A trial reservation system for group access to the Whiteoak Sink area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will go into effect for the 2021 wildflower season, April 12-30.
Group leaders can make reservations at www.recreation.gov for a special park use permit to access the area with groups of eight to 12 people. Leaders can reserve a morning permit for access from 7 to 10 a.m. or an afternoon permit with access from 2 to 5 p.m. A fee of $50 is required for each permit, along with a $6 reservation fee, and these payments can be made online at the time of the reservation. Group leaders may reserve two permits per season.
Park managers have been monitoring sensitive wildflower species in the Whiteoak Sink area since 2016. During the first year, managers documented 62 plants damaged by trampling and 370 feet of new social trails created by visitors trying to view or photograph individual plants. Now, a cadre of volunteers helps to educate visitors about safe wildflower viewing, and signage helps remind photographers to remain on the trail. These efforts have reduced plant trampling by 80 percent, though social trail creation and soil compaction are still issues.
By restricting group size and frequency, managers hope to further reduce trampling and soil compaction around sensitive plant populations. The trial period will help them determine if these measures are effective.
During the trial period, groups of more than 12 people are not allowed in the area at any time, and no permits will be issued on weekends. Individuals and small groups of fewer than eight people may access the Whiteoak Sink area without a permit throughout the wildflower season. Volunteers will be available on site to provide safe-viewing information and to collect monitoring data.
The Whiteoak Sink area is primarily accessed from the Schoolhouse Gap Trail between Townsend and Cades Cove. In addition to stewardship of sensitive wildflower populations, resource managers continue to be concerned about critical habitat for bats found at the same location. Since 2015, the area has been closed during the winter months to help hikers avoid interacting with bats infected with White Nose Syndrome.
Unfortunately, recent monitoring has documented a dramatic decline in bat populations throughout the Whiteoak Sink area, and park officials have determined that the extremely low number of bats means that the full winter closure is no longer necessary. However, access within 25 yards of the Blowhole Cave opening is prohibited from October through May to reduce disturbance to remaining bats.