina side of the park fell 5.1% compared to 2022. 

The overall increase in visitation was driven entirely by increasing use of the Foothills Parkway, which orbits the park’s northern border and occasionally connects back to the main park property. Foothills Parkway visits were responsible for 2.4 million of 2023’s total 13.22 million visits, or 18.2% of the total, up from 2.04 million visits in 2022, 15.8% of that year’s total 12.94 million visits.

The number of visits using entrances other than the Foothills Parkway fell slightly in 2023, totaling 10.81 million in 2023 compared to 10.89 million in 2022, and North Carolina was driving that decrease. Even excluding the Foothills Parkway, visits to the Tennessee side of the park increased by 88,201 to total 7.66 million in 2023, while visits to the North Carolina side fell 168,619 to total 3.16 million.

As judged by percentage, Lakeview Drive in Bryson City had the biggest visitation decrease, falling 36.9% to 66,632. The decrease was likely influenced by a lengthy closure to rehabilitate the entrance road. As judged by absolute value, the Oconaluftee entrance near Cherokee had the biggest fall, with its 2.44 million visits in 2023 coming in 94,494 lower than 2022, good for a 3.7% decline.

Big Creek visitation fell 14.9% to 63,508, with single-digit percentage decreases at the Cataloochee, Oconaluftee, Deep Creek, Cosby and Townsend entrances. The only North Carolina entrance logging an increase was Heintooga Ridge, which saw a 4% gain. In addition to the Foothills Parkway entrances, in Tennessee the Sugarlands, Greenbriar, Cherokee Orchard and Wears Cove entrances all posted increases.

— Holly Kays, Outdoors Editor

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