BANDY CREEK — Visitation to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area continues to increase, the national park announced last week.

The BSF recorded 684,715 visits in 2016, marking the fourth consecutive year that the 125,000-acre park has seen an increase in visitation, superintendent Niki Nicholas said.

"For over 40 years visitors from around the world have come to Tennessee and Kentucky to revel in one of the nation's premier places for outdoor recreation," she said. "Indeed, we had our third highest visitation in the last 12 years."

Nicholas said part of the reason for last year's increase was the National Park Service's Find Your Park program, which reached new audiances as part of the NPS's 100-year anniversary.

In total, more than 20 million people have visited the Big South Fork since management of the park was turned over to the National Park Service in 1988. After a slump in visitation during the most recent economic recession, visitation has steadily increased. The 684,715 who visited in 2016 marked the highest single-year visitation since 2009, when 686,747 people visited.

The Big South Fork NRRA is the fifth-largest National Park Service unit in the eastern U.S. Visitation to the park is being driven by emerging trends in outdoors recreation. In 2012, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) awarded the BSF its coveted "epic" destination designation. More recently, recreational kayaking has brought increased visition to the park. Rock climbing continues to increase in popularity as well, joining traditional recreational uses like hiking, camping and horseback riding, along with whitewater rafting.

The peak of visitation to the BSF occurred in 2001, when 916,548 visits were recorded. At its lowest point, visitation to the BSF dipped to 565,093 in 2013.

However, visitation has steadily increased since that time. Nicholas said the BSF is on pace to see increased visitation for a fifth consecutive year in 2017.