Leave No Trace

The Blue Ridge Mountains are one of the most beautiful places on earth.  The seemingly endless layers of blue mountains draw us in, replenish our souls, and remind us of what is truly important in life.   

The mountains are calling, and I must go.

John Muir

The Blue Ridge Mountains are vast and there is a place for everyone.  There is room for everyone to visit and enjoy them.  But irresponsible visitation has had significant impact, especially when spread across the millions of people who visit each year.

Our beautiful and beloved mountains are hurting, but together, we can help, we can make a difference.

The Impact We're Having

Photo by: Mike Wurman

Recent years have seen a surge in visitation to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.   This holds true for National Parks in the US as a whole.  Many parks are seeing record numbers of visitors, and have visitation that has double since 1980.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park had more than 14 million visitors in 2021.  That's up from 9 million in 2013 alone.  14 million ... let that sink in for a minute.

The fact is, nothing in this world is free, and everything has a cost.  What is the cost of our use?   

  • Wear and tear
  • Trash
  • Vandalism
  • Traffic

These mountains are paying a heavy price for our misuse.

We are literally loving our Blue Ridge Mountains to death.   That needs to change, now.   

We need to change our habits and behaviors.  We need to stop just enjoying the views, and additionally take actions to protect and preserve, each and every time we are out. 

Here at Blue Ridge Mountain Life, we are making a stronger strategic effort to assist and educate, starting today.  But more on that later.

How we can all help

One of the key things we can all do to help, is practice Leave No Trace.   Leave No Trace has seven principles, that are easy to follow and help significantly to minimize our impact.    

Leave No Trace

Leave the outdoor spaces you visit looking as if you had never been there.   It's just that simple.

Practicing Leave No Trace shows that you care, it shows that these mountains matter to you, and that they are important.  These mountains are ours to enjoy AND to protect.   We must be good stewards.

The 7 principles are:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© Leave No Trace: www.LNT.org

Begin making a difference today

Make a commitment to begin following Leave No Trace Principles when you're in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and learn also more about how you can help!

7 Principles of Leave No Trace

You can read about the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace on the Leave No Trace website.  We will be educating and promoting ALL of these, but there are a few that we want to highlight and ones that we will be laser focused on:

3 - Dispose of Waste Properly

Waste, both trash and human body waste, is a huge problem in the park.   Trash can be found on the roadways, parking areas, trails, in historic buildings, and around waterfalls.  Trash is even more heavily prominent around campsites and on roadsides.

Human waste is also found, far too often, in the worst places.   We have unfortunately had far too many encounters with human waste, and frankly, it's disgusting.   This is a much bigger topic, so you can read more about the environmental impacts, and how to properly relieve yourself while in the woods in our article: How to properly go the bathroom in the woods.

Back to trash.  Trash is one of the most simple and easiest issues to solve.   Pack out, what you pack in.

All users of recreational land, anywhere, including the Blue Ridge Mountains have the simple responsibility of picking up their trash, and packing it back out with them.  

Bring a trash bag with you, put your trash in it, and hike it out.   Easy peasy.

Do not leave it for someone else, do not think that someone else will pick it up for you.  Pick it up, pack it out.  If everyone followed this very simple process, our mountains would be exponentially cleaner.

4 - Leave What You Find

Photo by: Kristi Parsons

Leave rocks, plants, historic items, and any other object of natural instance where you find them.    We realize it's temping to pick flowers, dig up plants, and to take rocks.   Convincing yourself that it's ok is easy as well, I mean who would miss just one little rock?  No big deal right?

Now, multiple that by over 14 million visitors each year to just the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone.   Imagine if every visitor took one rock, or one flower, or one plant?    Thankfully, many don't, but can you imagine the negative impact?   You don't need to imagine, you can see it when you visit.

When you take something from the park, you are keeping someone else from seeing and discovering what you found and took.   You are hurting, not only the park, the environment, but other people as well.

Do not alter places that you visit.  This includes:

  • No digging, and if you must, refill it before you leave
  • No moving rocks, either on dry land or in creeks.  In fact, moving rocks in creeks can cause significant harm to aquatic life.
  • No damage to trees or plants - This includes carving your name in them - It is beyond us why anyone would want to do this, but we see it far too often.   While tempting, do not remove plants or flowers.
  • No taking of historical items.   People lived and worked in these mountains, for many many years.  The mountains are full of historical and old items.   Leave them for others to see an enjoy, they are part of these mountains.
  • No leaving "your mark" - Graffiti in the park is rampant.  It seems every other person feels the need to write their name on signs, historic buildings, fences, and anything else.   Don't let your selfish needs, ruin the experience for others.

Did you know that it is actually against the law, to remove or damage items from most National Parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

6 - Respect Wildlife

Another key principe of Leave No Trace that we are seeing abused far too often, is disrespect of Wildlife.   Many visitors to the park think it's a zoo, full of approachable wildlife.   The Park is most certainly not a zoo, and the wildlife are in fact wild, and can be dangerous.

Wildlife in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains should always be observed from a distance.  The general rule of thumb is, if you are causing the animal to change its normal behavior, you are too close.  

The Park even has a 50 yard rule, which states: "Approaching any wildlife within 50 yards or within any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife is prohibited."

Remain quiet, so you do not startle or stress the animals, and again, so they will not change their behavior.   The only exception to this rule is the Black Bear, where you will want to make noise, so you make them aware of your presence.  See our Black Bear Necessities article for more information.

Never touch, pet, or feed wildlife.  It can stress the animal and be very dangerous for you.   Feeding conditions the animals to associate people with food, causing their natural fear to go away.  This can cause very dangerous human and wildlife interactions, that often result in the wild animal paying the price, by being put down.

When watching the wildlife, always be sure to allow them free access to water.  We see this issue often in Cataloochee Valley with the Elk.  People will block their access to the creek for water, which causes visible stress, and often close and dangerous encounters between people and Elk.

7 - Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This is often the the most important, but most often ignored or overlooked principles - Consideration of Others.

Most people come the mountains to escape.  Many are looking for peace and solitude.  Many visit to relax, and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.   Noise, dogs, damage, vandalism, and uncontrolled children, can ruin that for others.  

If you are looking to avoid people, and want to find more solitude, you'll want to avoid visiting during holidays, weekends, and other busy times.  In fact, your best bet is to visit during the winter, or at least due research on the least busy times for the areas you are wanting to visit. 

When pausing to take breaks on the trail, or even when parking at pull-offs and at trail-heads, be sure you park yourself or your vehicle on areas that will have the least impact.  

For example, when taking a break hiking, find good solid rocks to sit on.  Don't sit on top of plants, or on soft areas of soil.  When parking, park in designated parking areas if at all possible.  If not, park where you will not block traffic, or cause environmental impact.   

One important thing to keep in mind, is to always consider your impact to others, and the negative experience you may be causing others to have. 

Some examples that have caused a negative experience for us include:

  • People hiking with cell phones playing loud music, or even speakers.
  • People talking loudly on cell phones at scenic overlooks, or other places where people might be looking to relax and enjoy nature.
  • Pets excessively barking, or unleashed
  • Uncontrolled children - Don't get us wrong, we love kids, just be aware of the impact they may have on others.
  • Uncontrolled adults - Need we say more?

The key takeaway here, is to remember that you are not the only one visiting the park, or the area you are at.  Being considerate of others will go a long way in making everyone's experience more enjoyable.

Our Challenge to you

We love that you visit our website, and we love sharing all of the beautiful locations we've visited with you.  We want you to visit and enjoy them as much as we do.  But ... Only if you agree to follow the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.

Learn more about how you can help make a positive difference AND make a commitment to Leave No Trace by visiting our How you Can Help page.

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.

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