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Growing pains: Burgess Falls setting records

Liz Engel Clark
Wednesday, Sep 5, 2012

Burgess Falls in August. CBJ Photo/Liz Engel Clark

SPARTA – It’s a typical summer Saturday, and cars crowd the parking lot at Burgess Falls.

The state park, a top attraction in both White and Putnam counties, has seen its fair share of traffic in recent years, as word-of-mouth, magazine features and its cascading waterfalls bring folks from all over the country to see. On this particular day, nearly two dozen vehicles line the entrance gates, and cars cover every parkable space – leaving very little wiggle room.

The reason? During the last fiscal year, which ended just recently in June, Burgess Falls logged more than 206,000 visitors, its highest number ever, nearly 10,000 more than its previous year’s total of 197,000, and park manager Bill Summers suspects they’ve also had their busiest August on record this summer.

While those numbers might pale in comparison to Cumberland Mountain’s or Fall Creek Falls’ tally of 1 million plus, it’s quite a leap from just nine years ago. During fiscal year 2002-03, annual visitation was just 68,215. The most recent figure represents a nearly 202 percent increase.

Not too shabby for a park that’s considered day-use only, where no overnight camping’s permitted. And size wise, it’s on the smallest end of the scale, at around 200 acres.

“Other parks have increased visitation, but I don’t know if any have tripled,” Summers said. “That’s a lot of people.”

But increased visits also means more challenges for park staff – parking, obviously, is among the biggest.

Gradual growth

Summers says about 28 percent of Burgess Falls patrons come from out of state, while about 25 percent come from Putnam and White counties, and the remainder, from other counties in Tennessee. Recent calculations deduced that visitors to Burgess Falls spent an average of $119.21 per trip on food, beverage, transportation, lodging and other expenditures, creating an annual economic impact of more than $7 million on the local economy.

The influx, of course, didn’t happen all at once. In 2001, the park was closed due to state budgetary issues, and Summers joined the staff Jan. 1, 2004. Today, the park is better maintained. It’s safer. The trails are nicer.

Summers thinks that has helped the growth. Of course, the patronizing public also treks here for the scenic beauty and series of four falls, including one that stands at 136 feet that just cascades with water.

“I think there’s many draws,” Summers said. “Folks who live here, they bring their out-of-town guests, a lot of people come play on the playground, we have a lot of visitors who will come to walk for exercise. When we rent the shelter, people have family reunions and birthday parties.”

The park staff tries to emphasize education – whether through outreach visits to schools or through guided hikes. Burgess Falls received a governors award 2011 for environmental education and outreach for being the first Tennessee State Park to offer a full month of on-site, Junior Ranger summer day camps, which work to educate and involve the local youth – although Summers wishes they could do more.

It’s just part of many challenges – of which parking arguably tops the list. There are times when cars are simply turned away because the lots are at capacity. There’s also effects that extra foot traffic can bring.

“With (the increase in visitation) there’s more impact on the trail system and on resources in general,” Summers said. “We spend more time, of course, cleaning and keeping up the grounds. But I’ve got a great staff, and we get a lot of things done. We’re pretty efficient with what we do.”

Growing still

Despite Burgess Falls’ small size, it still offers quite a bang for its buck, visitors say. And there’s an ongoing effort in place to further grow the park’s reach and, thus, further protect the viewshed.

Friends of Burgess Falls, a group that has been active since 2009 but now has new leadership, has helped fund an appraisal for one 10-acre tract, and negotiations are ongoing for another, measuring 25 acres.

While neither will serve as an aid for parking, securing those properties, which are currently privately owned, would help ensure Burgess Falls remains as a tourist destination – and a seemingly ever-growing top-spot in the region.

“People love the park,” Summers said. “We provide a great day experience. Once somebody comes here they almost always come back.”

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