Shutdown closes Great Smoky Mountains and other parks

(WBIR- Great Smoky Mountains) As the government shutdown affects the entire nation, in East Tennessee the impact is especially obvious in the National Parks. Visitors who normally travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to view the fall colors will only encounter orange cones, blue lights, and the bright yellow vests of Rangers turning traffic away during the federal government shutdown.

October is traditionally one of the busiest months of the year for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with an average of more than 1.1 million visitors. On Tuesday afternoon, Ranger Lisa Free greeted all of the cars attempting to enter the Park with the same message.

"Are you aware the Park is closed today? It is due to the Government Shutdown. We don't know how long it will be, Thanks for your patience. I'm sorry," said Free time and time again to drivers turned away from the Townsend entrance. "Obviously a lot of people are disappointed because they can't get in the Park, but they have mostly been understanding."

The Park leadership emailed employees at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday to say the GSMNP would proceed with an orderly shutdown. Workers arrived at work as usual at 9 a.m. to review closure procedures, then proceeded to shut down roads, trails, and overlooks.

The only open roads in the Park are the Spur between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Galinburg Bypass, and Highway 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, NC.

"That's going to be open for through traffic. The facilities along that road, the restroom, parking areas, and picnic areas will all be closed to visitors," said Molly Schroer, GSMNP spokesperson.

While employees shut the gates into the Park, there were already lots of people inside the Smokies with no access to cell phone service or news of the government shutdown. Elkmont Campground had more than 90 campers inside when the shutdown was announced. Campers will have their reservation fees refunded. However, many paid to travel across the country, purchased food, and now have until 6 p.m. on Thursday, October 3, to leave the park.

"It's just frustrating because you thought something would work out or they'd come to some decision to keep things open," said Steven Howard, a camper in Elkmont who traveled from Florida.

"Our whole vacation was centered around hiking in the National Park and stuff like that. And all of that will come to a stop. So now, vacation we have left, we may possibly just have to go home," said Billy McMillen, a camper from Arkansas.

"We drove 720 miles to get here. Our plan was to do the whole park on our drive home through the mountains, but I'm not sure we'll have an opportunity to do that," said Lisa Lewis of Florida.

Closing the Great Smoky Mountains is also leading to a matrimonial shutdown. The Park said there are 28 wedding scheduled at locations inside the National Park during the first two weeks of October. In addition, all park programs, Parks as Classrooms education programs, and special events have been canceled.

Law enforcement and other essential maintenance crews will remain on duty to provide security and emergency services. However, 279 GSMNP employees, 60 concessions employees, and 45 Great Smoky Mountains Association employees are on furlough due to the shutdown.

The National Park Service website will also not be maintained and updated for the duration of the shutdown. NPS.gov has more than 750,000 pages and 91 million unique visitors each year.

The shutdown affects all national parks, forests, and recreation areas, including the Big South Fork, Cherokee National Forest, and other destinations funded by the federal government.


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