On Sunday January 20 the National Park Service hosted a media trip to the landslide on Newfound Gap Road. The slide occurred on the morning on January 16 as a result of heavy rains that had been falling over the area for several days. The road was closed at the time of the slide because of flooding on the lower elevations of the road on the North Carolina side. Dale Ditmanson, the Park Superintendent, was traveling the road that morning with Management Assistant Dana Soehn. When they drove across they noticed that the section that slid appeared to be slumping, they continued on but radioed Park Dispatch to have the road checked for problems. When the other park workers arrived about 15 minutes later they found the section of road completed gone. The slide created a gap in the road about 350-400 feet across with the road is completely missing; from the edge of the road to the bottom of the slide is about 45-50 deep at the highest point. The slide is located on the North Carolina side of the park near Collins Creek Picnic Area, about 22 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance, and 9 miles from Cherokee.
Federal Highways workers were on site during the media visit surveying and testing to determine what measures will need to be taken to repair the road. According to Acting Deputy Superintendent Alan Sumeriski who led the site tour along with Management Assistant Dana Soehn, “It’s too early to give an estimate on the timeframe of when repairs will be completed, we are actively working with Federal Highways on the site assessment and hope we will be able to give details on repairs and timeframes by mid to late next week.” Sumeriski also stated that the slide has caused environmental problems relating to water quality. The slide is about 1000 feet long and siltation from the slide dumps directly into Beech Flats Prong, which flows directly into the Oconoluftee River about 1.5 miles downstream. Erosion mitigation measures are presently being conducted to help reduce the silting of these major park streams and the watershed.
It was very apparently with discussions with Sumerski, who is normally the Park’s Facility Manager/Chief of Maintenance, that he personally, as well as the Park and their partners are making the road repair a priority, and are doing everything possible to expedite the repairs. Sumeriski stated that “there were no prior signs of problems at the site prior to the landslide occurring”, and the site survey shows that the “slide was a result of underground springs that saturated the ground, as the heavy rain filled the earth under the road. The hydraulic pressure built up blowing the road out”. He also said that he does “not think that they will have to build a high tech retaining wall to stabilize the slide area”. His preliminary assessment is that they will have to build a drainage system with rock and pipe to allow the ground water to properly drain, and that they will be able to stabilize the slide by building tiers of manmade aggregate, using different sizes of stone to completely fill the gap created in the landslide. If this proves to be the case it should make the repairs go much quicker.
Newfound Gap Road is not only the main artery for traffic in the park, but is also a major north/south for interstate travelers. The Park estimates that traffic on Newfound Gap Road exceeds 7,000 vehicles per day on busy days such as holidays and busy days during main visitor seasons. On the Tennessee side the road is presently open from the Gatlinburg entrance to Oconoluftee Overlook (‘Luftee Overlook is located about 1 mile south of Newfound Gap); this will allow visitors to travel to Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome when it reopens in the March. On the North Carolina side the road is open from Cherokee to Collins Creek. As is normal procedures, the entire road is subject to closure during inclement weather.
Further updates on the road condition will follow as details are determined. Meanwhile please continue to check for the most current road conditions and closures by calling 865-436-1200 x 631 or follow SmokiesRoadsNPS on Twitter.