Newfound Gap Road Work Ongoing, Completion In Sight

A completion date for roadwork on Newfound Gap Road looks to be within sight. Round the clock roadwork has been ongoing according to the contractor repairing US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) – the site of a January landslide took out a large, football field-sized section in North Carolina.

Accordingly, the main road between Gatlinburg, TN, and Cherokee, N.C., is scheduled to reopen by May 15. Incentives have been put into place if the work is done earlier and there are penalties if the project falls behind schedule.

Officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tell the Knoxville News Sentinel that Phillips & Jordan Inc. of Robbinsville, N.C., started working through the night this past week to speed up the completion date so that it would be finished by the summer tourism season.

In January, heavy rainfall and an underground stream combined to loosen thousands of tons of rock, soil and trees, which slid the length a football field down a slope during the mid point of the month.

A football field-sized gap now makes up the roadway. Officials say an estimated 9,000 dump truck-loads of dirt, rock and roadway crashed 45-50 feet down the side of the mountain.

Engineers believe a subsurface spring underneath the area was a large factor in causing the landslide. It’s unknown how long the spring had been there. That, combined with the heavy rain that week, caused the collapse. In all, 8 inches of rain fell in the area between Monday and Wednesday the week of January 14.

At the time, it was considered an active landslide because of the continuously flowing springs underneath the road’s surface.

Golf Digest Rates Gatlinburg Course #1 Municipal Course in Tennessee

The title of Best Municipal Golf Course in the State of Tennessee was recently awarded to the Gatlinburg Golf Course, as published in Golf Digest magazine this past August.

The magazine concluded that the Gatlinburg Course was best by using a combination of star ratings from Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play” rankings and the magazine’s “Best In State” ratings. This was done by a panel of editors and contributors to the magazine.

“Muny” course was defined as a course owned by a city, town, county or state. Gatlinburg Golf Course received a rating of 4 and one-half stars out of 5 in the magazine, rating among the nation’s top courses, with a listed green fee of $60. Only one municipal golf course, Bethpage State Park (Black) in Farmingdale, N.Y., which in recent years has held such prestigious tournaments as the U.S. Open, received a rating of 5 stars.

A year-round golf course with modern facilities, the Gatlinburg Course features a newly designed, fully equipped pro shop. It’s been a staple in the area since 1955 and is located off Dollywood Lane near Dollywood theme park and Dollywood’s Splash Country. Esteemed golf course architect William Langford designed the 18-hole course before undergoing major renovations in 1993 and again in 2007.

The Course has always been public and has had only two PGA Professionals – Harry “Cotton” Berrier, a Hall of Fame inductee who retired in 1998, and Tucker, the current director of the Golf Course, which is a Department of the City of Gatlinburg.

In addition to a $500,000 hole renovation project, a new $1.24 million clubhouse opened in 2007, featuring a full-service pro shop and patio deck overlooking several holes. All of the clubhouse’s utilities have been placed underground at the 7,500 square foot facility, which includes modern locker rooms and restroom facilities and is fully handicap accessible.

Acclaimed as one of the most picturesque courses in America with breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains, the course includes the legendary #12, affectionately known as “Sky Hi.” The hole is 194 yards in length and drops 200 feet, tee to green, making it one of the most dramatic holes in the country.

Winterfest Lights Get Top Nod

The Society of American Travel Writers has included the lights of Winterfest on its list of The Top 10 Lesser-Known (But Just as Bright!) Holiday Lights in the U.S.

Winterfest lights are displayed in the cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The display ranks 8th on the society’s list, which also includes light displays in Kauai, Hawaii; Charlotte, N.C.; Pine Mountain, Ga.; and Louisville, Ky.

The Winterfest lights will remain lit through this month.

“Designs include snowflakes, rocking horses, waterfalls, trains, bears, a gristmill and toy soldiers, all lining the Parkway leading to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” the society notes.

“I guess it’s no surprise that people are recognizing our beauty,” said Brenda McCroskey, Chief Executive Officer of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of people have been coming here to enjoy the holiday festivals and the shopping, for a long time.”

But, she added, “There has not been that much recognition on a national level.”

Based in Milwaukee, Wis., the Society of American Travel Writers is an organization of more than 1,100 journalists, public relations workers and other professionals. It was founded in 1955.

“Notices like these are much more powerful than direct advertising,” said McCroskey of the list. “This comes from an unbiased source. This says someone else who has credentials thinks we’re doing a good job.”

Honors related to Sevier County’s winter offerings are rare, McCroskey said. “We tend to get recognition more for springtime and summertime activities.”

Winterfest was established to boost the Sevier County economy during the cold months. Upcoming Winterfest events include Wilderness Wildlife Week, the Tennessee Winter Special Olympics and the Rose Glen Literary Festival.

Effects of the Newfound Gap Landslide

Though the recent Jan. 16 landslide destroyed nearly 200 feet of Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), most park activities and destinations remain open and accessible to visitors.

This according to officials with the park who said some roads are still being cleared on the Tennessee side due to debris from recent storms, “but as far as Newfound Gap, you can access all the hiking trails around there, and everything that’s normally open along that road. It’s just that small section past Newfound Gap Road, just a little past the parking lot, that’s closed.”

So campgrounds, trails and picnic areas, as well as popular destinations like Cades Cove and the views at Newfound Gap near the border, are still open, and everything will stay open barring inclement weather.

Basically, the only thing visitors can’t do is get to Cherokee, N.C., via Newfound Gap Road. That, and they also can’t see the landslide, though several people at the Sugarlands Visitor Center had come to the park Thursday for that reason.

Many have come to the park specifically to see the landslide and just pass the time for curiosity’s sake. But, unfortunately, those people are being turned away from that specific area of Newfound Gap Road. National park officials have said that no one would be allowed to see the landslide for themselves.

Of course, January and February are lower-visitation months for the park, so the indefinite closure won’t affect tourism as much as it could have.

Still, the park is doing whatever it can to spread word that most of its attractions are still open.

“I’ve had people stop in and think they couldn’t get past Sugarlands, but that’s incorrect,” on park official said. “There are some people coming in, but I hope to get the word out that there is still access further into the park.”

They said there’s still no timeline for when the park reopens the closed portion of Newfound Gap Road, and as far as the trails on that portion, officials are assessing the situation.

“We’re looking at what impact it has on the trails and finalizing ideas on what we could do to have access on those trails or educate people about what’s going to happen until the road’s completely fixed.”

Recent Snowfall a Hit at Ober

Despite all the area power outages, delays, traffic pileups, etc., as well as the bad Newfound Gap Road collapse, the recent snowfall blast that occurred last week did have a positive effect on one local entity – Ober Gatlinburg.

Ober was already operating at greater capacity due to some upgrades in snow making equipment that were purchased during the off season. With the added real snow from last week’s storm, slopes were fully covered and skiers were taking advantage of the conditions.

The forecast for the coming week calls for cold temperatures at night and a number of sunny days which meas Ober should continue to see busy slopes for the foreseeable future.

It was reported that just one day after the snowfall, lefts and slopes were as busy as they’ve been this season, and last. For many, it was just what the resort needed.

Thursday’s big snowfall packed on an extra 6-10 inches of snow according to Ober staff. The more snow, the easier it is to enjoy the slopes and it makes the resort that much more enjoyable and attractive.

The additional helping of wintery weather also allowed Ober Gatlinburg to open the resort’s tubing course for additional days. Ober had originally been running the tubing area just two days a week prior.

The appeal of the slopes also brought out-of-town visitors, meaning more money to be spent in the town of Gatlinburg and its Smoky Mountain neighbors of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.

The staff at Ober expects the slopes to be busy in the weeks ahead with several hundred bookings already.

Newfound Gap Washout

The section of Newfound Gap Road that was washed away due to heavy rainfall last week is still influx as park officials attempt to figure out how to repair that portion of U.S. Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s primarily recognized as the main connector road between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, N.C.

A football field-sized gap now makes up the roadway. Officials say an estimated 9,000 dump truck-loads of dirt, rock and roadway crashed 45-50 feet down the side of the mountain.

Engineers believe a subsurface spring underneath the area was a large factor in causing the landslide. It’s unknown how long the spring had been there. That, combined with the heavy rain that week, caused the collapse. In all, 8 inches of rain fell in the area between Monday and Wednesday the week of January 14.

It’s still considered an active landslide because of the continuously flowing springs underneath the road’s surface.

When it ill be fixed is still anyone’s guess. The National Park Service is working with the Department of Federal Highways to come up with a plan, as well as the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (EFLH) to assist in the initial evaluation of the slide and develop repair solutions. Engineers have been on site since last week. The hope is that by the end of next week officials will know when construction can commence and how much it will cost.

During its busiest days, the 31-mile stretch of Newfound Gap Road can have up to 7,000 cars travel along it.

Newfound Gap Road will be open to visitors from the Gatlinburg entrance in Tennessee to the Newfound Gap parking lot as soon as it is possible. The road is open to Smokemont on the North Carolina side.

Visits to the National Park UP 7.5% in 2012

Think the economy is having an effect on the Smoky Mountain area? Think again. Officials from the National Park services reported that half-million more visitors toured the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2012 than in 2011 – a 7.5 percent jump.

Most officials say that the increase is due primarily to the mild weather experienced during the winter and spring months.

In all, by December 31, 2012, 9,685,828 people had come through the park for various recreational purposes like hiking, mountain biking, camping, swimming, etc. As noted, that’s a 7.5 percent boost from 2011, when numbers totaled 9,008,835. It’s also the largest number the Smokies has recorded since 2000 when 10.1 million people visited the park.

Park officials say the mild weather allowed or convinced more people to travel into the park and be outdoors due to the lack of ice and snow on the roads and trails. The mild weather in the shoulder seasons and warm summer set the tone for visitation as every month of 2012 saw an increase of visitors over those recorded in 2011, they add.

December 2012 visits were 480,527 compared with 471,603 as seen in December 2011. There were nearly 2 percent more visitors in December than in the last month of 2011. Newfound Gap Road between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cheorkee, North Carolina, was closed due to ice and snow on all or part of six days during December, but the holiday season brought a large number of visitors to the park during the latter part of the month.

Here’s a breakdown of entrance visitation tallies for 2012:

Gatlinburg: 175,205 visitors

Townsend: 65,156

Cherokee: 111,574

13 Outlying Areas: 128,592

Sugarlands to Undergo Renovations

Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg is getting a facelift, of sorts. In actuality, its lobby and visitor contact area are being renovated in order to improve the layout of the building’s main space.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still stop by as officials said the building would remain open through March 31, when the project is scheduled to be completed.

For the visitors center, it will be a welcome change to the building’s aesthetics, “many of whom find the current museum entrance to be difficult to locate,” said Molly Schroer, park spokesperson. “This renovation will alleviate that problem.”

Interactive exhibits will enhance park information for all visitors coming into Sugarlands. The center’s lighting system will be overhauled, as well as the information desk and the building’s overall accessibility. The aforementioned interactive exhibits in the lobby will highlight the park’s recent natural resource challenges, such as forest health and air quality.

Constructed in 1960, the Sugarlands Visitors Center sees thousands of park visitors come through its doors every year. Until 2011, when the Oconaluftee Visitor Center was constructed, Sugarlands was the only visitor center in the Great Smoky Mountains that was built specifically as a visitor center.

Park rangers provide the public with educational programs at Sugarlands Visitors Center including talks surrounding the park’s first settlers, edible wild plants that grow along the trails, or a simple GSMNP history lesson. The talks and presentations are specifically developed for Sugarlands by the Park Service. One good move might be to contact the visitors center before coming to the park to see what programs are running during your specified trip.

Another reason to visit Sugarlands is if you plan staying overnight in the Great Smoky Mountains at a campground or backcountry site. Not only can you make reservations at one of the park’s campgrounds, Sugarlands is an ideal place to make lodging plans for one of the park’s backcountry shelters. Each backcountry shelter must be reserved as they are managed by the park service. For anyone planning an overnight trip on one of the trails, make plans to stay in one of the shelters. Any of the Sugarlands park rangers will be able to help you out with that process.

Construction work will occur between 2 – 11 p.m. daily, Monday through Friday, through the end of March. During construction, the natural history museum portion of the visitor center will be closed. All other services, including general information, the park film, and the bookstore will be open.

Ober Gatlinburg Turns 50

There’s a BIG birthday to celebrate this year, but it isn’t just anyone in particular’s birthday. It’s Ober Gatlinburg’s, and the popular ski resort is turning a very robust 50 and looking even better with age.

With Sunday at Ober Gatlinburg being the first day of ski season after opening day was pushed back a few weeks, now’s an even better time to experience one of Gatlinburg’s most popular attractions.

Skiers were anxious to hit the slopes this year after 2012 when Ober was forced to close early due to unseasonably warm weather.

In all seriousness, 50 never looked better on anyone than it did at Ober this past weekend. With all the new snow, skiers no matter the age and experience, were slipping and sliding on the fresh slopes. The recent low temperatures made for some great new snowmaking.

Ober officials said with the amount of snow making equipment, and the conditions, three slopes were open on the first day which made for a busy afternoon and night. December 10 is what Ober usually shoots for every year as an opening date. With just a few weeks behind their target, guests seemed pleased despite the late opening.

Ober provides a much needed burst of economic productivity for the area to go along with the holiday tourism season.

As previously mentioned, Sunday marked the start of Ober’s 50th ski season and the day’s turnout couldn’t have been better. Over 1,000 skiers skied Ober’s slopes between its two sessions Sunday. A busy 2013 looks to be on the horizon.

*Ober Gatlinburg offers 9 trails for their guests from beginners to expert skiers. They are also equipped should you not have your own skis or snowboard. Their rental fleet contains 1,800 pairs of shaped skis and 400 snowboards, and the staff is more than happy to get you set up and ready to hit the slopes. Renting at Ober doesn’t just mean skis and snowboards, you can also rent ski pants, jackets, and helmets. They’ve really got you covered.

Today is the LAST DAY to Recycle Your Christmas Tree in Gatlinburg!

Today is the LAST DAY folks to recycle your Christmas Tree. Let Gatlinburg take care of your tree instead of dragging it down to the curb and waiting for it to be picked up for weeks, or even months sometimes. In return, you might even get something you didn’t expect but will leave you smiling regardless.

Today, Thursday Jan. 3, 2013, is the last day that the city of Gatlinburg will offer its annual Christmas tree exchange. Anyone who wants to bring their Christmas tree to the city greenhouse from 3-5 p.m. will in turn receive a late Christmas gift from the city in the form of a pecan, bald cypress or tulip poplar tree. Sort of a tree for a tree to plant on your own and watch grow.

The city greenhouse is located next to the Gatlinburg Community Center at 156 Proffitt Road.

Each tree will be recycled and put to good use, mulched up, and put through a chipper. The mulch is then used to fertilize the ground around city plants.

This is now a program that has been ongoing for 10 years now and continues every year right after New Years. Anyone who does not want to participate in the exchange, but still wants to drop their Christmas tree off can still do so at the greenhouse any time until Tuesday, Jan. 8.

For those who live closer to Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Christmas trees also can be dropped off for recycling at the Pigeon Forge Community Center parking lot through Friday, Jan. 4. Or, if you’d just assume to leave your tree at the curb, Sevier County Public Works officials report that they will be by to pick up trees left outside by city garbage customers this year. Those trees will also be mulched at the Sevier County Solid Waste facility.