Breath of Clarity

Insufficient Management Response to Increased Visitation at North Carolina State Parks

Summary of the Issues

Karen Chávez, former National Park Service ranger, wrote a news article in the Asheville Citizen Times depicting the impact of visitation increases on North Carolina State Parks during the pandemic. The author explained, despite a six-week spring closure due to a statewide shut- down of facilities and trails, North Carolina State Parks still had 19.8 million visitors in 2020. The attendance broke the 2017 record by a margin of 400,000 people (Chávez 2021). According to Chávez (2021), the the recently completed Connect N.C. Bond projects at parks across the state, including the parking expansion and trailhead bathroom at Grandfather Mountain, also contributed to the drastic change. She then painted a picture of situations at specific parking lots.

According to Chávez (2021), natural resource managers used parking lots as a tool to measure overcrowding and prohibited visitors from parking along the surrounding streets. They did so as a way to preserve the parks and maintain safety (Chávez 2021). For example, during every weekend from May to November 2020, as soon as the 100-car parking lot at Grandfather Mountain State Park filled up, managers prohibited visitors from entering the park (Chávez 2021). Still, during the busiest weekend in October, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Grandfather Mountain State Park to Asheville. Similarly, at Gorges State Park, the 50-car parking lot for the trailhead to Rainbow Falls constantly filled up. It resulted in rangers closing the gate until parking spots opened (Chávez 2021). Guests range from Western North Carolina locals to people who arrived from out of state. The issue’s array of stakeholders hold a variety of viewpoints that support and disagree with the way managers ap- proached the carrying capacity issue.

Conflicts Between Stakeholders

The key conflict between stakeholders concerns whether or not visitors should be turned away from entering the parks. Chávez went into detail depicting impacts the plethora of visitors had on the terrain at various parks. For example, she explained, the lower section of the Profile Trail in Gorges State Park was widened by people repeatedly stepping off trail to maintain a so- cial distance (Chávez 2021). It was also damaged by the freeze-thaw cycle, after the erosion of so many feet, which brought the need to allocate resources for the area to be hardened with extra gravel over the winter (Chávez 2021). She also portrayed the staff struggling to keep mud out of the indoor facilities and had trouble tending to the surge in rescue calls from people who came unprepared for the steep trek (Chávez 2021). Managers also faced challenges in national forests such as at Max Patch in Madison County where heavier use of trails occurred the same year as unprepared campers ripped up wood fences and sign posts to burn in campfires (Chávez 2021). Essentially, the author emphasized the need for the public to treat the space better and portrayed the managers in a positive light.

She went into detail about staff suggestions regarding how visitors can help reduce the negative impacts in the parks. Some suggestions included bringing a bag for their litter, staying on trails to avoid damaging natural resources, visiting less popular parks or less popular trails in parks, visiting on weekdays and visiting earlier or later in the day to reduce crowding (Chávez 2021). Further, she referenced the words of D. Reid Wilson, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary, in saying that the staff has done an extraordinary job welcoming guests, protecting natural resources, and ensuring public safety during the pandemic (Chávez 2021). At the same time, though, the author did not provide any account of the public’s perspective.


Crucially, Chávez defined the parking lot at a given location as its carrying capacity. In general, the article painted the picture of an overworked staff and a problem that was inevitable as soon as the pandemic intensified. Further, she implied state park management is not necessari- ly responsible for adapting to provide visitation beyond its quantity of parking spots. Essentially, the author implied that while the increase in visitation is satisfying the goals of environmental educators, it is ultimately against the wishes of the park staff. However, Chávez (2021) did men- tion that Grandfather Mountain State Park’s lot was at full capacity in 2019 up to two times dur- ing Memorial weekend and a handful of times during the fall. Although the fact does not align with the intention revealed throughout the rest of the article, it does show that the pandemic did not entirely cause the issue. Evidently, the issue is still going to be a problem even when indoor activity opens back up again. Therefore, managers need to address it.


There is a major gap in the argument considering it disregards the potential for resource managers to adapt with creative techniques that expand carrying capacity. Determining the point at which change becomes unacceptable should be supported by scientific information as opposed to assuming the size of the parking lot equates to carrying capacity (Manning 2010). Chávez does well by conveying that carrying capacity of recreation lands can be determined primarily in terms of ecology and the deterioration of areas. She then recognized the resource-oriented point of view must be augmented by consideration of human values. However, she could have gone a step further by exploring how carrying capacity varies according to the amount and type of man- agement activity which is the focus of my recommendation (Manning 2010).

North Carolina natural resource managers need to determine a limit on the number of people that a particular area can sustain through formulation of management objectives, also known as desired conditions, associated indicators and standards of quality (Manning 2010). From there, they could implement a series of management techniques to achieve the desired con- ditions, even amidst the increase in visitation. Doing so would empower them to increase carry- ing capacity to a quantity beyond parking lot size. For example, managers could increase the durability of the vegetation through practices such as fertilizing and irrigating vegetation (Man- ning 2010). Additionally, the park staff could put programs into place that require people to make reservations which would spread the visitation out over various hours of the day, allowing for periodic rest from lack of trampling. Also, increasing staff at the busiest trails would allow for some of the workers to monitor the parking fiasco while other rangers could enforce regulations throughout the hiking areas. Essentially, managers are responsible for leading the way in taking accountability for the health of pristine parks and educating the public about the management initiatives. Insofar as managers implement new strategies to achieve a larger carrying capacity, visitors are also no longer going to see the simple existence of too many humans at the park as the problem. Instead, they are going to be empowered to celebrate their place in the park’s ecosystem and do everything they can to sustain its health while enjoying the space.


Chávez, Karen. 2021. “Gorges, Grandfather Mountain state parks see double-digit visitation increases during COVID”. Asheville Citizen Times. Accessed April 24 2021.

Manning, Robert. Studies in Outdoor Recreation, 3rd ed.: Search and Research for Satisfaction 3rd Edition. Oregon State University Press, 2010.