The latest big addition to Foothills Parkway, East Tennessee’s mountain-driving jewel, was Blount’s missing link.
But Great Smoky Mountains National Park is far from done with the popular sightseeing route.
On Oct. 1 the park opened up a new comment period for a proposed extension of the road, meant to stretch from the Wears Valley area — where it currently terminates — to the Spur in Gatlinburg.
A decision on this project could come by fall 2022, according to park documents.
The new proposed Foothills Parkway section is coded “8D” and would extend the road for 9.8 miles from Wears Valley to the Spur near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
“This proposed action would provide direct access to one of the primary entrances to the park,” officials said in a recent release.
A month-long comment period for the project is open to the public at park planning.nps.gov through Oct. 31.
The last completed and paved sections — formally known as projects “8E” and “8F” — included Blount’s “Missing Link.” That opened in 2018 and ushered in a new era of Foothills Parkway tourism.
The new section is a kind of missing link of its own and park officials are touting it as a potential solution to one of its largest problems right now: congestion.
“We are pleased to offer this opportunity to inform the public about the planning process and to receive input on these important projects,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “With growing visitation trends, considering these improvements is imperative in helping assure safe vehicle access to the park.”
Though it’s inching forward now, this project is in its infancy. It will have to jump through numerous regulatory hoops before planners can even begin to think about construction.
But they have a good idea of what they want: a 25-foot-wide road with 4-foot shoulders connecting the Parkway just outside of Blount County to the very popular Spur.
The proposed speed limit would be 25-35 mph. There would be a 1,000-foot tunnel through Crooked Arm Ridge and a bridge over the Spur and West Prong Little Pigeon River with an interchange between this new section and the Spur.
The Parkway isn’t the only improvement project the park has in its sights right now.
Along with the extension, officials are also asking for feedback on improvement to Metcalf Bottoms area and Wear Cove Gap Road, which visitors are using as a park entrance, straining congestion.
That’s not how it’s meant to be, park officials explained in a recent newsletter about future projects, and they’re considering either closing it, upgrading it or reclassifying it while maintaining access to local attractions.
This week, the park is welcoming the public to look at these projects for themselves during an online presentation and feedback session Thursday.
How officials will proceed is likely to define the future of tourism in the East Tennessee Smokies. It’s still the most visited park in the nation with 12.1 million in 2020, despite the pandemic.
Should it move forward, this new portion of Foothills Parkway won’t be in Blount County, but it will provide a smoother way for people driving the scenic route to get to the Walland area. That in turn could mean more travelers in the peaceful side of the Smokies in the coming decades.