UPDATE: Smokies record visitation benefits from opening of Missing Link
UPDATE: GATLINBURG, TN (AP) - The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw a record number of visitors in 2018.
According to the park, more than 11.4 million people visited last year, an increase of a little less than 1 percent from the previous year.
Park officials attribute the increase to the completion of a new section of the Foothills Parkway in November that opened new vistas to park visitors. The Smokies saw record visitation in the last two months of the year.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a news release that the new section of the Foothills Parkway "is a spectacular scenic driving destination." Nearly 200,000 people visited it in November and December. Cash said he hopes "people take the time to explore it across the seasons."
"We are so excited to open this section of the Foothills Parkway,” says Ranger Dana Soehn. “We've been working on it since 1966 so this is a day we've been anxiously awaiting."
Congress authorized the Foothills Parkway back in 1944 as a scenic parkway that could provide magnificent views into the Great Smoky Mountains. And to this day, the abbreviated version provides just that, unparalleled views across America’s most visited National Park.
But of the seven congressional mandated parkways, the Foothills Parkway is the only remaining one yet to be completed. Due to difficult typography, geography and lack of funding, the project was suspended in 1989.
However in the 90's a new design using a series of nine bridges was developed to complete a 1.65-mile segment that would connect the parkway from Walland to Wears Valley. This section is known as the "Missing Link."
"It's a great sense of accomplishment, it really is. We've had a lot of obstacles in the way that we've had to work through. Funding was a big one. We've always been fortunate in that we've had support from the community and partners but the funding was the biggest obstacle."
The "Missing Link" provides two pull-offs for motorists but the National Park wants to remind you that this is a roadway and not a walkway.
"All of the bridges, as spectacular as they are, are designed for vehicles,” says Soehn. “They are not at a pedestrian height with the guardrails. So we have to remind visitors that they are to enjoy it from their car and not as a pedestrian experience."
Access to and within the National Park System has been a defining experience for generations of visitors. And through tireless efforts and the continued dedication of those who love our lands, future generations will now reap the benefits of the visions of our greatest leaders.