Park services closed until further notice; scenic parkway open for driving

By Vicki Hyatt | Oct 02, 2013
Photo by: Vicki Hyatt National Park Service employee Jerry Rice puts up a road closed sign at the entrance to the Waterrock Knob Visitor's Center Tuesday morning.

Visitors to National Park Service across Western North Carolina will find that the parks aren't exactly closed in many instances, but services will be limited.

Tuesday morning as he put up a "Road Closed" sign at the entrance to the Waterrock Knob Visitor's Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Jerry Rice said the road through the parkway will remain open.

However, the visitor centers, camping facilities and concessionaires will be closed until the Congressional budget differences are resolved. Rice, who works with water resource issues in the park, said he was putting up the signs on his own time because he was considered a nonessential employee who will be furloughed without pay.

"Essential" employees will include those in the department working with wastewater issues, and law enforcement, which will have a limited staff through the partial government shutdown.

During Phase I, which is 48 hours long, Pisgah Inn will remain open, he said. After that, it will close.

As Rice was putting up the sign, three bikers from Atlanta stopped by in their pickups to see what was going on. All three were federal employees who planned to bike the parkway several weeks ago, not knowing the time spent away from home would be unpaid time off anyway.

George Gonzales travelled with a group of motorcycle friends from Florida to tour the area. The booked rooms in Maggie Valley where they based their day trips planned for at least a month.

"We never knew this was a plan — that the government would shut down," Gonzales said as he took a photo of the parkway overlook near Waterrock Knob. "Why are they doing this? They shouldn't close parks and they should charge to camp. People will pay to see this."

Scott and Jamie Winters left Philadelphia last week for Savannah, Georgia, and planned their return trip through the Blue Ridge Parkway. They spend Monday night in Cherokee, where they entered the parkway, watching news accounts of the Congressional actions that led to the partial government closure.

"It's so ridiculous," Scott Winters said. "We weren't planning on camping, but it looks like we won't be able to get through Skyline because there are ranger stations on both ends. Who knows what we'll encounter."

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy announced the park had closed the trail. There will be limited emergency response, meaning hikers are at their own risk. Volunteers were asked not to work on the trail because tort and coverage will not be in place.

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, U.S. 441 between Cherokee and Gatlinburg remains open, as does a spur road in Tennessee, but other roads in the park, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, visitor centers, concession areas and parking lots are closed.

This includes the road to Cataloochee where park visitors flock to view the elk that were repopulated in this section of the park, said Christine Hoyer, the volunteer coordinator for the park.

Hoyer was one of the park employees working Tuesday to help with an orderly shutdown of the 500,000 acres in North Carolina and Tennessee that are included in the park.

"Everything ceases until the shut down lifts," Hoyer said. "This is an orderly shutdown that is happening in stages. Folks in campgrounds are being given a time frame to make other arrangements. We're still trying to get the shut down procedures in order."

Holly Demuth, who works in the Waynesville office of Friends of the Smokies, said she has been fielding calls about the closure, though not as many as she anticipated.

"It’s tricky to close down half a million acres," she said. "It's also tricky for the surrounding communities. October is a huge month for tourism in the area. For people traveling from out of town who hear the Smokies are closed, we're trying to get the word out there are other things you can do in the area."