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More than half-million people visited Great Smoky Mountains in January

The National Park Service reported 525,801 recreation visits to the GSMNP in January of 2021. Typically, they don't have that many people until March.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn — In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visitors aren't slowing down. According to data from the National Park Service, this past January was the busiest one on record.

"We had over half a million people come to the park in January," said park spokeswoman Dana Soehn. "We usually don't see a half a million mark until March."

In 2020, the park welcomed nearly 12.1 million visitors, despite being closed for more than 40 days. That's just shy of the all-time record set in 2019 with 12.5 million visitors.

"I think people were just ready to get out and find a safe place to recreate and escape all the challenges we were having during the pandemic," Soehn said. "We've seen that visitation continue into 2021."

RELATED: GSMNP announces plan for "vehicle free" days in Cades Cove

If you're hoping to avoid the crowds, Soehn said timing plays a big factor.

"Plan your trips mid-week, come early in the morning or come later in the afternoon," she said. "That'll be easier as daylight allows more time for people to explore later in the summer."

As Spring Break season approaches, so do the wild flowers. However, too many visitors can be harmful for the environment.

"It's an incredible time to experience the Smokies," Soehn said. "But, we do have some places that have a lot of sensitive plant populations."

One particular area of concern is Whiteoak Sink, which is on the way to Cades Cove.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen was more and more groups going down there and more people crowding around individual plants," Soehn said. "We've actually been experiencing a loss of plants in that area."

To help people enjoy the wild flowers safely, the National Park Service will require permits for groups of 8 to 12 people during peak wild flower season from April 12 to April 30.

They are completely restricting access for groups larger than 12 people, and they're not issuing permits on weekends.

"You can call our back country office seven days a week and they'll help you trip plan. We have over 150 trails and that includes over 800 miles in length," Soehn said. "There's ample opportunities to hike a trail in the Smokies, see lots of great wild flowers and have a less congested visit."

Interested group leaders can apply for a special park use permit for the Whiteoak Sink area at www.recreation.gov beginning Thursday, March 11.

The National Park Service said leaders may reserve either a morning permit, allowing access from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., or an afternoon permit, allowing access from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

Two permits will be issued each weekday during the reservation period. A standard special park use fee of $50 is required for each permit, along with a $6 reservation fee. 

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