With an estimated 8 to 10 million tourists each year, this summer the most visited park in the country is celebrating its diamond anniversary: 75 years. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 800 miles of hiking trails, 700 miles of fishable streams, countless gushing waterfalls, blooming wildflowers, and auto tours offering panoramic vistas of an endless majestic horizon allure nature lovers from around the globe. And yet, the main attraction is—and perhaps always has been—the Smokies’ most famous resident, the black bear.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears live in the wild, a draw for visitors expecting to get an up-close look. With approximately 1,600 bears in the park (or two bears per square mile), the odds are pretty good for visitors expecting to see a bear in its natural habitat.
Before the park was even 20 years old, it had already welcomed over 20 million visitors according to an article in the June 5, 1954, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The article, “Our Most Popular National Park,” takes a look at the fixation tourists have with seeing a bear and several close encounters with the unpredictable creature.
“I’ve got my family. Come a long way—from Illinois. We want to see a bear,” pleads a visitor to the information desk.
In response to the public’s desperation to see bears, the Park Service advocated numerous safety campaigns to no avail.
“One couple decided to play it half safe—sit in their car and feed a bear through the window. The bear gulped a ham-on-rye, then reared up, put her paws on the door of the convertible and began thrusting her nose into the front seat. … The bear climbed in. The couple then jumped out the other door and stood by helplessly while their uninvited guest ripped the upholstery to shreds,” reports writer Don Wharton.
For a better understanding of the bear attraction and several other questionable tourist behaviors, see the full article below.