Taking the Plunge: Enhancing the Visitor Experience in Waterfall-Based State Parks


  • Margaret M. Citarella
  • Jeffrey C. Hallo Clemson University
  • Jessica P. Fefer
  • Matthew T. J. Brownlee
  • Robert B. Powell
  • Katie D. Dudley




Activity displacement, state parks, substitutability, visitor experience, visitor capacity, waterfalls


Waterfalls are popular tourist attractions due to their soundscape, beauty, natural pool, and recreational opportunities. High visitation and use amplifies the risk of degrading pristine waterfall sites and their resources. Not only are waterfalls experiencing high demand, but state parks are also experiencing high use. State parks are typically closer to population centers and complement national parks by providing recreational opportunities to more, diverse visitors (Gomez & Hill, 2016). The present study aimed to provide a basis for understanding the visitor experience and visitor capacity at a state park with iconic waterfalls where visitors engage in water-based recreation (e.g., swim in the natural pool). In tandem with the examination of visitor capacity, this study investigated activity displacement and substitutability. Researchers deployed visitor questionnaires and time-lapse field cameras in the peak use season of 2016 to collect data about visitor use at a popular waterfall-based state park in Tennessee. The results indicated that use levels at the waterfall area within the park were near or above crowding-based thresholds, supporting the implementation of a visitor capacity. While the results do not provide evidence of activity displacement, they seem to reflect a reduction in the visitors’ freedom of choice in activity. With regard to substitutability, most visitors indicated that if they could not swim at the waterfall then there are no other activities that would provide them with the same level of satisfaction and enjoyment. Therefore, management actions that safeguard opportunities to swim or that determine substitutable activities could preserve the quality of the visitor experience. The authors recommend a visitor experience monitoring program at the park to ascertain that the visitor capacity is not violated. Additionally, several recommendations are made for future studies to improve visitor capacity assessments, measure and understand displacement, and explore the relationship between displacement and substitutability. This study fills a gap in the literature by empirically investigating the experiential visitor capacity of a waterfall site and using the recently developed Visitor Use Management (VUM) framework in a state park. Empirical social science-based research is important because citizens highly value waterfalls and primarily gain exposure to nature through state park visits. Subscribe to JPRA





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