Visitors flock to Smoky Mountains park on reopening day

The reopening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a little too tempting of a draw as scores of nature lovers from dozens of states crowded trails and trekked into blocked-off areas

GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- The reopening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a little too tempting of a draw Saturday as scores of nature lovers from dozens of states crowded trails and trekked into blocked-off areas, a spokeswoman said.

Even with some of the most popular trails closed, parking lots were packed and lines of cars snaked down tree-lined streets, in one case for about a mile leading up to a waterfall path, according to park spokeswoman Dana Soehn. Many people did not wear masks.

“It seemed like people were not respecting our suggestion that they avoid crowded areas,” said Soehn, adding that she counted license plates from 24 different states in one visitor center parking lot.

Visitors also walked past heavy barricades on one of the park’s most trafficked trails, Laurel Falls, which was closed off to heed federal social distancing guidelines, she said.

On the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains is the county's most visited national park. It was closed March 24 after officials said it was becoming too congested during the coronavirus pandemic.

The reopening was announced after park officials said they made sure the park was aligned with federal, state and local authorities and that employees had enough personal protective gear. Authorities have stressed that visitors must also practice social distancing.

At the Smokies, officials have said rangers will monitor roads and emergency situations, but won’t be specifically policing people. Instead, Soehn has said she hopes people will visit the park in a way that keeps staffers safe.

“We’ll continue to push out our messaging that we want them to be responsible,” Soehn said. “We would encourage them to make choices to keep themselves safe.”

President Donald Trump has prioritized reopening national parks as a sign of “significant progress against the invisible enemy” of the pandemic, even as cases rise in an outbreak that has devastated the U.S. economy.

Park officials said the first phase of restrictions will last at least two weeks. Management will then decide whether to reopen secondary roads and campgrounds, and later, lift all restrictions.

Many national parks remain fully or partially closed, though Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah and the Everglades National Park in Florida have also announced phased reopenings. Federal authorities have yet to publicly announce timelines for other closed parks to reopen.