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Great Smoky Mountains begins reopening in phases

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened its main roads and restrooms on May 9. Campgrounds and visitor centers will remain closed for the first two weeks.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) began reopening its main roads on May 9. The park has been closed since March 24 to fight the spread of COVID-19.

(Reporter's note: see the GSMNP's full verbatim announcement at the bottom of this article)

The Smokies will reopen in several phases or tiers. The first two weeks will reopen access to nearly all of the park's core roads and restrooms. Campgrounds and visitor centers will initially remain closed.

"For this first phase, which we expect to last about two weeks, we are going to have our main roads reopened. That will include Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, Cades Cove. Those are places we feel like people will get in and experience some of the views of spring and be able to access many of the hiking trails," said Dan Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson.

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Credit: WBIR
A roadblock at the Townsend entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains features a note telling visitors the park is closed indefinitely for COVID-19 prevention.

Restrooms will be accessible on all reopened roads.  The national park has secured enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and fogging machines to safely maintain restrooms.

Many secondary roads and remote areas of the park will remain closed during the initial phase. Soehn said the park will release a complete list of closures with full details by Tuesday, May 5.

It is likely you will not be able to initially drive to Clingmans Dome or any other roads that are normally closed during winter.  Clingmans Dome also presents challenges at its observation tower, where crowding is unavoidable.

There's also a chance you may not be able to immediately drive to exterior areas of the park, including Cosby, Abrams Creek, Big Creek, and Greenbrier.  At least, not in a car.

"Those roads that we don't open during the first phase will be accessible for people riding their bikes or walking in," said Soehn.

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While campgrounds will be closed during the first phase, backcountry camping will be allowed. However, shelter areas will be limited to 10 campers per site.

If after a couple of weeks things are going well, the park hopes to reopen its visitor centers with Plexiglas shields and other safety measures installed.

For the park to move from one phase to the next, it will need a lot of help from visitors in a place that normally attracts around a million tourists in May.

"Social distancing is difficult in the park. Try to choose some of the areas that are not usually as busy. If you get to a parking lot that's full, choose another destination. That's a sure sign that trail is going to be too crowded for proper social distancing," said Soehn.

The May 9 reopening is a balance between the reopening of Tennessee, the state of North Carolina, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).  Most of Tennessee reopens for business May 1. North Carolina's governor said he will keep his stay-at-home order in place through at least May 8 and then reevaluate. 

Credit: WBIR
Spring wildflowers and budding trees at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The tribe closed its borders in mid-March.  The EBCI's chief said the tribe has "kicked around" a plan to reopen May 15, but will "play it by ear" based on what North Carolina announces May 8.  

Whenever the tribe reopens, it has assured the National Park Service traffic will be able to access U.S. 441 and the Great Smoky Mountains when the park reopens. This is especially important in order to guarantee first responders can quickly reach the park in an emergency.

The national park has already canceled several popular events, including the synchronous firefly viewing at Elkmont that normally takes place in late-May or early-June. That event remains canceled.

RELATED: Synchronous firefly event canceled in Smokies due to COVID-19 precautions

Below is the full announcement released by the Smokies' public affairs staff:

APRIL 30, 2020: GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

Park Begins Phased Reopening on May 9

Following guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state and local public health authorities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is increasing recreational access and services. The National Park Service (NPS) is working servicewide with federal, state, and local public health authorities to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and using a phased approach to increase access on a park-by-park basis.

Beginning May 9, the park will reopen many roads and trails. The health and safety of employees, partners, volunteers, visitors, and local residents remains the highest priority in park reopening decisions. Park managers will examine each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance, and will be regularly monitored. Park managers will also continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public and workspaces are safe and clean for all users.

“We recognize this closure has been extremely difficult for our local residents, as well as park visitors from across the country, who seek the park as a special place for healing, exercise, recreation, and inspiration,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “We are approaching this phased reopening with that in mind, as we balance our responsibility to protect park resources and the health and safety of everyone.”

Park managers are implementing new safety measures in facility operations and services to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as areas reopen to the public. Campgrounds, picnic pavilions, visitor centers, and many secondary roads will remain closed during the first reopening phase, which is expected to last for at least two weeks. Some of these measures will include disinfectant fogging operations for restrooms and public buildings, installation of plexiglass shields at visitor centers, personal protective equipment requirements for maintenance workers, new safety protocols for emergency services staff, and reduced group size limits.

While many areas will be accessible for visitors to enjoy, a return to full operations will continue to be phased and services may be limited. The park typically has more than one million visitors each month, May through October, from across the country. When recreating, the public should follow local area health orders, practice Leave No Trace principles, avoid crowding, and avoid high-risk outdoor activities. The CDC has offered guidance to help people recreating in parks and open spaces prevent the spread of infectious diseases. We will continue to monitor all park functions to ensure that visitors adhere to CDC guidance for mitigating risks associated with the transmission of COVID-19, and take any additional steps necessary to protect public health.  

For the most up to date information about facility openings, service hours, and access, please visit the park website at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/conditions.htm. Park rangers remain available to answer questions and help with trip planning via email or phone during business hours at (865) 436-1291, (828) 506-8620, or GRSM_Smokies_Information@nps.gov.

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