GATLINBURG, Tenn — Second Lady Karen Pence reopened access to Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on Tuesday afternoon.
Pence wore a mask except during her speech with all spectators several feet away. On a rainy and foggy day, her message was clear regarding the need to reopen national parks for economic and mental health.
"I just said to [GSMNP Superintendent Cassius] Cash, we hope a lot of people come out to the park now. He said, 'Oh, they're coming,'" laughed Pence.
Pence emphasized the need for people to maintain a safe social distance, wear masks in crowded areas, and help the park completely reopen in "a responsible way."
"I know the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors are important to the success of the businesses in this area," said Pence.
The Second Lady's speech heavily highlighted mental health awareness, one of the causes of the month of May.
"It is okay not to be okay," said Pence, who urged people to talk about their problems, their successes, and be unafraid to seek help for mental issues.
"Right now is an opportunity to take the stigma away. Because everyone is feeling anxiety. Everybody is feeling stresses," said Pence.
Pence's visit marked a bit of executive branch history. This is the first time a president, vice president, first lady, or second lady has officially visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park while in office since President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Smokies in 1940.
As for the immediate future of the park, opening Clingmans Dome and the tower came a few days ahead of the second phase of reopening the Smokies. This Saturday, all the currently closed trails will reopen, including Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, and Big Creek. Some picnic pavilions will also reopen and be available for reservations.
But don't get your hopes up for a Memorial Day camping trip.
"During this next phase, our campgrounds and visitor centers will remain closed. And this next phase is expected to last through at least June 7," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson.