By Leif Palmer
Posted on January 22, 2019
A lot of people visiting our area recently have been wondering if they can still visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in light of the government shutdown, which has been dragging on for over a month now.
The short answer is “Yes.”
The long answer begins with “But…”
Yes, you can drive into the national park, but not all roads will be open. The National Park Service is currently planning to use recreation-fee funds to maintain some hiking trails and roads, including the Spur between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Newfound Gap Road between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, Little River Road and the Cades Cove Loop Road.
Note, however, that even under normal circumstances, the park service sometimes closes roads due to extreme weather conditions, but for now, visitors can access areas located along the aforementioned thoroughfares. Also, any weather-related closures may last longer than normal due to lack of staffing, but personnel will be in place to remove snow and ice from Newfound Gap, the Spur and Foothills Parkway West.
The following facilities and areas either are or will soon be accessible, according to the park service:
• Cades Cove Campground and Picnic Area, including restrooms
• Smokemont Campground restrooms
• Deep Creek Picnic Area restrooms
• Little River Road between Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area and the Townsend Wye
• Foothills Parkway East
Although some park visitors centers were temporarily staffed over the recent MLK weekend, you should count on the Sugarlands, Ocanaluftee and Cades Cove visitor centers being closed if you decide to visit before the shutdown ends.
If you want to go hiking, the trails that are normally open this time of year are still open, but you should exercise caution since emergency responder personnel may not be readily available.
What's not accessible? Most of the other campgrounds for starters, and the park service isn't issuing any new backcountry hiking permits right now. And unless otherwise specified, you should assume that most restroom facilities are not open.
Fortunately, the Smokies fared better than many other national parks in the country that suffered from overused restrooms and garbage pile-ups. Area volunteers as well as organizations like the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies have kicked in with clean-up efforts and emergency funding at times to help ensure that park facilities didn't suffer from too much neglect.
Now if you would rather wait out the shutdown and plan to visit the park when things are functioning on a normal basis, we understand. But we hope you'll consider coming to the Smokies anyway. This time of year in Gatlinburg, downtown parking is plentiful, and there are still lots of places and ways to have a great time in the mountains.
About Leif Palmer
Leif Palmer loves residing in Gatlinburg. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.