The beginning of a new year spells the temporary end of visitor access to the landscape jewel of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blount County — Cades Cove.
Visitors were still flocking to the area Thursday to get a glimpse of the park as it goes into a kind of forced winter hibernation.
That’s because repairs on a more than 70-year-old tunnel on the way up to the Cove will shut it down for nearly two months.
GSMNP announced the closure near the end of August 2019, explaining the Bote Mountain Tunnel, built in 1948, is in need of some specific repairs.
Information released initially said the 151-foot-long, 18-foot-high tunnel would be shut down on Jan. 3, but construction efforts have been moved back and are now set to begin on Monday, Jan. 6.
Why is the road shutting down?
As detailed in U.S. Department of Transportation project documents, there are a handful of necessary repairs required to keep the tunnel safe.
Those documents are coupled with descriptive photographs about the work that needs to be done. They show cracks in the concrete lining, loose stone around each entrance, drainage issues and trees jeopardized by erosion.
Divided into two phases, USDOT shows the project will first tackle tunnel repairs and then some changes to the road running through it, Laurel Creek Road.
What’s the cost to make repairs to the tunnel?
Bids received by USDOT show engineers originally estimated the project to cost $1,310,000. Ultimately, it contracted with Bryant’s Land and Development Industries Inc. of Burnsville, North Carolina to complete the job.
The price tag? Only $950,787, according to bid documents, the lowest bid of six reviewed by USDOT.
Record breaking visitor volume
Traffic averages on Laurel Creek are at 5,000 vehicles a day, documents show, and those numbers are supported by the high volume of visitors the park sees each month.
In November 2019 alone, GSMNP reported a total 57,097 vehicles entered the park through Townsend. Up to that point in the year, 1,591,295 vehicles had entered the park through Blount, a 4.2% increase from 2018.
But over the past few weeks, there has been another significant increase in traffic because of the park’s planned closure.
“We have seen a slight uptick,” Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center Executive Director Brent Lambert said in a phone interview, adding that the center is located near the park’s entrance and is a prominent source of information for visitors.
“Just anecdotally, looking at the traffic coming through, it appears that enough people have gotten word. They’re going to try and see Cades Cove one more time before the closure,” Lambert said.
Visitor influx during the holiday season capped off the close of a record-breaking year for the park in its entirety, one in which it boasted more than 11.8 million visitors by November alone, already breaking 2018’s total of 11.3 million.
In Townsend, numbers matter for tourism and business and Lambert said they’ve been keeping an eye on what the Laurel Creek Road closure will mean for the town.
“There has been some internal discussion,” Lambert said, alluding to conversations the center has had moving into the two months without a Cades Cove to visit. “Thankfully it is the slower season, so that will help. ... It’s hard to say exactly what the impact will be on our visitation. Certainly we will see fewer cars coming through town.”
Lambert said the Heritage Center will push out an announcement about the closure on social media soon. The park itself has issued information about the closing, hoping to ensure that visitors who want to see the Cove are not disappointed.
Meanwhile, though Cades Cove may be closed, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, its programs and trails that are connected to it still provide robust options for visitors looking to get to know the landscape better.
On Jan. 25, for instance, the institute will host a one-day event for visitors who want to know more about the park’s trees and shrubs.
Employees there confirmed the closures would not affect its operations.