Nearly half a million visitors made their way to the Great Smoky Mountains in January 2019, shattering the national park's previous record for the month by 30 percent.

The month may have initially seemed far from an ideal time for visitation in the Smokies.  The partial federal government shutdown left the park with a skeleton crew and limited services for several weeks.  Some spells of severe weather forced the park to close roads for several days, including U.S. 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, N.C.

So, when the visitation numbers were compiled, it made the longtime employees do a double-take.

"In January 2019, we saw the busiest January on record here in the Smokies," said Jamie Sanders, GSMNP spokesperson.  "Almost 497,000 people visited the park in January.  When compared to January 2018, it was about a 55 percent increase."

Foothills Parkway West Missing Link March 2019 Great Smoky Mountains
Foothills Parkway West in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the stretch previously known as the "missing link."
WBIR

The previous record for January was 382,161 visitors in 2017.  The January 2019 visitation of 496,743 breaks the old mark for any January or February.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has never reached visitation numbers this high prior to March. 

"Definitely, the first thing we want to do is make sure those numbers seem accurate.  We looked at all of our areas, all of our points from all of our entrances. What we saw was a consistent increase all across the park," said Sanders.

The entrances at Oconaluftee, Gatlinburg, and Townsend all saw significant increases in visitors.  The Gatlinburg entrance had approximately 29,000 more visitors than any previous January. 

Visitor GSMNP Dog Golden Retriever Missing Link Foothills Parkway
A visitor with his golden retriever at an overlook along the new stretch of the Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains. Pets on leashes are allowed on the parkway.
WBIR

The biggest difference, by far, was the completion of a previously missing link.  The national park cut the ribbon on a new stretch of the Foothills Parkway from Walland to Wears Valley in Nov. 2018.  The new route continues to steer visitation to new heights in the Smokies.

"In looking at the Foothills Parkway West, last year's numbers were based on the stretch from U.S. 129 to Walland.  It now extends all the way from 129 to Wears Valley.  Those numbers saw a 326 percent increase over the numbers in January 2018," said Sanders.

Outlying entrances in the Smokies, including the new stretch of the Foothills Parkway, measured 151,542 visitors.  The previous January record was 105,629.

While there were some road closures in January 2019, they often took place in the middle of the week.  There were stretches of sunny weather in January, especially on weekends and holidays.   But the impact of the new stretch of the Foothills Parkway is undeniable.

Visitors Overlooks Foothills Parkway West Great Smoky Mountains GSMNP
Visitors line the edge of an overlook along the stretch of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains.
WBIR

"I think it's telling of what's to come.  It's going to be a popular destination for us," said Sanders.

The park already credited the completion of the missing link with pushing its 2018 annual visitation to new records.  The park was not on pace to set a visitation record until the Foothills Parkway opened in November.  Then visitation skyrocketed the final two months to reach a 2018 total of 11.4 million visitors.

The tables below provide visitation numbers for each January in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The figures include the total visitation and the number of visitors measured at each entrance.

Total GSMNP January Recreational Visitors

  • 2019:   496,743
  • 2018:   320,864
  • 2017:   382,161

Gatlinburg Entrance: January Recreational Visitors

  • 2019:   170,312
  • 2018:   111,955
  • 2017:   141,218

Oconaluftee Entrance: January Recreational Visitors

  • 2019:   98,359
  • 2018:   62,656
  • 2017:   82,618

Outlying Area Entrances: January Recreational Visitors

  • 2019:   151,542
  • 2018:   99,301
  • 2017:   105,629

Townsend Entrance: January Recreational Visitors

  • 2019:   76,529
  • 2018:   46,950
  • 2017:   52,694