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Smokies campgrounds and shelters open; Appalachian Trail thru-hikers asked to postpone due to COVID-19

The Great Smoky Mountains has changed procedures at campgrounds and shelters. The ATC asks hikers to postpone thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail due to coronavirus.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Driving through Gatlinburg and the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) Wednesday, there were no signs of tourists steering clear of the area due to coronavirus concerns.

Heavy traffic filled the roads in Gatlinburg and large crowds lined up on the sidewalk downtown at Anakeesta.  

In the national park, the lot was packed at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, despite the fact it and other visitor centers in the Smokies are closed.  But the bathrooms remain open, along with most of the attractions in the national park.

"The park remains open to the public. Our roads and trails are open. But we've been making some operational modifications to keep our staff and the people visiting here safe," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson. "We ask people to follow the recommendations made by the White House and the CDC to stay in groups of less than 10 and keep safe social distancing."

Credit: WBIR
Large crowds stand in line at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg on March 18, 2020, while many other popular destinations were closed for coronavirus precautions.

Campgrounds and backcountry shelters remain open in the Smokies. However, the park has closed the campground offices to minimize face-to-face contact.

"Smokemont, Elkmont, and Cades Cove campgrounds remain open. But you have to make your reservations online. We are no longer accepting any kind of payments in-person at the campgrounds themselves," said Soehn. "If anyone already booked a campsite and now want to cancel, the cancellation fees are waived."

Overnight campers at backcountry shelters are now asked to stay in tents around the shelter rather than staying inside.  Normally, hikers are required to stay inside the shelter unless they are thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Credit: WBIR
Despite closing for coronavirus precautions, the parking lot at Sugarlands Visitor Center was packed Mar. 18, 2020. Bathrooms remain open.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) announced Tuesday it wants thru-hikers to postpone their trips on the trail to prevent spreading the coronavirus. That goes for the hikers who aim to trek the entire trail or anyone doing multi-day sectional hikes.  The ATC said there is too much congregation at shelters, picnic areas, on shuttles, and at hostels to realistically make the trek safely.

LINK:  ATC guidance for multi-day and thru-hikers amid COVID-19 concerns 

For those hellbent on hiking the Appalachian Trail, the ATC asked hikers to avoid certain sections. Specifically, the northern and southern ends of the trail are heavily crowded in March and April with hikers starting their 2,200-mile journeys.

Hikers at the Mt. Collins backcountry shelter along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The GSMNP also canceled all events scheduled through April at Spence Cabin, the Appalachian Clubhouse, and five churches in the park.  All of the venues are often used for weddings.  The park has not canceled any events scheduled for outdoor sites, as of Wednesday afternoon.

The LeConte Lodge did not return WBIR's messages regarding any changes to its operations for the coronavirus. Opening day at the LeConte Lodge is currently set for March 23, 2020. Staff members are in the process of air-lifting supplies for the upcoming season to the lodge. In addition to the campers who stay in the cabins, many day-hikers buy lunch, snacks, and apparel from the lodge when they reach the summit of Mt. Leconte.  Again, there was no reply to our queries about potential changes to the lodge schedule or store operations. WBIR will update this article if and when we are contacted.

RELATED: Mar. 17, 2020 - Great Smoky Mountains visitor centers & other operations close to prevent the spread of COVID-19

RELATED: May 2017 - Elkmont Will Shine:  history of cabins and conflict in the Smokies