What good is getting away from the city if the mountain is just as crowded?
Unfortunately—and yet, unavoidably—many of the Blue Ridge’s most celebrated outdoor oases have also become its most visited. The exposed rocks of McAfee Knob, for example, offer one of the Appalachian Trail’s most iconic panoramas, but because it’s just a short drive from Roanoke, the overlook is often filled with hikers: about 75,000 people hike there each year, with some days seeing more than 600 visitors. Not all are adequately prepared for the excursion.
Crowds also result in litter, restroom disasters, wear and tear on resources, and troublesome wildlife interactions. Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives about two million visitors a year, mostly between Memorial Day and Labor Day, says Jamie Sanders, who served as a ranger there. The most common problem? Bear jams.
“With it being an 11-mile, one-way loop road, if someone’s not managing the traffic, then one person stops in the middle of the road to see a bear, and the line of traffic can’t get around,” Sanders says.
Lee Walker, outreach director with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says the state’s trout streams can get pretty slammed in the days after they’re stocked. That process begins with a caravan of anglers who follow stocking trucks, and then explodes when the agency posts the list of stocked waterways on its website.
“Trash has been the biggest challenge we’ve had over the years, and we have lost some stream access due to that,” says Walker.
And for the last five years or so, the Troutville Volunteer Fire Department has offered up its station to thru-hikers, providing a place to shower, do laundry, and sleep. Recently, however, the fire department changed policy and closed its doors to hikers. Why? The increasing number of hikers had started to take up space and interfere with operations. And once, a volunteer firefighter found a loose dog in traffic near the station. When the volunteer entered the station kitchen, the dog’s owner was sitting there drinking coffee and reading the newspaper—buck naked. The hiker was doing laundry, see, and wanted to make sure all of his clothes got washed.
Don’t be that guy.
Cades Cove (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.): You may see a bear, but you’ll sit through lots of stop-and-go traffic along the way.
Instead: Check out the Cataloochee Valley on the park’s eastern side, and you may spy an elk.
McAfee Knob, Va.: It’s the most photographed spot along the A.T. for a reason, but you may have to wait in line for a shot.
Instead: Try Tinker Cliffs a few miles down the ridge, easily accessible from the lesser-used Andy Layne Trail.
Cherokee Trophy Water, N.C.: Great fishing but you’ve got to time the trip right to avoid crowds.
Instead: Big Laurel Creek in Madison County, N.C., is a hatchery-supported trout stream with plenty of native brookies in its feeder streams.
Blue Ridge Parkway Overlook
Grandfather Mountain, N.C.: The highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts motorists by the swarm in season.
Instead: Rocky Knob Recreation Area, just little farther northeast in Virginia, sees fewer visitors and boasts a sweeping 10.8-mile loop trail.
New River Gorge, W.Va.: It’s a premier rafting destination, with the crowds to prove it.
Instead: Try the Gauley River, with more than 100 rapids over a 24-mile stretch.
Little Stony Man Cliffs: One of Shenandoah National Park’s busiest trails leads to a busy rock-climbing destination.
Instead: The cliffs along Iron Gate Gorge, near Clifton Forge, Va., are almost always vacant.