Backcountry Overnight Stays Up 37% in Smokies

Saturday, January 10, 2015

To paraphrase Mark Twain, "the reports of the death of backpacking in the Smokies have been greatly exaggerated".

According to data collected by the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics website, the number of backcountry overnight stays in the Smokies jumped by 37% in 2014, when compared to the prior year. Moreover, the 86,153 backcountry overnight stays recorded in 2014 ranks as the second highest count in the last 15 years.

Some people in the backpacking community thought that the sharp drop-off recorded in 2013 was a direct result of the backcountry fees that were implemented in February of that year. Although that may be true, that some backpackers were essentially boycotting the park in protest to the fees, that trend appears to have been reversed.

Here's a graphical look at backcountry overnight stay counts over the last 15 years:



John Quillen said... did an article last week showing there were 20 people in the Smokies backcountry one night last week. The NPS is manipulating data because there is no external auditing of their numbers. They own the reservation system and control the numbers. Why would they do this? To justify the %30 drop the fee created. Backpackers didn't boycott the park. I just returned from a night in a shelter on the AT and it was empty outside of my group just like the others. In October I made a reservation to cs 17 that was showing full only to find that we were the only folks there. It was a great weather weekend and out of 20 some reservations made, no one showed up? Really? The NPS is fudging numbers. I do not believe that 17 people no showed and forfeited 20 bucks on a peak weekend and a short 3 mile walk. I am continually contacted by people who experience the same phenomena. Are you telling me that people are making reservations and just deciding to no show? Sorry. The whole thing smells badly. You're telling me that a fee increased backcountry usage? C'mon, only the NPS would try such a ruse.

John Quillen said...

Also, if backcountry visitation was down thirty percent after the fee and is up 37% the next year then isn't backcountry usage simply back to pre fee numbers plus seven percent?

John Quillen said...

This chart shows there is only an %11 increase from the previous year.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

John - thanks for your comments. There are also people on the Smoky Mountain Trails FB group page ( that are questioning these numbers.

As much as I don't want to, my comments are probably going to throw some gasoline on the fire:

1) When I first read the park's press release (1/9/15) on annual visitation, I noted to myself that I thought it was odd that they went out of their way to mention that backcountry camping had increased over the prior year. None of the other parks I cover do this. Moreover, I don't recall GSMNP doing this in previous years. I went through the park's archive of press releases ( to verify my recollections on this. Strangely, the park doesn't include the annual PRs for visitation statistics on their archive page, with the exception of the PR for 2010 (published 1/26/11), which makes no mention of backcountry camping stats.

2) With regards to the actual number of backcountry overnight stays (BOS): last year when I compiled these numbers, the website you cited, which was my source, said there were 62,863 BOSs in 2013. According to the Dec. 2014 report (in this case, the YTD Report), which you linked to, BOSs in 2013 are now at 77,422. However, if you go to the Monthly Public Use Report ( Specific Reports/Monthly Public Use?RptDate=12/1/2014&Park=GRSM), which also confirms 86,153 BOSs for 2014, and select the Dec. 2013 report, you'll see the park is reporting 70,407 BOSs for 2013.

So, in other words, right now we have three different numbers for 2013.

Moreover, my numbers are exactly the same for previous years as they are in this report, when selecting previous dates.

At this point I can't prove that the 62,863 BOSs that I originally reported for 2013 was a number I pulled off the IRMA website. However, I seriously doubt that I made a mistake - as I always double check my numbers - especially when you consider that the numbers I reported for previous years are in-line with numbers currently being reported on the same website. Most importantly, however, the park currently has two numbers for this one statistic, which leads me to believe that someone is massaging the numbers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to John and Smoky Mountain Hiker for getting to point of "massaging" and "manipulating" to cover the way the NPS wants their stats. As we all know when you lie you have to tell more lies to cover your tracks. What has been shown here is the NPS did not cover their own stats and it is documented for all to see.Thanks also for sharing how the GSMNP press release went out of their way on their BC increases. How else to you cover your backside for all the misinformation that has been thrown out. They have been exposed with the ongoing lawsuit and they are on the defensive.

I have seen repeatedly where the backcountry permit site has shown one set of numbers for the night when in fact it was less than half of what was published. Please do not think it was a "snapshot" and has been statistically taken out of context. I have seen this first hand on many nights on the ground as well as my other hiking friends/family. The stats I am sharing is during good weather and not sub zero or major rain/snow.

In closing I will paraphrase a Mark Twain quote " There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and NPS statistics."

John Quillen said...

This is a good subject for further exploration. I'm glad you are covering it. It tells me that we need to do an audit of the purported backcountry numbers and compare it to the actual revenues from the fee. We recently did a FOIA on concessionaire numbers to see how much the big players are making from the Smokies. It is still forthcoming. The guide services have a backdoor log in to the reservation system and can book sites then cancel them on their own whims. That is one little tidbit we came across.

Unknown said...

Your point was lost on me however, some of those number don't line up for me. I don't think that your throwing gas on the fire. I think you and I are looking at from different points.

The question still remains for me, is Leconte included in that 86,156 number. If it is that's misleading. Since that's a destination resort of sorts. And according to Leconte the have 30,000 some odd visitors annually.

The original number 86,153 means that there was 236 people in BC campsites or shelters a night for the entire year. With as many closures I find that hard to believe based on my own backpacking trips and haven't seen a sole on trails. Now of you take that number down 30 grand that would be 126 people in the BC a night for the year. That is a little more plausible for me. But when I'm hiking 40 plus miles at a time and only my hiking buddy that's where the numbers don't line up for me.

I'm with John I've been told and unable to book at shelter or campsites based on to many occupants. When we got there not one person in sight so we stayed there.

It's also funny that the back country office will not tell you why a campsite is closed. At least that's been my experience in 2014 with GSM.

But what it sounds like to me. They are massaging the numbers for their own gain. Like school systems getting dollars for each kid that day. But money is the bottom line for me that's driving the misleading numbers.