The National Park Service announced their 2020 park usage numbers in February and reported over 237 million visitors to the National Parks in 2020.  While this number represents a 28% decrease from 2019, they attribute the drop due to temporary park closures and restrictions implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  A total of sixty six of the parks in the National Parks system were entirely closed for two months or more.  Smoky Mountain, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Grand Teton, Olympic, and Joshua Tree all reported increases over 2019.  Grand Canyon reported the biggest drop moving it from the second most visited park (a spot it has held for 30 years) to sixth place.  The parks with the highest visitation tend to be parks located nearest major metropolitan centers and those with the biggest decreases, the ones that take some time to get to.  Smoky Mountain National Park held its spot as the most visited National Park, a position it has held for 40 years, and breaking the park record set in 2019.  I can personally attest to the crowds in the Smoky Mountains.  I spend at least one week a year in the Smokies, either fishing with my friend Tom, visiting with family, or with a Camptown group.  This past year my fishing trip was cancelled as we watched news of the crowds heading to the Smokies.  I did get to the Smokies last month with a group of High School students from Thrive Christian Church in Westfield. I purposefully chose a less visited area on the North Carolina side of the Smokies to stay and tried to pick day hikes and activities that were not as visited.  I did want the students to see some of the must sees like Clingmans Dome (which was on one of the clearest days I have ever seen in the Smokies) and get on the Appliachian Trail, but even the lesser visited areas were crowded.  For most trails, we had to park and hike up to a half mile away from the trail head.  The trails themselves were also crowded.  There was seldom a time when we had a section of trail to ourselves.  I have mixed feelings about the growing numbers of visitors to our National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, State Forests, and wilderness lands in general.  On the one hand, I know the studies that show the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits of nature experiences.  Outdoor play and nature experiences have been credited with reduction of ADD symptoms, improved self-discipline, improved performance on standardized tests, improved physical health, stress reduction, improved cognitive functioning, and improved emotional well-being at all developmental stages.  Camptown is all about promoting getting outside and experiencing God’s gift of his creation. On the other hand, the crowds!  Where is the solitude?  I am concerned that our kids will not get to experience the peace and flow of nature that we have.  There are places you can still find that solitude and felling of getting away, but you have to work at it more.  Maybe that is the way it should be.  There also needs to be a call for responsible use of our Parks and Wilderness areas.  So, are people still able to still get that healing benefit from being in nature?  I will let a few of the students on our trip to the Smokies answer that question.

I learned more about God and want to devote more time to him. 

I learned to turn to the Bible right away when I struggle with something.

I learned how to sit and listen to God.

It was a good experience I may always remember.

I had a great experience that I think will have a lasting impact.

I really liked how this made me set aside my electronics and focus on the things and people around me more than usual. I also like having the chance to get to know different people.