TOWNSEND, Tenn. — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced it is implementing group size limits for the Whiteoak Sink area during the 2022 wildflower season.
The move is a trial to help park managers determine if reducing group sizes can reduce trampling and soil compaction around sensitive plant populations, as well as social trail creation, according to the park. It runs from Friday, April 1 through Sunday, May 8.
During this period, officials said groups of more than eight people will not be allowed in the area at any time. Individuals and groups of less than eight people can access the Whiteoak Sink area throughout the wildflower season.
The intent is to better protect sensitive wildflower species that can be damaged when large groups crowd around plants off-trail to take photos or closely view blooms, according to the park. Volunteers will be available on-site to provide safe-viewing information and to collect monitoring data.
Officials said park managers have been monitoring sensitive wildflower species in the Whiteoak Sink area since 2016. It draws over 5,000 visitors during peak season.
During the first year of monitoring, managers documented 62 plants were damaged by trampling, and visitors created 370 feet of new social trails by trying to view or photograph individual plants.
Based on these findings, park managers implemented several strategies to protect this vulnerable ecosystem, including a trial group permit system in 2021 that was not effective, according to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Officials said signs and on-site volunteers will remain in place to help visitors safely view wildflowers and to understand the importance of remaining on trail to reduce soil compaction and trampling.
With these efforts, plant trampling has been reduced by 80%. Social trail creation and soil compaction remain a concern that park management hopes to further reduce through group size limitations, according to the park.