Smokies visits hit record with Parkway addition

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, already the nation’s most-visited national park, welcomed a record 11.4 million visitors in 2018.

The slight growth of about 0.7 percent over 2017 came from the November opening of the new section of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley, according to a news release from park officials.

Nearly 200,000 visitors experienced this new park opportunity in just about two months, resulting in record-setting visitation in November and December.

Tourists must have been missing the ‘Missing Link’

Last fall, pedestrians had the opportunity to trek along the 2-mile stretch between Walland and Wears Valley, experiencing the series of bridges that connect the 1.65-mile section known as the “Missing Link” before it opened to motorists and cyclists on Nov. 10.

“The new section of the Foothills Parkway is a spectacular scenic driving destination and we’re pleased that so many people have already enjoyed it,” said park Superintendent Cassius Cash. “We hope that people take the time to explore it across the seasons.”

Overall, park visitation remained relatively stable as compared to 2017 with the highest visitation numbers in July, followed by June and then October.

However, records for monthly visitation were set during June, September, November, and December, according to park officials.

Visitors spent nearly 400,000 nights camping in the park, which was down 3 percent from 2017, but within the fiveyear average. The park offers nine front country campgrounds and 100 backcountry campsites for visitors.

In 2016, park visits were 11.3 million and, in 2015, 10.7 million.

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s role in completion of ‘one of the prettiest drives in America’

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the Foothills Parkway has been a priority for him since he was governor in the 1980s and the state Department of Transportation took the lead on a section of the parkway between Carrs Creek and Wears Valley.

The parkway is considered “one of the prettiest drives in America,” Alexander pointed out in a news release from his office. “The scene is so magnificent that it surprises even those of us who have grown up admiring the Smokies.”

As senator, he included $17.5 million for the parkway construction in the 2005 federal highway bill, according to a news release from his office. Since then, he worked with his colleagues in Congress to help provide the funding necessary to complete the “missing link” and open it to the public. In 2016, the Tennessee Department of Transportation submitted a grant application for federal funds to complete this 16-mile section of the Foothills Parkway.

According to his office, Alexander urged the department to approve the $10 million TIGER grant request, which it did on July 26, 2016. The state of Tennessee committed an additional $15 million in funding to complete the project. The National Park Service Federal Lands Transportation Program provided the remaining funding necessary to finish the 16 miles. Alexander attended the groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 9.

A little national park history

The Smokies are named for the blue mist that hangs around the peaks and valleys, according to the park service. The Cherokee called them shaconage, (shah-con-ah-jey) or “place of the blue smoke”.

The minimum number of acres was acquired to officially qualify for park development in 1936. Some 17 years after the initial idea, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated at Newfound Gap on the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina.

The park includes more than 1,500 species of plants, abundant wildlife including deer and bears, trout streams, 800 miles of hiking and horse trails, beautiful valleys such as Cades Cove and high peaks such as Mt. LeConte.

A plaque memorializing a Rockefeller Foundation gift was placed half on each state’s boundary — a memorial to the single most important financial accomplishment in developing the park, according to the park’s website The first full year the park was open, more than 1 million people visited. Visitation has pretty much grown steadily since then.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Amy J. Vellucci

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Published March 15, 2019