GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK – The white trillium and wild geranium might be blooming on the low-lying forest floor, but the one sure sign that spring has arrived in the Smokies is when Clingmans Dome Road opens.
The 7-mile road off Newfound Gap/U.S. 441 opened to the public March 31, along with the visitor center and restrooms. But they were some of the few facilities that opened on time this spring in the Smokies.
Due to the partial government shutdown, which lasted six weeks from late December to mid-February, the seasonal opening of campgrounds, picnic pavilions and cabins have been delayed.
“During the time we were shut down, we would have been busily getting together hiring practices to bring on seasonal employees,” said Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash.
The park, which covers a half-million acres of heavily forested mountains across the Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee border, is the busiest national park in the country. Last year the park had a record 11.4 million visitors who come to hike, camp, picnic, watch wildlife from bears to birds to elk, drive the scenic roads, and search for wildflowers, waterfalls and synchronous fireflies.
There are 185 permanent employees who work in education, resource management, law enforcement, maintenance and other divisions, and 80-90 seasonal workers who help to handle the warm weather onslaught of visitors.
The shutdown, which halted all park operations, put a dent in getting seasonals on board who would typically have started in April, Cash said.
“We’re shipping the resources we do have to the very popular sites, so it will not impact areas like Elkmont and Cades Cove. We’re working to get those open as early as possible. We have people working very hard.”
Ronnie and Tammy Cook, of Smyrna, Georgia, were taking in the cold but clear views from Clingmans Dome on April 11, on their annual “detour” to the park while traveling through the region for their Christmas tree business.
They were just passing through, so were not bothered by the closed campgrounds, but were happy that the coldest place in the park was open.
While it was in the upper 70s at the Cherokee entrance to the park and visitors strolled in shorts and T-shirts, on top of Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet in the sky, it was in the 50s with brutal winds, and people packed the parking lot.
“We just kept watching the temperature drop as we got higher and higher,” Tammy Cook said. “We love it here. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
When can we expect campgrounds, picnic areas to open?
For the most part, campgrounds and picnic areas are opening up about two-and-a-half weeks late this year, said park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.
“We lost that six-week time period to allow us to bring the seasonal workforce on, get them trained and out in the field,” she said. We bring them on board to help with facilities that are only open in spring, summer and fall months.”
The biggest responsibility of the seasonal employees is caring for the campgrounds, picnic areas and roadways, doing campground maintenance and daily bathroom cleaning, mowing, weed eating and grounds maintenance of roadways and facility areas.
Seasonal employees also work in the resource management and science branch, helping to do field work in fisheries, wildlife, vegetation, forestry, and inventory monitoring divisions, and run the visitor centers and educational programs, Soehn said.
The shutdown’s delay on hiring not only cuts into the paychecks of those who rely on the seasonal work from spring through fall, but into the local economy.
According to a 2016 National Park Service spending report, the 11.3 million visitors to the Smokies in 2015 spent an estimated $942.7 million in gateway regions, such as Cherokee, Bryson City, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
The spending supported nearly 15,000 jobs, $426.9 million in labor income and $1.3 billion in total economic output.
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People coming from across the world to the Smokies are not just spending their dollars within the park on campsites, local tourism leaders say, but in lodging – hotels, cabins and other campgrounds in gateway communities, as well as on food and beverages, gas, souvenirs and other expenses.
The park needs even more help to accommodate the 11 million visitors each year. There are some 2,800 volunteers who work in the park, half who live locally and work year-round, and half who come for a one-time work experience such as college students on spring break, or families who make volunteering part of their vacation.
Volunteers work at visitor centers and heavily used areas such as Clingmans Dome, they rove trails to provide visitor information and staff facilities such as the Mingus Mill.
Even with all the help, the park, like most of the more than 400 units in the National Park Service, are suffering historic maintenance backlogs.
Cash said the Smokies have $235 million in deferred maintenance, of which 79% lies in the road system, which was built in the 1930s.
Soehn said there were some deferred maintenance projects that got held up during the shutdown, including a waterline project at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area, which was closed while the bathrooms were out of order, but it will reopen April 19.
A road paving project is underway on Little River Road, between the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, to Townsend, Tennessee, one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the park.
Most of the popular campgrounds, including Big Creek, Cades Cove, Catloochee and Deep Creek, will open April 19. Elkmont Campground, which has a section open year-round, will open Loops G-N on May 23. Smokemont Campground, also partially opened year-round, will open Loops D-F May 15.
One of the most popular, but hardest to snag campsites in the park – Mount LeConte Lodge – opened March 25. Day hiking is open to everyone, but staying overnight at the hike-in-only lodge is by reservation only.
Check the Facility Opening Dates schedule for a full list of campground, picnic area, roads, and other facility openings.
Be weather wary
When heading out to the park this spring, Soehn reminds visitors that spring weather is fickle in the Smokies, especially with elevations ranging from about 2,000 feet in Cherokee to 6,643 feet at the top of Clingmans Dome.
“People forget it can be a 10- to 20-degree temperature change from low to high elevation. It will make your trip more enjoyable and safe to be prepared for that. Spring weather is often unpredictable with rains and pop-up thunderstorms we’ve been seeing in afternoons,” she said.
“We remind people to monitor the weather. Stream crossings, when you start a hike, might look a little different on the return hike.
“Think about trails you’re going on if we’re expecting high winds. Many areas have been affected by hemlock wooly adelgid and are filled with standing dead trees and branches. Be especially cautious on windy days in those areas.”
She also reminds visitors to be cautious around waterfalls. Stay on designated trails, do not try to climb them, do not jump from waterfalls and enjoy them from a distance.
Planning a Smokies trip?
Get maps, directions, campground information, trails and more at nps.gov/grsm.
For facility opening dates, click the opening date schedule.
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