Editorial: Mountain mess

Road through Smokies will be closed a good while, so let’s make the best of it
Jan. 22, 2013 @ 11:36 PM

Perhaps it was too much to expect that we could have eight or nine inches of rain in a few days, then snow, and not have repercussions. Unfortunately, it happened on Newfound Gap Road that dissects the national park.

Remember when a rock slide closed off Interstate 40 at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line? Or when slides shut down the Spur between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge? The main artery through the mountains connecting the two states was closed for weeks, forcing detours. Traffic was rerouted on the Spur to keep it open, but it was a hassle.

While Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) through the Smokies is not as well traveled as the interstate, it is a major link to the two states and a significant route for people wanting to get from the Cherokee area to Gatlinburg and vice versa.

Newfound Gap also can be quite clogged after a snowfall, when people want to see the beauty of the snow on the mountains. It connects motorists to several attractions, from campgrounds to picnic areas to scenic overlooks. And if you want to get from the Gatlinburg area to the casino at Cherokee, there may be no more direct route.

There seems no way the highway can be repaired quickly. Photos of the site and the details of the landslide indicate it will be a long time before workers can repair and make safe this section of the highway. And there is no assurance there won’t be more slides in the days ahead from the effects of the rain.

This is all a gloomy outlook for our tourist market. Yes, there are other ways to reach Sevier County from the east, but is there a more beautiful way to do it than over the mountain? It does seem an overreach for the national park to close Newfound Gap from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Ocanaluftee, especially when you can still use the road to get from Gatlinburg to the state line where the overlook is. Why not close the road from Cherokee, but leave it open from Sugarlands to the overlook? It’s a safe bet Gatlinburg officials will lobby for that to happen.

In the meantime, businesses have to hang in there and work with their local officials to make sure visitors and tourists know other ways to reach them. The interstate offers several useful exits. Newfound Gap Road’s closing is a tough break, to be sure, but the thing to do now is work around it and inform the public of the other routes to the fun.