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Traffic and crowding concerns in understaffed Smokies

Vital volunteers and seasonal workers have not returned as part of the phased reopening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) are warning visitors to expect traffic delays during its ongoing phased reopening.  One of the contributing factors is the absence of volunteers and seasonal workers who would normally assist with traffic jams.

"Our volunteers and seasonal workers, we're working to phase them back in as we phase the reopening of the park. Everything was shut down, so there was a great deal of delay on-boarding those folks," said Lisa Hendy, GSMNP Chief Ranger. "We have, as you might expect, some traffic issues. And I think as it particularly relates to wildlife, we'll have traffic issues moving forward."  

Visitors excited to see bears, elk, and turkeys routinely cause traffic jams during years when the park is fully staffed.  Volunteers and seasonal workers help make sure the traffic keeps moving and visitors maintain a safe distance from wildlife.

Credit: WBIR
Patch on the uniform of a trained volunteer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"If people come upon one of those wildlife jams across the park, they should expect to be sitting in traffic," said GSMNP spokesperson Dana Soehn.  "We really need the help of our visitors to keep traffic moving and to remain a safe social distance from each other."

One solution is to take the trails less-traveled.  

"There are over 50 trail-heads that can be directly accessed from the roads that are open. We encourage people to get out there and find maybe a trail they haven't experienced before," said Soehn.

The trails at Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, and Laurel Falls are closed during the first phase of reopening.  These three popular trails have the most emergency calls for injured hikers.  They also feature destinations where safe social distancing is difficult.

Credit: WBIR
Wildflowers at the Oconaluftee Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Soehn said visitors need to do more planning than usual when visiting the park.

"If you get to the trail-head or overlook you were wanting, and it's crowding and that parking lot is full, go to plan B," said Soehn. "Have a plan for places you want to visit if one of them is too crowded."

Many trails on the North Carolina side of the park have less traffic. Some along Fontana Lake even allow you to plan a day boating and hiking.

The initial reopening phase of the park is schedule for two weeks.  Then the GSMNP will assess its next steps, including whether to advance to the next phase of reopening campgrounds and visitor centers.  The decision will depend heavily on the ability of visitors to follow safety protocols.

Credit: WBIR
Lisa Hendy, Chief Ranger for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"The park is definitely busy. I think people were anxious to get back outside. We have over half-a-million acres and there are 50 trail-heads open. So, there's plenty of room. Everybody just needs to take it upon themselves to spread out a little bit. And then hopefully we'll all be able to work together to keep the park open," said Hendy.

During the initial phase of reopening, there are no vehicle-free days in Cades Cove to allow pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the loop without motorized vehicles.  The park originally planned to attempt a pilot program starting in May that would close the loop to cars on Wednesdays.

RELATED: March 10, 2020 - Traffic mess drives Cades Cove car-free schedule experiment

RELATED: May 11, 2020 - Great Smoky Mountains begins reopening in phases

RELATED: May 3, 2020 - National park pushes #SmokiesSafe message ahead of reopening