Tasked with a mission to preserve our country’s most spectacular places unimpaired for this and future generations, the National Park Service stresses a simple ethos: Take only photos, leave only footprints.
As tempting as it might be to take home that lovely wildflower or a box of smooth river stones, leaving Great Smoky Mountains National Park with any part of its natural world is strictly forbidden—the few exceptions consist of things like legally caught fish from park streams and certain nuts, berries, and mushrooms.
But it is only natural, so to speak, for visitors to want a souvenir or two to remind them of their visit to the country’s most popular national park. And that’s where Great Smoky Mountains Association shops come into play.
Visitors who want to take home a piece of the Smokies can find virtually everything park-related in GSMA retail stores scattered across several locations both inside and outside the park. Sales at park stores support GSMA’s efforts to preserve and protect the park and enhance visitor experiences.
“All the sales items sold in our stores are National Park Service approved,” said Dawn Roark, GSMA retail director. “We have a wide range of products for purchase so visitors can take home a memento of the wonderful time you spent in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The products in our stores also make great gifts for that dog sitter, child minder, and anybody else who needs a gift.”
And a lot of visitors have that need. Roark said more than 2.3 million park visitors stopped at GSMA shops in 2022. The busiest months are July, at the peak of the summer season, and October, when the autumn color change attracts millions to the park. “But, to be honest, it is pretty busy from May through November,” she said.
The shop at Sugarlands Visitor Center near the park’s Gatlinburg entrance is the busiest, Roark said. Shops at Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center are also popular stops.
What items attract the most attention? T-shirts and books. And kids tend to gravitate toward one particular item. “Plush black bears rule,” Roark said.
The stores’ bookshelves are packed with titles that cover virtually every aspect of park history, park flora and fauna, and highlights of park attractions. Roark said hiking guides and Into the Mist are among the most popular books.
There are also plenty of T-shirts that celebrate park icons like the black bear and Clingmans Dome. One of the most popular includes artwork of a bear with a park scene in the center.
GSMA has a process for accepting items for its stores.
“We must get samples, and then the park service has to review them to make sure the products are right for the Smokies,” Roark said. Among the most unique items are locally produced jams and jellies and music recorded by singers and musicians with Smokies influences and traditions.
As with all aspects of the Smokies visitor experience, it is important that GSMA shops offer a pleasant environment with helpful employees. Many have years of experience in the Smokies and can offer advice for visitors seeking a book about a particular area of interest or an item of clothing that the folks back home might enjoy.
“The feedback I have received is that the store personnel are knowledgeable, courteous, and helpful,” Roark said.
Thanks to park stores and their friendly staff, visitors can read up on Smokies history, sample some classic mountain preserves, listen to Smoky Mountain music, and pick up a reliable map to guide the way to the next destination. Best of all, shopping at these stores directly supports the park service and contributes millions to the park’s operating budget each and every year—all while leaving the flowers where they are.