Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was up this summer for the first time in almost a decade, perhaps because people were looking for affordable vacations during the tough economy.
So far this year, visits to the Smokies are up 6.2% over last year. The park’s strongest month of the summer was June, which registered a whopping 11% increase over June 2008, according to the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel.
Just as more people went to the mountains, more people went rafting, too.
On Aug. 29, Outdoor Adventure Rafting took 816 guests down the middle Ocoee River — a new record for the most guests taken down that section of whitewater in a single day by a single company.
The previous record was 720 guests set in 1996 by the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The middle Ocoee’s commercial rafting season starts March and runs through Nov. 1. A slightly abbreviated rafting season — May through September — takes place on the river’s upper section where the Olympic slalom races were held in 1996.
So far this season, about 213,394 people — both private boaters and rafting customers — have paddled the five miles of the middle Ocoee. This puts the Ocoee’s 2009 rafting season ahead of last year, and on par with 2007’s record total of 304,654.
J.T. Lemons, owner of Ocoee Outdoors, said business was slow for his rafting company in the spring but gained momentum over the summer.
“July was a very good month,” Lemons said. “Hopefully, we’ll have nice warm weather in September and end the year strong.”
An obvious difference between this year and last year was rainfall.
The Smokies is at above normal precipitation for the year-to-date. Heavy rain in May — 15 inches at Mount LeConte and 9 inches at Elkmont — ended the drought in the Smokies that has lasted 2 1/2 years.
Charles Conner, spokesman for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, said rainy weather made March and April slow months for commercial rafting, but that business picked up in May.
“We started slow but came roaring back over the summer,” Conner said.
The increased precipitation has made a huge difference to free-flowing rivers like the Chattooga, French Broad and Nolichucky. Last year at this time the Nantahala Outdoor Center had to close these outposts because of low water, but this year those rivers still are running strong.
“We do better when it rains than when it doesn’t rain, but if it rains on weekends, that’s probably bad,” Conner said.