Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a very busy leaf season as visitors pour in to see the brilliant oranges and blazing reds of autumn. In this part of the world, that usually happens in mid- to late-October. But this year, as the color descends the mountains, the park is empty. The continuing government shutdown has closed National Parks nationwide and, unlike a handful of parks out west, state governments in North Carolina and Tennessee have been unable to fund the Smokies to reopen.
Campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains have probably been booked for months but reservations have been cancelled until the park reopens. Visitors can still stay outside the park in the surrounding towns and are still permitted to drive through the park on US-441 between Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. However, all facilities and trails remain closed, leaving few reasons to visit the park unless simply driving through.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of a few parks that do not charge an entrance fee, so they are not losing revenue in that way. But Le Conte Lodge, campgrounds, and visitor centers can't make money while they are closed. The surrounding communities in Tennessee and North Carolina are feeling the effect too. Findings released Friday by Steve Morse, director of the hospitality and tourism program at Western Carolina University, estimated a loss of $3.3 million per day in a 60-mile radius of the Smokies. That would include areas such as Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Cherokee, and Bryson City.
While there are many who cancelled trips to the Smoky Mountains entirely, this estimate assumes that nobody who had a previously planned trip altered their plans to visit the area outside the park. There are numerous places to stay and explore in the surrounding area, but the economic impact of the government shutdown in these communities is still, with out a doubt, very real and very deep during this normally booming time of year.