You see them every so often: Someone visiting one of our national parks with little or no common sense. Specifically, those who are blissfully unaware they’re about to go viral.
Maybe they’re out west and get too close to a buffalo.
Or maybe they’re in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and want a photo op with a family of black bears.
The National Park Service makes a monumental effort to educate people on the do’s and don’ts of visiting places like the Great Smokies, Yosemite and others.
There are education campaigns galore. In fact, a wide variety of topics are covered. Everything from wildlife viewing and paying proper respects to historic structures to not trying to hike to Laurel Falls in flip flops and a Speedo is covered.
Some people, however, refuse to listen.
And so we get people on the web who become semi-famous. But there are more to the don’ts than staying out of the Darwin Awards. There are dozens of little careless, thoughtless things people do.
While they may not be a huge kerfuffle at that moment, cumulatively they reduce the experience for others who come to the country’s most visited national park.
Before we get into ranks out top don’t for the Smokies, let’s tackle a couple of frequent questions.
Why is Great Smoky Mountains National Park so popular?
Let’s start with the most obvious, the beauty of its ancient mountains. The federal government recognized that if something wasn’t done to protect the mountains from things like deforestation, the area known as the Smokies would be irreparably harmed.
But there are other beautiful national parks, why would the Smokies stand out so much? At a certain point, it becomes an almost unbreakable cycle. The Smokies are incredibly beautiful with miles of trails and magnificent old-growth forests teeming with animal life.
They are also centrally located in the Eastern United States. Additionally, multiple major sections of our interstate system pass reasonably nearby. The number of Americans living within a 10-hour drive of East Tennessee and the Smokies is staggering.
So it’s a manageable vacation spot for much of the Eastern United States and the Midwest.
Once the tourists start coming, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge start growing. There are more things to do, more things to see and more entertainment. All of that leads to even more tourists, and suddenly visitation to the region is like a giant snowball rolling down the Alps. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
Can you drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
This is a question asked frequently enough that I almost feel like I’m missing something. Like do you think they mean off-road driving? You can’t do that in the Smokies. But driving your regular car around the mountains? Yeah. Sure.
The Smokies aren’t exactly filled with roads. However, the park has almost 400 miles of roads, mostly paved roads, including Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Clingmans Dome Road and others that are perfect for a scenic drive.
In fact, auto touring was a big part of the original reason for the park. Auto clubs in Knoxville pushed for drivable roadways through the mountains where they could access natural beauty that had been reserved for those willing to go on week-long hikes into the high mountains.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially opened the park in 1940, he was essentially opening up the Southern Appalachian for tourists to drive.
By the way, if you’re looking for a good drive to see the fall foliage, don’t forget the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina, it’s magnificent.
With that being said, let’s get down to some don’ts for when you come to the Smokies.
8. Don’t skip the visitor centers
The Sugarlands Visitor Center at the park’s Gatlinburg entrance and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s Cherokee entrance offers a wealth of information both in the exhibits on display and the knowledge of rangers and staff at the facility.
Looking for something different or off the beaten path? Maybe a tip on the best spot to see a bear or elk? Or maybe just a place where you can learn more about this historic and beautiful region?
A park visitor center is a great place to start.
7. Don’t vandalize historic buildings
The Smokies are filled with little pieces, echoes of life in the mountains prior to the national park. Along the 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, there are a number of historic structures, including the historic grist mill.
The mountains are known for the quality of their remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Don’t ruin it for other people.
Over the years, certain visitors have taken the opportunity to leave their mark on these edifices of time. The same thing happens along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. When you see something timeless, whether it’s a tree or an ancient cabin, please summon all your strength and fight the urge to carve your initials into the thing.
6. Don’t take your pet hiking
Look. You love your pet. Certainly, you love hiking. You want your pet to get some exercise. Why not take Fido hiking? Because it’s a bad idea.
There are two short walking paths in the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allow dogs. The Gatlinburg Trail and The Oconaluftee River Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other park trails. Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. The leash must not exceed 6 feet in length.
Well, dogs can chase and threaten wildlife. And even if they don’t directly harass local animal life, their scent can indicate the presence of a predator and disrupt the park’s wildlife behavior. According to the park service, small animals may hide in their burrow the entire day after smelling a dog. Therefore, they may not venture out to feed.
You want to bring your dog because you love animals, right? Remember to respect the ones who live there.
Plus, on the other end of the food chain, your pet might represent an opportunity for a meal. Even if a bear isn’t in the mood to eat your pet, an encounter on one of the park’s hiking trails could leave you, the pet and the bear in an untenable situation.
Also, many people, especially young children, are afraid of dogs.
Finally, it’s just not considerate.
Bikes and horseback riding are also forbidden on the majority of trails. Even if you’re going off the beaten path where you think you couldn’t possibly bother anyone, it’s best to just follow the rules. They’re there for a reason.
5. Don’t leave your trash
The park has several scenic official picnic areas. There are a lot of places where you can just forge your own picnic area in a gentle meadow or along a mountain stream.
With this in mind, if you stop in an unofficial area, make sure you take all of your trash with you. There are some that don’t see biodegradable food items as true litter. People will toss something like an apple core or a leftover bit of sandwich “harmlessly” into the woods.
Take that stuff with you.
First of all, it’s incredibly rude to leave it. But secondly, it’s dangerous to wildlife. The National Park Service is vigilant in working to keep animal life in the park away from access to human food.
Human food is incredibly harmful for a black bear. Once the bear associates humans with easy food, it will cross boundaries that should be preserved. These can lead to a bear having to be put down.
If you’re interested in cleanup efforts around the park, check out the group Save Our Smokies.
4. Don’t bother the plant life
The Smokies is home to hundreds, maybe thousands of species of plants and native tree species. The diversity of plant natural habitats means the Smokies are home to a lot of cool, growing things.
For most of us, it’s easy to forget that we need to respect plant life just as we do animal life. It may seem harmless to some people to pick a bouquet of spring wildflowers.
However, what happens when dozens or hundreds of visitors take the same liberties? What happens when ginseng poachers sneak into the deep forests to claim all the old-growth roots in the woods they can find? What happens when tiny pieces of that plant diversity are plucked away?
I’m not here to tell you picking a daisy or pulling a ramp will be the end of the national forest. But that doesn’t mean you should do it, either.
3. Don’t disturb animal life or habitat
This is one I’ve had to correct myself on. I love skipping stones, finding a deep creek and tossing in a big stone to make that satisfying kerplunk sound. Who am I hurting? Maybe no one. But maybe the salamanders.
Most of us don’t need to be told to keep a respectful distance from the bears or not chase the wild turkey or try to mount an elk. But the Smokies’ most plentiful animal is the salamander. And there is a pretty diverse range of amphibians living in the park.
The massive Hellbender can grow to more than a foot long and a new species was recently identified; a kind of black belly salamander. So tossing those rocks around the waterways of the Smokies could affect the salamander habitat.
Certainly, the last thing I want is an angry Hellbender salamander haunting my dreams.
In general, leave the Smokies’ wildlife and their habitat alone. The lone exception? Trout. You can bother the trout.
Trout fishing is a popular activity in the mountains and while there are native trout to the Smokies, the waterways are also stocked. Make sure you know the regulations – which are different in the National Park than in other areas.
2. Don’t forget the North Carolina side of the Smokies
I love Hendersonville and Bryson City. I love Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Parkway and Downtown Asheville.
The Western North Carolina mountains don’t get all the hype that East Tennessee gets, but they’re wonderful.
1. Don’t be myopic or possessive
I apologize. That’s harshly stated. A lot of people feel a deep and personal connection to the mountains or the region. For this reason, changes – like the new parking fee being instituted – seem like a personal affront, a slap in the face.
Really, it’s just a way to try to protect the park and enhance the experience for future generations to come. I don’t like the parking fee – at all. But I respect that it comes from a place of best intentions.
Recently, the leaders of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribe announced they’re beginning a process that may end with an official request to the federal government to restore the original name given by the Cherokee people to Clingmans Dome.
Some people disagree with the name change. But “Kuwohi” – translation The Mulberry Place – was the mountain’s name for generations before a Swiss mapmaker named Guyot came in and renamed the place after a buddy of his, a former Confederate general named Clingman.
I don’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be attached to the name of a mountain they have occasionally visited. I see a certain poetic reason for restoring the original name if the Cherokee leaders decide that they’d like to do that. It wouldn’t be erasing history. It would be acknowledging a deeper, older history.
If people are clinging – sorry – to the old name, they certainly could keep the name for the observation tower. Honestly, I thought for years that Clingmans Dome was the tower’s name, not the mountains. Did I wonder why they named a tower a dome? Reader, I did, but not enough to look it up in the days before the internet.
Anyway, the mountains belong to all of us.
Do you have a what not to do in the GSMNP to share? Let us know in the comments!