A longtime closure north of Asheville, which was partly to blame for toppling the Blue Ridge Parkway from its title as most visited national park, reopened Thursday, about a month ahead of schedule.
The nearly 20-mile section from Ox Creek Road at Milepost 376 north of Asheville to the entrance at Mount Mitchell State Park at Milepost 355 had been closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic since November, said Leesa Brandon, parkway spokeswoman.
Heavy rain through spring and into July opened what became commonly known as the crack, a roughly 6-inch wide, 300-foot-long gash that reached several feet deep and ran along the parkway’s centerline just north of the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel.
The roadway opened briefly at Labor Day with a temporary, single lane to accommodate the busy fall leaf-peeping visitors, then was closed again in early November. This section is considered one of the busiest on the parkway, and provides a direct link from Asheville to Mount Mitchell.
The parkway stretches 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Last year, for the first time in more than 20 years, the parkway lost its billing as the most popular site out of 400 units in the National Park Service. The parkway’s visitation dropped 16 percent to 12.8 million visitors in 2013, down from 15.2 million in 2012. Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco replaced the parkway as the most visited park site.
Reasons for the decrease included the extended road closures, along with record-high spring rains and broken traffic counters. But the parkway is springing back to life, Brandon said, opening not only the construction zone, but many of its facilities earlier than last year.
“They weren’t planning to have it open so soon, being busy with the opening of so many other parkway facilities by May 9,” Brandon said. “So this will be a happy surprise for people.”
Last year most campgrounds, picnic areas and visitor centers didn’t open until the end of May.
The popular Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and Picnic Area, at Milepost 364, will open May 9. Linville Falls Campground (MP 316) and Mount Pisgah Campground (MP 408) will also open May 9. The Crabtree Falls Campground (MP 339), which was closed last year due to the federal sequester budget cuts, will remain closed.
The Pisgah Inn and Restaurant (MP 408) opened April 1. The Folk Art Center and Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville are open year-round.
Graveyard Fields (MP 418), a popular hiking area, is closed through July for a major improvement project funded in part by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which includes more parking spaces and installation of restrooms.
Massive earth moving
Parkway Deputy Superintendent Monika Mayr, said things are looking up for the parkway this season, after some rough patches last year. With some of the funding restored from the 5 percent cut lost in last year’s federal sequester, the park was able to hire more seasonal rangers and maintenance workers this season, Mayr said. That allowed the parkway to open some of its facilities sooner.
The contractor for the “crack” road construction, Bryant Land Development Inc., of Burnsville, worked two shifts, six days a week starting in January, sometimes in temperatures below zero, to complete the massive project nearly a month early.
The project cost approximately $4.5 million, which came through a federal emergency repair funding program from the Federal Highway Administration, she said.
The project consisted of excavating a section nearly 300 feet long, and about 60 feet deep, said Andy Otten, project specialist with the National Park Service.
“It was quite a significant volume of earth that was taken out, and we rebuilt that portion of the mountain,” Otten said.
When the road was built in the 1930s and ‘40s, dirt and boulders were used as fill, Otten said, which through decades of rain and poor drainage, began to give way. The newly built road employs what is known as a mechanically stabilized slope, he said.
“It’s a whole series of layers of gravel and plastic mesh, creating a geo-grid. It’s like a layer cake of material with a metal basket on the face of the slope that holds this together,” Otten said.
“This system not only rebuilt the failed slope, but put in an entirely new drainage system, new culverts and new waterways to carry the water away from the slope to the pipes. Ultimately most of the problems we end up having are water related.”
“Everyone’s working to keep the parkway in top shape for a busy summer season,” Mayr said. “I think we’re headed back to the top.”
According to a recent National Park Service report, the parkway generates more than $900 million in tourist revenues and supports more than 12,000 jobs annually.
For more road information as well as seasonal openings and visitor services on the Blue Ridge Parkway, visit www.nps.gov/blri.