Forest Trail Explorer

US Forest Service and Southern Research Station


Who recreates here and why?

A 2008 study completed in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA) counties found preferences of visitors differ with demographic and socioeconomic factors. It was discovered that a large portion of the visitors to the region come from those living nearby in North Carolina or from surrounding southeastern states. Of the 4,125 respondents, 23 percent identified themselves as day trippers, and 77 percent as overnight visitors. The average age of day trippers is 50 years old, and for overnight, 53 years old. Most respondents, day or overnight, fell between the ages of 46 to 65. This is slightly higher than that of travelers to the state as a whole, which had a mean age, in 2006, of 45.

Almost half of all visitors to the region have a college degree or a graduate degree, making the BRNHA group more highly educated when compared to the U.S. population, of which 27 percent has a college degree. Well over half of the visitors have higher household incomes than the national median household income. A majority of visitors travel in parties of two, as the median party size for both overnight guests and day trippers was 2.7.

The results indicate the highest preference is for outdoor recreation, followed by festivals and events, gardens or trails, crafts, Cherokee sites, music activities, and farms and orchards. Preferences also appear to differ among men and women. For example, the top activities for women were craft activities, while men rated outdoor recreation or ecotourism at the top of their lists. This data has proved useful in targeting tourism marketing efforts. The study also gives hints for development of tourism attractions that will appeal to particular visitor sectors.

Number of Visitors

From 1985 to 2009, the total number of recreation visits in the region’s national forests increased from 2.9 million to 6.8 million, an increase of 136 percent. From 1993–2002, the number of average annual visitors to the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was 11.6 million. The number of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee has varied slightly, but has remained around 9 million per year. In 2010, there were 14,517,118 recreation visits to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and 9,463,538 recreation visits to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The national forests in Western North Carolina, which offer a much broader range of recreational activities, are some of the most visited in the national forest system.

The above content is a part of the Western North Carolina Vitality Index. To view the full report, visit

Forest Inventory and Analysis Resources

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Asheville: Anyway you like it. Accessed from:

Stoddard, J.E., M.R. Evans, and D.S. Dinesh. August 2008. “Sustainable tourism: The case of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.” Cornell Hospitality Quarterly.

Stynes, D.J. 2011. Economic benefits to local communities from national park visitation and payroll, 2010. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2011/481. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Total Visitation for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1985-2009. Accessed from:

USDA Forest Service, National Forests in North Carolina. Internal Annual Visitation and Receipt Report, 2000-2009.

USDI National Park Service, Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Area. Heritage and history, attractions and destinations. Accessed from:

West, Terry. 1991. Research in the USDA Forest Service: A Historian’s View: The Weeks Act and Eastern Forests. USDA Forest Service, WO History Unit.